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What’s worth reading over the holidays?

Some of the lead editors of the Economics Observatory have shared their book recommendations for the holiday season. From history to big tech and economic models to immigration, there’s plenty to keep you busy until we start back in the new year.

At the Economics Observatory, we answer questions from policy-makers and the public on a wide range of topics – from health and inequality to education and innovation – highlighting the many topical issues that economists are exploring.

In addition to delving into our back catalogue – which includes extensive coverage of the economic and social impacts of the pandemic, climate change, Brexit, Russia’s war against Ukraine, energy prices, rising inflation and the cost of living crisis – you might want to explore holiday reading recommendations from our lead editors.

What Does Jeremy Think? Jeremy Heywood and the Making of Modern Britain by Suzanne Heywood

Should you wish to understand the sharp end of policy-making, there can be few better examples than Suzanne Heywood’s careful dissection of her husband’s profound and sustained contribution.

The book was largely conceived as a joint project between husband and wife, brought into sharp focus by diagnosis of the terminal cancer that took Jeremy – a former Downing Street chief of staff – from us in 2018.

From the disaster of the exchange rate mechanism exit in the early 1990s to the false new dawn of imminent European Union exit in the late 2010s, we learn how policy is not so much a grand plan formulated at leisure, but more a precarious and hurried dash through difficult terrain where options are limited and largely unpalatable. The practice of policy emerges almost always as an emergency and not at all routine landing. That might be part of our story of such rapid relative decline.

Recommended by Jagjit Chadha (National Institute of Economic and Social Research)

The New Goliaths: How Corporations Use Software to Dominate Industries, Kill Innovation and Undermine Regulation by James Bessen

This book is a fascinating synopsis of James Bessen’s extensive research and personal experience as a software entrepreneur. The argument is that a relatively small group of companies has been able to develop software and information management systems, along with corresponding organisational structures, that enable them to manage very complex activities.

The sophistication and complexity of their intangibles (software, data and know-how) and hardware (information technology and logistics structures) raise the costs of entry for newcomers, or for others to catch up.

The many markets that feature these ’superstar’ companies become more concentrated, less dynamic and see increased dispersion in productivity and wages. Are there policy solutions? The book recommends mandatory open software and data standards, compulsory licensing, reforming intellectual property law to get big companies to unbundle their services, and clamping down on worker non-compete agreements.

Recommended by Diane Coyle (University of Cambridge)

The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by Adrian Wooldridge

In this book, journalist Adrian Wooldridge provides a masterful overview of how we went from a world where most positions of worth were allocated by birth or patronage to one in which many are allocated by ability or at least educational attainment.

The oldest example of meritocracy was the Chinese Confucian ‘imperial examination’ in the first millennium. The peak of meritocracy in the UK was in the two decades after the Second World War, and we are now seeing a decline as educational attainment is increasingly linked to parental income and wealth. A fascinating read on all matters meritocratic across the centuries and the globe.

Recommended by Huw Dixon (Cardiff University)

The World in the Model: How Economists Work and Think by Mary Morgan

Economists are sometimes criticised for working with mathematically abstract models, usually by people not familiar with how modern economists work. In this book, Mary Morgan (professor of the history and philosophy of economics at the London School of Economics, LSE) provides an engaging and non-technical introduction to the way that economic science has developed over the last two centuries, and the central role that models play.

She uses several case studies to explain how economics works from the inside, and how models have shaped our understanding of the world in which we live and how it works.

Recommended by Rachel Griffith (University of Manchester)

Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan

Discussions around immigration are frequent and arouse strong views, but rarely from the perspective of an understanding of the evidence and the historical record. Myths envelop these debates, smothering attempts to understand the true nature and experience of immigration.

In this magnificent book, economic historians Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan set out to tackle some of the many myths and misunderstandings around immigration in the United States. By combining a detailed explanation of the evidence, underpinned by their own primary research and stories of immigrants themselves, they provide a compelling read that reframes the debate about immigration in the United States and beyond.

Recommended by Stuart McIntyre (University of Strathclyde)

A Few Hares to Chase: The Economic Life and Times of Bill Phillips by Alan Bollard

Inflation is back in our lives in a major way. When macroeconomists think about inflation, they often make use of a concept called the Phillips curve. The idea is named after former LSE professor, Bill Phillips, who in 1958 published a paper on the empirical relationship between unemployment and wage inflation.

While most who study economics come across the eponymous curve, few invest in finding out about the man behind it. That is to their detriment because Phillips led one of the most interesting, exciting and varied lives of any economist.

In this book, former Reserve Bank of New Zealand governor, Alan Bollard, expertly guides us through Phillips’ life; from his early years on a farm in New Zealand, crocodile hunting in Australia, being in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, life in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and ultimately rising through the ranks of the economics faculty at LSE despite an undergraduate degree in sociology.

Recommended by Michael McMahon (University of Oxford)

Adam Smith: What He Thought, and Why It Matters by Jesse Norman

The coming year, 2023, marks the tercentenary of the birth of Adam Smith. Every economist knows about the founding father of the discipline, but remarkably few have read his work. That’s understandable: five hundred pages of 18th century moral philosophy isn’t perhaps the best Boxing Day read!

Much better to get hold of this book by MP and current government minister Jesse Norman. It provides a tour-de-force of Smith’s life, his writings and – most importantly – what insights he can give us to help solve today’s global economic challenges. It’s a surprisingly easy read and by the end you’ll know just why Adam Smith and his radical ideas helped to change the world.

Recommended by Graeme Roy (University of Glasgow)

A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World by Gregory Clark

Why are some countries very wealthy and others poor? Why did the Industrial Revolution and the economic growth that it unleashed happen in England in the 1700s?

These are two of the biggest questions in economics – and in this book, economic historian Gregory Clark provides a very accessible overview of the various answers that have been provided to these questions – institutions, geography, ideas, exploitation and access to coal.

He dismisses these traditional explanations and puts forward a very provocative and bold thesis: the Industrial Revolution happened in England because middle-class values were spread biologically and culturally through a process of downward social mobility, whereby the descendants of England’s elite outbred those from the lower classes.

Clark’s view is highly controversial to say the least. I, for one, would want more of an evidence base before I would be convinced of his thesis and the policy prescriptions that emerge from it.

Recommended by John Turner (Queen’s University Belfast)

If you get through all of these, we would also recommend the following top reads by our director and three of our lead editors!

Finally, if over a festive feast, a question comes up about the economic and public policy challenges we face, and you, your friends or family are looking for an informed answer, don’t forget that you can ask us. Submit your questions here and we’ll get cracking with commissioning and publishing an answer in the new year. In the meantime, happy holidays from the Economics Observatory!

Authors: Jagjit Chadha, Diane Coyle, Huw Dixon, Rachel Griffith, Ashley Lait, Stuart McIntyre, Michael McMahon, Graeme Roy and John Turner
Photo by ACIDmit for iStock
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