What should I read next year? Here are most of the books I read this year, all of which I recommend.
Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. These two economists study poverty mainly through randomized, controlled trials. Some methods for fighting poverty are very effective, some aren’t, and Westerners’ assumptions about the lives of the world’s poor and what can help them are often wrong. This book reviews what we know about poverty at the family level the importance or lack of importance of hunger, health, education, and family size) and then at the level of institutions (credit markets and savings mechanisms, microfinance, entrepreneurship, and politics). This book is pretty awesome. There are few broad conclusions but lots of great ideas and evidence.
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. The authors argue that good or bad – “inclusive” or “extractive” – economic institutions account for most of why a society is wealthy or not, and that whether a society has inclusive or extractive political institutions determines whether it has inclusive or extractive economic institutions. It’s compelling, but the arguments get repetitive. I only got about two-thirds of the way through. I took a class called “Political Economy and Economic Development” last semester, and noticed that many of the studies cited in Why Nations Fail were assigned as readings. They are generally very readable, so if you have a statistics background I’d suggest just reading them and skipping the book.
The Conservative Soul: The Politics of Human Difference, by Andrew Sullivan. I read this book a while ago and don’t remember it clearly. Sullivan describes a “conservatism of doubt”, in which we should be cautious about implementing new policies but absolutist about very few of them. It’s a good idea, but most of the book is about what Sullivan’s conservatism isn’t: It isn’t based on faith, or natural law; he’s not a neoconservative, or a fan of George W. Bush.
Drugs – Without the Hot Air: Minimising the harms of legal and illegal drugs, by David Nutt. This book is based on solid evidence, and had some real surprises for me. Marijuana is more harmful than I thought it was, and unlike almost any other drug, alcohol harms almost your entire body. And as long as you take it with a comforting “set and setting”, LSD is not harmful at all, and sometimes has large benefits. But I have to nitpick: quantitative isn’t the same thing as scientific. Asking scientists to make up a number to describe how harmful a drug is and averaging those numbers isn’t a “scientific” estimate of the drug’s harm, and isn’t that useful.
The Marriage-Go-Round, by Andrew Cherlin. I liked this book. American families are more tumultuous than in the rest of the world: we marry more, divorce more, and move in with partners more frequently. Cherlin claims that this tumult is just fine for adults who choose it, but bad for children. He says we should be slower to marry and slower to divorce. Against the conventional wisdom and worth a read.
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, by Eliezer Yudkowsky. It’s Harry Potter fan fiction, yes, but it’s full of interesting ideas and a great story.
Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. I’m currently reading this. It is basically about the psychology of making decisions, with a focus on where we tend to get things wrong. I agree with all the rave reviews of this book you can find on the internet.
The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ve read it before, of course, but it still gives me the shivers, and the warm and fuzzies.