Progressive Summer Reading 2014

January 5, 2014


On Politics and Economics

Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Thomas Piketty
(2013, Harvard University Press [2014 translation by Arthur Goldhammer])

No book list for 2014 would be complete without this impressive 700-page tome, that has turned a previously little-known French academic, Thomas Piketty, into a global “rock star economist”. It documents rising inequality and the growing concentration of income in the hands of a small economic elite. Piketty has spent more than a decade mining huge quantities of data spanning centuries and many countries showing conclusively that the percentage of income and wealth going to those at the top has risen sharply over the last generation. This sweeping analysis has transformed political discourse on inequality. In the words of Dennis Glover, this game-changing book is a “weapon to wield” for the left to regain the intellectual high ground in the pursuit of greater equality.

The Good Fight
Wayne Swan
(2014, Allen and Unwin)

In a time of budget cuts and a coalition government that seems to be sliding from one public embarrassment to the next, Wayne Swan’s book gives insight into the inner workings of the Rudd and Gillard governments and how Australia avoided the impact of the Global Financial Crisis. Internationally lauded by economists and politicians alike, Swan, Euromoney’s Finance Minister of the year 2011, presents an insightful look behind the scenes of Australian politics. Swan successfully nurtured and maintained the Australian economy while economies around the world crumbled and his own government was stifled by internal division. His resistance to behind-the-scenes attacks by mining companies and big polluters reminds us that politics should be made for the people and not for corporations seeking to increase their profit margins at any cost. Swan’s full contribution for Australia is yet to be fully recognized, but this is the story of how smart policies steered Australia’s economy safely through the upheaval that was the Global Financial Crisis.

The Economics of Just About Everything
Andrew Leigh
(2014, Allen and Unwin)

A more light-hearted use of economics than Leigh’s Battlers and Billionaires from last year, this eclectic book connects just about everything back to economics – and he’s not kidding with that title. He says economics is a toolkit to understand everything, from policy to music, how to lose weight or how to find a lover. Leigh draws on examples and data from multiple sources to show how economics can help us understand everyday outcomes. For example, another 10cm of height boosts your income by thousands of dollars per year, and natural disasters attract more foreign aid if they happen on a slow news day. Facts like these make it an entertaining read, dispelling the idea that economics is only a dry study of money.

Per Capita Members and Friends can buy this book at 30% off + free postage. Email us to find out more.

On Public Policy…

Class Act: Ending the Education Wars
Maxine McKew
(2014, Melbourne University Press)

Through a series of case studies, McKew outlines the strategies that have been shown to lift academic performance in some of Australia’s most challenged schools.

McKew went out and spoke to educators who have brought about transformational changes in learning outcomes and teaching excellence in schools in Australia, and the book outlines their success stories with reflections on how we can learn from this and apply the lessons. It highlights the importance of school education, and gives insights from practising teachers as well as thought leaders. It’s refreshing to hear about the success stories, and Maxine’s readable style makes the book a great addition to inform the debate on education through these ideas and examples.

Refugees: Why seeking asylum is legal and Australia’s policies are not
Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong
(2014, New South Books)

We often hear that asylum seekers are “illegals” or “queue jumpers” who should wait in line. But so much of our national debate on asylum seekers is based on misconceptions and misunderstandings. In this highly informative and well-argued book, McAdam and Chong outline these misconceptions and myths. It goes through the asylum seeker policies we have developed over decades and explains how they are at odds with the obligations we have signed up to. In the particularly well-written conclusion, the authors tie the ideals at the heart of international human rights and refugee law to the “quintessential Australian value” of the fair go for all.

Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Matters in the End
Atul Gawande
(2014, Profile Books)

Modern scientific capability has profoundly altered the course of human life, and people live longer and better lives than at any other time in history. But we have turned the processes of dying and ageing into medical experiences, matters that are managed by health care professionals. In this book, Atul Gawande outlines how unprepared the we are for this increasing longevity. We tend to talk about the specifics of treatment options, but rarely talk honestly about the larger truth of mortality and the irremediable problems associated with ageing. This has given us a system that medicalises mortality and is obsessed with risk, removing people’s choices. This book is at times a very personal account, with Gawande telling the story of his own father’s death. At the end, he asked his father “How much are you willing to go through just to have a chance of living longer?”. The answer allowed a process that focused on his choices rather than a technical medicalised end in an ICU. Gawande argues that we need to better plan to care for loved ones whose minds and bodies are weakening, and that having choices over how we end our lives is as important as how we live it.

Ideas from Around the World

The Underground Girls of Kabul: The hidden lives of Afghan girls disguised as boys
Jenny Nordberg
(2014, Virago)

Five years of research, reporting and observation by Nordberg brings a fascinating insight into a hidden world. In a society where women have few rights and huge restrictions, where the birth of a son is a cause for celebration but not the birth of a daughter, some families raise a daughter as a son, with all the rights of a boy growing up. This book tells the story of these children and their families, written in a very readable, storytelling style. It is very thought-provoking, making us think about gender, culture, patriarchy and power.

The Quiet German: The astonishing rise of Angela Merkel, the most powerful woman in the world
(The New Yorker, December 1 2014)

A woman at the peak of her power, Angela Merkel quietly leads through a tumultuous time for both Germany and Europe. Merkel enjoys adoration and awe simultaneously wherever shes goes. At this year’s G20 Summit in Brisbane she could be seen with pub goers casually taking selfies with a smile on her face, while only a few hours later meeting world leaders and putting them into place. This New Yorker portrait extensively outlines how Merkel, this formerly unremarkable lady from East Germany, navigated her way to the top of German politics, leaving macho politicians like former Chancellor Schroeder by the wayside. Instead of threatening to shirtfront political leaders, Merkel carefully listens to public debate and is not afraid to correct mistakes. Her success, leading to her being labeled Mutti (mummy) in German, changed the nature of German politics and continues to shape European politics as well. A truly interesting read for anyone who is interested in how power plays out on the highest stage of politics. click on the cover to go to the article.

Thanks to Robert Vogt for this recommendation

Flash Boys
Michael Lewis
(2014, W. W. Norton & Company)

What can happen in a fraction of a nanosecond? Millions of shares can change hands and be on sold again to make a profit. Michael Lewis, a stockbroker working for a Canadian bank discovered statistics that indicated that shares were being bought and sold at prices above the average of the sell offer and the buy offer. He reasoned that on average, the transaction price should lie at the mid-point between the two offer prices. Further investigation revealed that the number of transactions in the so called “dark pool” were rising exponentially. Information on shares in this pool are not generally available to the public. This book provides some revealing insights into the lives and skills of the programmers that prepare the algorisms to make this trading possible and the mind-boggling information statistics that are available. The stockbroker started a new exchange where all transactions, sell offer prices and buy offer prices were made available to the public. Did the hedge funds and other large investors use this exchange and how did these new boys on the block influence the other exchanges?

Thanks to John Orr for this recommendation