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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

November 27, 2012 at 10:10 AM

Holiday books for econ nerds and the rest of us

My annual list of economics books this year is topped by Nassim Taleb’s new Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. Taleb became famous for his 2006 book, The Black Swan, which called the financial crash. In the new volume, he examines how to build systems that are more immune to shocks sure to come our way. Cantankerous and unpredictable, Taleb is always worth reading.

I previously wrote about Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream. It’s the best one-stop-shop look at how the middle class went from its zenith in the 1970s to today’s precarious mess — heavily gamed by the oligarchs to redistribute income upward and distort the market in their favor.

Other must-reads in this category are Donald Barlett and James Steele’s The Betrayal of the American Dream and The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. All three books are rich in detail about how we got into this crisis and provide roadmaps out.

One of the best reads about the missteps, greed and regulatory capture that led to the Great Recession continues to be 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown by Simon Johnson and James Kwak. Very little has changed in the “financial services industry” since Johnson and Kwak wrote, so this is an essential guide. I also recommend Crisis Economics by Nouriel Roubini, the riveting In Fed We Trust by David Wessel and All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis, by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera.

Closer to home, consider The Lost Bank: The Story of Washington Mutual — The Biggest Bank Failure in American History by Kirsten Grind, formerly of the Puget Sound Business Journal. Grind does an impressive job of documenting the slow erosion of standards, shocking risk-taking and mismanagement at WaMu, as well as the games played in New York and D.C. that ensured the thrift would emplode right into the lap of Jamie Dimon.

This season’s best economic history book is Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics, on the philosophical battle waged by John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek during the Great Depression that continues to resonate today. If you want to understand Keynes and his dazzling life — the reality, not the comic strip version — I recommend Robert Skidelsky’s magesterial biography. It’s compressed into one volume as John Maynard Keynes: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman.

Speaking of the Great Depression, the best general history of the era can be found in David Kennedy’s Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929 to 1945. Part of the superb Oxford History of the United States, this book illuminates a critical moment in the American experience, with lessons for today.

Finally, an old favorite: The Worldly Philosophers, by Robert Heilbroner. In its seventh edition, this look at the leading economic thinkers from Adam Smith on is a delight to read and a must for anyone who wants to understand the ideas that hold so much sway in our world.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

The name’s bond. Cheap bond.

Borrowing costs are a steal

Just ask Amazon

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