Monday, December 1, 2014

My five favorite books of 2014

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Here are 2013 and 2012. As usual I will limit myself to books that were published somewhat recently. My favorites, in no order:

1. Dam Nation, Stephen Grace (2012). This book is truly superb. I mentioned it here. This is a history of water in the western US, a topic I find endlessly fascinating (see posts). It is short and readable.

2. Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter (2013). I mentioned this here. This is a very readable, very interesting description of the global scrap industry. The story is told as a series of anecdotes, primarily in the US and China. This book is very engaging--it will not bore you.

3. Ninety Percent of Everything, Rose George (2013). This is an extended anecdote about the shipping industry. Basically the author rides on a container ship. I found it immensely entertaining and informative.

4. Capital, Thomas Piketty (2014). My review is here (yes, I did read the whole thing). This book's fans were often confused about which claims were empirical and which were speculative. FT/McKinsey awarded Capital for being an "epic analysis of the roots and consequences of inequality," which makes me wonder if anyone at FT or McKinsey actually read the book (very little "roots" analysis and zero "consequences" analysis). The book focused entirely on the world's richest 20 percent, and it largely ignored both the literature on the consequences of inequality and the literature on optimal taxation. But I liked the book--data firehoses provide huge benefits to economics. Between the data and the instructive nature of its omissions, Capital is a very valuable contribution to the economics and policy debate--and I found it to be quite readable.

5. Big Ideas in Macroeconomics, Kartik Athreya (2014). My review is here. Unlike Noah Smith, I found this book extremely useful and believe it should be required reading for any person who wants to engage in debates about methodological issues in macroeconomics but does not want to learn the math. It is not a casual read, but those who aren't willing to give it a shot should rethink their confidence level on macro methods topics. I also highly recommend the book to grad students who want more intuition for the models. It is also a great literature review. This book deserves far more attention than it has received.


I did not read House of Debt; I am already pretty familiar with the authors' excellent research, and I find it reasonably persuasive. Due to their blogging efforts, though, I have assumed that Mian and Sufi include a lot of the wrong complaints about the macro field that always drive me nuts, so I decided to pass on it (you spend three years writing a het agent job market paper then see how you feel when someone says macroeconomists ignore distributions). I hate that selling a book in econ apparently depends on telling readers that everyone else in the field is an idiot.

I am in the middle of Geithner's book; it is mostly fine, but I think we all have financial crisis play-by-play fatigue (though I will definitely read Bernanke). I also have a hard time with memoirs--they feel so folksy, yet I can't help but imagine the ghost writer behind the scenes. I do plan to read Fragile by Design but may not get to it for a few more months (I have been working through Caro's LBJ series and want to make some more progress soon). I am also tentatively planning to get to Martin Wolf's book. I find plenty of older books that I want to read, so I don't always keep up with new releases very well.

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