Discussion: (0 comments)
There are no comments available.
A public policy blog from AEI
More options: Share,
With 2018 coming to a close, we asked some of our scholars and staff about their favorite books of the past year. History, economics, literature, science fiction — AEI is an eclectic bunch, and there is something for everyone. Just in time for last-second Christmas gift ideas, too.
Arthur Brooks, President and Beth and Ravenel Curry Scholar in Free Enterprise
What is wrong with people? Answering that question is my job as a social scientist, but it has probably occupied a good deal of your mental capacity as well in America’s increasingly Hobbesian culture. Two books this year offer an answer: Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s “The Coddling of the American Mind” and Ben Sasse’s “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal.”
Messrs. Lukianoff and Haidt take on the problems of campus culture through the lens of safety — not that we have too little of it but that we have too much. After a generation of protecting kids from danger, both real and imagined, we have left them with the social equivalent of a peanut allergy, hypersensitive to offense and unable to cope with ordinary disagreement. Mr. Sasse takes on America’s epidemic of loneliness, in which more and more Americans are isolated and disconnected from their communities. This leads to pathologies that range from the distressing (drug abuse, suicide) to the absurd (Twitter trolling). Both books offer practical solutions, from raising “free-range kids” to buying a plot in your local cemetery.
This contribution originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal, here.
Zack Cooper, Research Fellow, Foreign and Defense Policy
Dr. Kori Schake’s “Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony” provides an insightful look at the uneasy handoff from Pax Britannica to Pax America. She demonstrates just how difficult it was for Britain and the United States to manage their power transition, despite the great deal the two had in common.
Schake argues that the peaceful transition was highly contingent and is unlikely to be replicable. After all, once the United States took over as the dominant hegemon, leaders in Washington changed the rules of the international order to better match their interests and preferences. It just so happened that America and Britain shared histories, languages, cultures, and political philosophies. As a result, Schake concludes “the passage from British to American hegemony suggests that a peaceful transition from American to Chinese hegemony is highly unlikely.” Unfortunately, therefore, “Safe Passage” suggests a difficult path for US-China relations.
Sadanand Dhume, Resident Fellow, Foreign and Defense Policy
In “Reimagining Pakistan: Transforming a Dysfunctional State,” Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, goes back to the drawing board to ask a fundamental question: What should the nuclear-armed Islamic republic do in order to ensure a peaceful and prosperous future?
Underlying Haqqani’s prescription is a key insight: Carved out of the Muslim-majority parts of British India in 1947, Pakistan has long been an ideological state, dominated by its military. This has slowed the country’s development by allowing the army to claim a disproportionate share of the national budget. (Pakistan spends around seven times more on its military than on primary education.) It also makes the state unduly suspicious of linguistic, regional, and religious diversity, which the army tends to view as threats to national unity.
Haqqani would like Pakistan to outgrow an ideology based on “Islamic nationalism, pan-Islamism, and competing with ‘Hindu India.’” Instead, it should make peace with its neighbors, embrace its own diversity, and focus more on trade and economic development. It’s sane advice, worth grappling with even if the odds of the current dispensation in Islamabad following it appear slim.
Nick Eberstadt, Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy
For me the most thought-provoking read this year may just have been Liu Cixin’s “The Three-Body Problem,” the first volume in his acclaimed sci-fi trilogy on an epochal intra-galactic war between Trisolaris and China (well, technically, Earth).
I guess I enjoy science fiction as much as the next nerd, and the majestic sweep of Liu’s vision is indeed enthralling. But what really caught me was Liu’s shocking, unflinching depiction of modern-day China.
In closed societies sci-fi writers are often granted more latitude than poets and novelists; “Three-Body Problem” is a stunning case in point. It begins with the most horrifying account you will ever read of a mob murder during the Cultural Revolution, and ends in the childless, lonely, moral wasteland of early 21st Century Beijing. This is a powerful anti-Communist polemic, a painfully moving description of life under the Beijing dictatorship. And its widespread popularity in China gives me hope.
Jonah Goldberg, Fellow and Asness Chair in Applied Liberty
In writing my own book, “Suicide of the West” (which, according to the rules of the Shameless Author’s Guild, I must plug here), I expended a lot of mental energy trying to figure out why political correctness is such a powerful force today. After all, depending on how you date these things, political correctness has been around for generations, and yet it seems a much more powerful force today.
One of the answers I’ve arrived at, and explore in my book, is that today’s generation of young people, now entering or just having graduated college, was raised and socialized to be steeped in not merely politically correct doctrines, but also in a specific elite culture that makes them much more open to those doctrines. Children raised in many middle- and upper-class communities are discouraged from taking risks or enduring uncomfortable interpersonal conflicts. Safety — both physical but also mental — is the highest priority in schools and communities. Feeling “unsafe” or having one’s self-esteem threatened is forbidden. This is nigh-upon the perfect training for a generation to embrace political correctness and all that comes with it, from trigger warnings to safe spaces. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s “The Coddling of the American Mind” fleshes all of this out brilliantly, clearly, and humanely. It’s a hugely important book not just for policymakers and educators but for parents and young people as well.
Ben Ippolito, Research Fellow, Economic Policy
“Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup,” by John Carreyrou, tells the story of one of the most audacious frauds in recent American history. In 2004, then 19 year-old Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of Stanford University to found Theranos, a biotech firm promising technology that would revolutionize blood testing. Theranos quickly became the darling of Silicon Valley, and by 2014 Elizabeth Holmes was the youngest self-made female billionaire in America. Within a few short years, she would be charged with “massive fraud” by the SEC.
The extent of deceit chronicled by Carryrou is almost too absurd to believe; however, the book reaches its crescendo as Holmes’ empire begins to crumble. Carryrou, whose investigative reporting ultimately exposed Theranos, finds himself in the crosshairs of an Elizabeth Holmes desperate to keep the Theranos myth alive. This book is about as close to a thriller as the real world gets.
Aparna Mathur, Resident Scholar, Economic Policy
One of my favorite books this year is by Tim Marshall; it is titled “Divided: Why We Are Living In An Age Of Walls.” It stands out because it does a fantastic job of explaining divisions within societies and across countries through the physical symbol of the wall. Why were walls established? To prevent outsiders from entering the country, or to stop insiders from leaving? It describes the history and genesis of conflicts in places around the world, such as Israel-Palestine, India-Pakistan, Northern Ireland and the rest of UK, and in countries in the Middle East, where walls have existed for centuries or new ones have come up. In some cases, the walls are physical, in others they exist in the minds of people inhabiting the land. In all cases, they symbolize deep divisions and an inability to let go of the past and to carve out a conciliatory future.
As the debate over the construction of a wall separating the US from its southern neighbors continues, we would do well to learn from the painful legacies of these historic stories. I am now reading Tim Marshall’s even more popular book, “Prisoners of Geography,” which explores the idea that the physical geography — mountains, rivers, plains — of a country often explains a lot about its economic and political history, as well as its future. Both books are highly recommended for anyone with an interest in learning about global conflict, the unique stories of particular countries, and how these stories fit into the shared narrative of a global people. We are all affected by walls and the divisions they bring. After reading this book, I found myself staring at the world map frequently — with amazement, and a new sense of understanding.
Mark J. Perry, Scholar, Economic Policy
At the age of 87, the prolific Thomas Sowell released his 45th book this year — “Discrimination and Disparities” — which amazingly was his 10th book in the last decade! Like his other books, the latest effort from Sowell is readable and accessible for the average reader, while at the same time being thoroughly supported with rigorous research and rich with empirical evidence.
“Discrimination and Disparities” focuses on how economic disparities in outcomes arise, with a discussion of the various explanations for those disparities. While discrimination or genetics are frequently identified as the main factors for disparities in outcomes, Sowell persuasively presents a case — backed by data, logic, and factual evidence from across the globe — that “grossly unequal distributions of outcomes are common, both in nature and among people, in circumstances where neither genes nor discrimination are involved.”
While Sowell’s goal in this book is not to propose any public policy prescriptions to discrimination and disparities, he does a masterful job of exposing how previous policies have been counterproductive and unsuccessful. More than any other author alive today, Thomas Sowell is the master of “idea density” and he can pack more wisdom and insight into a single sentence than what typically takes an entire paragraph or chapter for even the best writer.
“Discrimination and Disparities” is filled with numerous examples of Sowell’s pithy wisdom, and it’s a joy to read.
James Pethokoukis, Editor, AEIdeas, and DeWitt Wallace Fellow
My podcasting duties require lots of reading as prep to interview authors of new books, and some of the books I liked the most and to which I have since returned many times include “Clashing over Commerce” by Douglas Irwin and “Capitalism in America” by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge. The pair make great companions if you are looking for readable histories of the American economy. And given their emphasis on the importance of economic openness and dynamism, they have arrived at an opportune time.
A smaller but perhaps equally important volume from my perspective is “Why Information Grows” by Cesar Hidalgo. The author, a statistical physicist by training, lays out his view of economies as “collective computers” formed of myriad human networks. And the smarter those networks are and the more connections that are made, the greater the computational capacity of that economic computer. In other words, pro-growth economics is pro-connection economics. Again, another timely book.
Danielle Pletka, Senior Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy
In the ocean of erudition that is AEI there is an overabundance of material to read. But I must confess, it was a work of fiction that stayed with me longest this year. In 2012, Adam Johnson published “The Orphan Master’s Son,” a book for which he later won the Pulitzer Prize. Don’t hold that against the book; it is fantastic, accessible, well-written, lacking in pretense, moving, and most importantly, it is the one work I have read that opened a keyhole into the Kafkaesque hell that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
For those of us in foreign policy at AEI, we recognize the menace of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons, the threat its army represents not only to our forces in Korea, but to our allies in the South. Our Asia scholars have written eloquently about strategies to confront, to contain, and to manage the growing danger from the evil Kim family. Nick Eberstadt has focused on the human misery, famine, concentration camps, and more that are all features of Kim’s juche utopia.
But what is it really like to live there? To think as North Koreans do? To suffer their fate? To share their worldview? These and more are the fruits of this stunning book. Grab it, read it over the holidays. It will stay with you too.
Dalibor Rohac, Research Fellow, Foreign and Defense Policy
My nomination is for Tyler Cowen’s “Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals,” a much-needed manifesto for a moral outlook that prioritizes sustainable economic growth over most other social goals.
The book is a perfect antidote to the zero-sum thinking that underlies much of the populist reaction currently underway in Western politics. Besides arguing that practically all economic, political, and social problems facing our societies could be addressed more easily with a heavy dose of economic dynamism, the book also makes a compelling case for lengthening our time horizons and discounting the future much less heavily than most of us currently do.
Finally, Cowen’s is not an unconstrained vision of just more growth — rather, it is embedded in a framework based on respect for human rights, which places severe restrictions on what policies different societies should pursue.
Christina Hoff Sommers, Resident Scholar, Politics and Public Opinion
Audiobooks are my salvation. According to my Audible.com purchase history, I have listened to twenty-seven this year. There were a few duds, but three were so spectacularly good they took over my life and I mourned for them when they were over: “Proust’s Duchess: How Three Celebrated Women Captured the Imagination of Fin-de-siècle Paris” by Caroline Weber, “Death Comes for the Archbishop” by Willa Cather, and John Carryou’s “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start-Up.”
Then there is Yuval Noah Harari’s history of our species, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” — how we went from being unexceptional primates to the most formidable animal on the planet. Listening to it was like being in a college class with the world’s greatest professor.
And thank heaven for Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure,” David Frum’s “Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic,” and Steve Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.” Each is a model of cogency, clarity, and humane understanding.
But “Why Honor Matters” is the book that made me the happiest and proudest. The author is my philosophy professor/stepson Tamler Sommers. In my unbiased opinion, his exploration of honor and the critical role it plays in a successful life and society is charming, brilliant, and persuasive. Also, it’s just out on Audible!
Ryan Streeter, Director of Domestic Policy Studies
Geoffrey West’s “Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies” is a grand treatise on how the mathematical laws governing nonlinear growth in the biological world appear with remarkable consistency in the growth of cities and organizations. One does not have to accept or support all of his ideas about social organization or the future to be dazzled by the mathematical consistency of everything from cell growth to urban growth. Aside from learning that Godzilla is physiologically impossible (phew!), readers will come to see the cities and towns where they live in new ways.
Dennis Rasmussen details the most important friendship of the Scottish Enlightenment in his accessible “The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought.” Even scholars familiar with David Hume and Adam Smith will enjoy new details of how the relationship between the irreverent Hume and the cautious Smith was central to their joint impact on future inquiry into economics, religion, politics, and more. The book is a good window into Hume’s influence on Smith, and the latter’s loyalty to the former despite the complications Hume’s subversiveness created for Smith.
Stan Veuger, Resident Scholar, Economic Policy
As our trade policy continues to deteriorate to the point where it now involves the taking of hostages, it may be reassuring to read Douglas Irwin’s “Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy,” published in 2017 but read by your recommender in 2018: things have been worse! On the other hand, your takeaway may well be that things could get significantly worse.
If an 832 page tome feels a little daunting to you, Professor Irwin’s oeuvre offers shorter options as well. In “Against the Tide: An Intellectual History of Free Trade,” which comes in at a mere 280 pages, you will discover that international economics is not a field in which Horace and Plato excelled. And if, in order to own the libs, you’d rather read something even shorter than that, I would refer you to “Three Simple Principles of Trade Policy,” by the same author, published by AEI Press in 1996. It will teach you that a tax on imports is a tax on exports; that businesses are consumers; and that trade imbalances reflect capital flows. If only these lessons were internalized by the trade policy powers that be!
AEI scholar Claude Barfield concurs with Dr. Veuger’s recommendations.
Matt Winesett, Managing Editor, AEIdeas
Charles Krauthammer, who passed away in June this year, is still managing to impart his wisdom to his legions of fans. “The Point of It All,” edited and published posthumously by his son Daniel earlier this month, is Krauthammer at his best: witty, clear-headed, and above all deep on topics from baseball to bioethics, space travel to foreign policy. Each entry includes the date of publication at the end, but it’s almost unnecessary: Columns written decades ago remain as relevant today as they were then, and even the more ephemeral-seeming pieces — on Obama and Trump’s differing worldviews and policies, for instance — are principled enough to remain worth reading for decades to come.
I also read Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” for the first time, which somehow went unassigned throughout high school. It’s not only the best novel I read this year, but the best novel I’ve read in several years — probably because it’s basically a fusion of Edmund Burke’s take on the French Revolution and Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman. (Really.)
Get the best from AEI each morning
There are no comments available.
1789 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036
© 2019 American Enterprise Institute