Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal

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Books on Economics

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok’s Innovative and Intriguing Textbook

Two questions: One, I am interested in your recommendations about a book/articles to read list for those lay-persons interested in the study of economics. I am attorney by training but love to read about differing theories on economics. I am a bit on the progressive side in my politics and so found your definition of “supply-side liberal” interesting. Second, your view on FDR and Depression-era economic policies and what it took for the U.S. economy to recover during that time. Thanks.

billythekidatheart 

Answers: On what non-economists should read about economics, my first reaction is that the economics blogosphere is the place to go. For example, if you want a discussion accessible to non-economists of current economic disputes, Noahpinion.com does a good job. I have been telling Noah for some time that as part of his academic career he should become a historian of modern macroeconomic thought. You can see his talent for that in his blog.  

My second reaction is that some economics textbooks are truly excellent and good for anyone to read even if they are not taking a class. I am currently reading some of the macroeconomics chapters from Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok’s Modern Principles of EconomicsIt is a great read. I agree with this review on Amazon: 

This is one of the most readable textbooks I have ever encountered. The writing is amazingly interesting given that it is a general, core subject. The book includes many very up-to-date samples and reads almost like a magazine in places.

I need to read a lot more to decide whether to use it for my class, but I am definitely tempted. 

At the next level up, I love David Weil’s textbook Economic Growth. This is the truly important stuff in economics. You can see what I learned from (the first edition of) this book in my post "Leveling Up: Making the Transition from Poor Country to Rich Country."

My third reaction is to look at what I have actually read. (In conversation, economists often use the words “revealed preference” to express the idea “Watch what I do, not what I say.”) I have kept a list of books I have read since 1995. I have been planning to write posts based on that list at some point. Let me use your question as an occasion to do a basic post on the economics slice of my book list.  

Only a small fraction of the books I read are economics books. Here are the economics, economic policy and business books on the list, with the month I finished reading each. For the most part, I have linked to the most recent edition I found. I should say that I disagree with two of the books below in important respects: The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz and Happiness by Richard Layard, although these are very interesting books. Let me also say that Thorstein Veblen is a terrible prose stylist, so I doubt you would enjoy reading The Theory of the Leisure Class

  1. The Unbound Prometheus  by David S. Landes (4/97)
  2. The Lever of Riches by Joel Mokyr (5/97)
  3. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes (5/98)
  4. Luxury Fever by Robert H. Frank (3/99)
  5. The Evolution of Retirement by Dora L. Costa (8/99)
  6. The Return of Depression Economics by Paul Krugman (9/01)
  7. The Wealth of Man by Peter Jay (10/01)
  8. Digital Dealing by Robert E. Hall (11/02)
  9. The New Culture of Desire by Melinda Davis (8/03)
  10. The Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida (8/03)
  11. The Overspent American by Juliet Schor (12/03)
  12. The Matching Law by Richard J. Herrnstein  (3/04)
  13. The Sense of Well-Being in America by Angus Campbell (4/04)
  14. Macroeconomics (5th ed.) by N. Gregory Mankiw (4/04)
  15. The Progress Paradox by Gregg Easterbrook (5/04)
  16. False Prophets: The Gurus Who Created Modern Management…by James Hoopes (5/04)
  17. The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz (7/04)
  18. The Elusive Quest for Growth by William Easterly (2/05)
  19. Growth Theory by David Weil (3/05)
  20. Happiness by Richard Layard (3/05)
  21. The Joyless Economy by Tibor Scitovsky (5/05)
  22. The Winner-Take-All Society by Robert Frank and Philip Cook (8/06)
  23. The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen (9/06)
  24. The 2% Solution by Matthew Miller (1/07)
  25. The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman (1/07)
  26. The Harried Leisure Class by Staffan Linder (2/07)
  27. The Age of Abundance by Brink Lindsey (12/07)
  28. Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill (12/07)
  29. Super Crunchers by Ian Ayres (4/08)
  30. Principles of Macroeconomics by N. Gregory Mankiw (4/09)
  31. Macroeconomics by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells (11/09)
  32. In Fed We Trust by David Wessel (1/10)
  33. The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly (2/10)
  34. Sonic Boom: Globalization at Mach Speed by Gregg Easterbrook (6/10)
  35. The Quants by Scott Patterson (6/10)
  36. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar (2/10)
  37. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley (7/10)
  38. The Nature of Technology  by W. Brian Arthur (8/10)
  39. The Philosophical Breakfast Club by Laura J. Snyder (4/11)
  40. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (1/12)
  41. Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius by Sylvia Nasar (2/12)
  42. The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek (4/12)
  43. Free to Choose by Milton Friedman (5/12)
  44. A Theory of Justice by John Rawls (7/12)
Outside of what I read for classes (such as The Worldly Philosophers by Robert Heilbroner and the 1977 or so edition of Paul Samuelson’s textbook) I can only remember a few economics books I read before I started my book list. Three good ones are

On your second question, about the Great Depression, I agree with Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s view (in a book I’m afraid I haven’t read: A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960) that the depth and length of the Great Depression resulted from bad monetary policy. In my view, the only reason things have been any better in the last few years is because of better monetary policy—in important measure because of Ben Bernanke, but more broadly because the economics profession has learned from its past mistakes. (Paul Krugman’s New York Times column yesterday, "Hating on Ben Bernanke," is right to criticize the “liquidationist” view. Though one can debate whether it should have gone even further, this past week the Fed moved a long way in the right direction and deserves to be applauded. The views that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are expressing about monetary policy are potentially disastrous if they really mean them, and extremely unhealthy even if those expressed views are simply a matter of being willing to say anything to win an election.) 

As for FDR, based on economics seminars I have attended, my view is that as a technical economic policy matter (and leaving aside war-related decisions as a separate category) the details of what FDR did in economic policy were a mess, and mostly made things worse during the 1930’s. (The long-run virtues and vices of FDR’s policies that have lasted to the present are still at the center of our political debate.) However,despite how unimpressive FDR’s policies were from a technical point of view,FDR’s success in maintaining a modicum of confidence and so staving off political pressure for a bigger turn toward socialism was a huge contribution. And FDR’s principle of “bold, persistent, experimentation” is wonderful. (I was glad to hear Barack Obama echo those words in his acceptance speech.) I have used this principle of “bold, persistent, experimentation” as a major part of my argument in several posts:

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