21st Century Monetary Policy: The Federal Reserve from the Great Inflation to COVID-19
by Ben Bernanke, WW Norton £25/$35
If one is to criticise something intelligently, one needs to understand it. Ben Bernanke, one of the world’s leading monetary economists and chair of the Federal Reserve during the global financial crisis, is ideally equipped to explain the economic forces and ideas behind the policies of central banks, especially the Fed, over the past half-century. The book is characteristically well argued. But, ironically, just after the Fed adopted its new framework aimed at achieving “maximum employment”, surging inflation brought back the concerns of the 1970s. Nothing, it turns out, is for ever.
Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace
by Christopher Blattman, Viking £18.99/Penguin $32
Christopher Blattman of the University of Chicago has written an outstanding book on one of the most important questions about human behaviour: why do we fight? He notes that the vast majority of conflicts do not become violent. When they do, it is because the incentives for compromise are insufficient. Blattman offers five reasons why this happens. We are seeing one of them right now. Vladimir Putin has started a war because he thinks it is in his interests and, in today’s Russia, nobody else’s interests matter.
Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century
by Helen Thompson, Oxford University Press £20/$27.95
Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge university. In this ambitious book she attempts to elucidate the economic and political forces shaping (and reshaping) our world. Her story has three elements: first, the geopolitics of energy, especially oil; second, economics, especially monetary and energy economics; third, national politics, especially those of the western democracies, notably the rise of plutocracy. The book is as disturbing as it is thought-provoking.
Unshackling India: Hard Truths and Clear Choices for Economic Revival
by Ajay Chhibber and Salman Anees Soz, HarperCollins £21.50
India will soon be the world’s most populous country. But will it also be a prosperous one? This is a crucial question, not only for Indians, but for the rest of humanity. Ajay Chhibber and Salman Anees Soz’s superb book shows that prosperity is far from guaranteed. A little over a decade ago, continued fast economic growth was widely considered highly likely. Now, optimism has evaporated. The book provides an excellent overview of what has gone wrong and what needs to be done to put it right.
The Chancellors: Steering the British Economy in Crisis Times
by Howard Davies, Polity £15.99/$22.95
Howard Davies investigates the role and performance of the UK Treasury since 1997. For this purpose he has managed to interview Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, George Osborne and Philip Hammond. The story is fascinating, since it covers so many challenges and changes. Davies is kinder to the Treasury than I would be. Nevertheless, he recognises that trouble lies ahead: political and economic realities do not look friendly to the belief in free markets and fiscal discipline that guides this powerful institution.
Gambling on Development: Why Some Countries Win and Others Lose
by Stefan Dercon, Hurst £25/$34.95
Stefan Dercon, director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at the University of Oxford, asks the most important question in economics: why do some developing countries develop, while others do not? There has been much progress. But that progress has also been hugely divergent. The answer, he argues, lies not in policies per se, let alone the supply of foreign aid or transformation of global institutions, but in the politics of economics: development will happen if elites decide it is in their interests to deliver it. This “development bargain” is the key: it is as simple — and difficult — as that.
Financial Cold War: A View of Sino-US Relations from the Financial Markets
by James A Fok, Wiley £21/$29.95
The growing friction between the US and China is the most important political and economic fact about our world. In this book, the author — an expert on both China and finance, long resident in Hong Kong — focuses on how this friction is playing out in the key area of finance. He brings out very clearly the fragilities and dangers created by the financial connections between these two very different and increasingly rivalrous superpowers.
Trade Links: New Rules for a New World
by James Bacchus, Cambridge University Press £29.99/$39.99
Jim Bacchus was the chief judge for the World Trade Organization in its first decade. Now, at a time of crisis for the global trading system, he argues for a radical updating of the system for a world with huge new challenges, including the pandemic, climate change and the new digital economy. We must have the courage to reform the system rather than abandon the world economy to disorder. We are too interconnected for the latter choice to make any sense. He is right.
Restarting the Future: How to Fix the Intangible Economy
by Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake, Princeton University Press £22/$27.95
This thought-provoking book builds on Capitalism without Capital by the same authors. It notes that high-income economies suffer from the ills of economic stagnation, inequality, both decreased and increased competition, fragility and pervasive fakery. The authors argue that this is due to the shift from physical to intangible capital as the main driver of growth and the corresponding failure to recognise the need to transform our institutions and our policies in light of this change. Solutions will include the creation of more capable states.
An Economist’s Outlook: Essays by John H. Makin from a Transformative Era
by John H Makin, American Enterprise Institute £27/$35
The late John Makin was one of what seems a dying breed: a thoughtful, well-informed and open-minded conservative economist. Trained at the University of Chicago, he had a long association with the American Enterprise Institute and Caxton Associates, a hedge fund. This collection of essays shows his qualities as a perceptive and balanced economic commentator. For Makin, markets are irreplaceable institutions, but not gods. The book recalls many discussions with a much-missed friend.
Can’t We Just Print More Money?: Economics in Ten Simple Questions
by Rupal Patel and Jack Meaning, Cornerstone Press £14.99
If you feel you should understand how economists think but have no idea where to start, this book is the answer. Written by two economists at the Bank of England, it offers a clear explanation of basic economics, covering supply and demand, climate, labour markets, growth, trade, inflation, money, personal investment, financial crises and why we can’t just print more money. The Bank should be congratulated on this effort at education. Buy this book for the inquiring person, young, old or in between.
Rebuilding the World Trading System
by Andrew Stoeckel, Stoeckel Group £15/$17.49
Andy Stoeckel is one of Australia’s foremost trade economists. At a time when assaults on international trade are pervasive, he has written a short and compelling pamphlet on how to rescue this foundation of global prosperity. His argument is simple: without strong and independent domestic institutions tasked with distinguishing the national interest in trade from narrow protectionist interests, survival of an open rules-based global trading system is doomed.
Fragile Futures: The Uncertain Economics of Disasters, Pandemics, and Climate Change
by Vito Tanzi, Cambridge University Press £20/$24.99
In different ways, the pandemic and climate change force us to recognise the inescapable reality of uncertainty. Vito Tanzi, former head of the fiscal affairs department of the International Monetary Fund, brings out some crucial implications. One is that we can and should use fiscal policy much better in response to shocks: in the case of Covid-19, for example, we should have imposed a temporary tax on the rich. More fundamentally, our interconnected world needs both more and better global governance.
Growth for Good: Reshaping Capitalism to Save Humanity from Climate Catastrophe
by Alessio Terzi, Harvard University Press £23.95/$29.95
Should we give up on economic growth or even reverse the growth we have had over the past two centuries, in order to halt climate change? The author, an economist who works at the European Commission, argues that such demands are neither necessary nor feasible: they are utopian fantasies. What is needed instead are practical and politically acceptable options. Successful policy will recognise the necessity of market incentives, active government, social cohesion and international co-operation. Above all, technology is our friend, not our enemy.
The Enablers: How the West Supports Kleptocrats and Corruption — Endangering Our Democracy
by Frank Vogl, Rowman and Littlefield £25/$32
Frank Vogl has been a campaigner against the evils of corruption for decades. In this punchy and sobering book he explains not just how pervasive it now is, but that western governments, businesses and professionals enable the kleptocratic regimes behind much of it. This is not just a bad thing in itself. It is a threat to the legitimacy and perhaps the survival of our democracies. The “klepto-cash” flooding into our economies is a poison that weakens us and strengthens our enemies.
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