2018 Books Part II: Society & Inequality

In Part I of the series on books from the 2018 reading pile, I focused on self-improvement. In this second segment, it’s time to shift gears to the type of books I read most of in 2018: books on society, economics and in particularly inequality.

This is a topic close to my heart and I’ll likely cover it a lot in future posts. In part that’s due to some incredible books, blog posts, essays and articles that bring what can appear to be dry topics to life. More than anything, the real impact of our economic choices today often get erased and forgotten from the news cycle, it’s enlightening to have deeper academic texts give us a more realistic, balanced insight.

Eight hundred thousand people missed two paychecks in the US due to the government shutdown: is that a big deal? It’s a circumstance that’s hard to identify with if you’re Wilbur Ross (let them eat loans), Donald Trump (grocery stores will give you credit), or if you have a solid buffer of savings. In reality, though many households would have an extremely hard time covering even a small monthly shortfall. Neal Gabler’s 2016 article on “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans” is still one of the most shocking reads on the topic.

Here are the five top books I read in 2018 on Society, Economics and Inequality. Choosing five was a tough ask, but I hope one or two of them might pique your interest:

  • Automating Inequality” by Virginia Eubanks: Our world is increasingly dominated by algorithms and extrapolations from past data. Virginia Eubanks’ expose on how automated systems in public services in the US can have devastating effects on individuals and communities is a real eye-opener. Virginia also came to speak at this year’s APISTRAT conference and provided great insights for the attendees in how to think about building automated systems. This is a must read for anyone building systems that affect community lives. The notion of the “digital poor house” invoked in the book is all too real today.
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matt Desmond: This book is a well researched, heart-wrenching journey through the lives of lower-income people in US industrial cities. The hardships of the people the author follows in the book are difficult to square with the prosperous ideal of a modern industrialized society. Like no other book, this work brings home how personal and difficult life near the bottom of the income pyramid is. There have been times in my life where I’ve had little (by choice, bad luck or whatever), but even then, there has always been a familial safety net. At the back of your mind, you know that you can get help for the basics. That’s not true for many people and “Evicted” brings home how difficult it can be simply to keep a roof over your head. You come away with a deep sense of the lack of opportunities this creates for many people.
  • Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemoğlu and James A. Robinson: We’re on a roll of cheerful titles! Thank you to Andrzej for recommending this book! The book is a little repetitive in places, but overall it’s definitely worth reading. The central discussion revolves around the difference between inclusive and extractive institutions: both political and economic. It’s shocking how durable institutional differences are in many countries and how the legacy of colonialism has kept countries in negative spirals for much of their history. The book is a romp through the history of many nations, and there is a compelling argument for the way the authors think about inequality and economic progress in terms of institutions.
  • The “Sapiens“, “Homo Deus” and “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” series by Yuval Noah Harari: this is a series of three books, so it’s a cheat in this list but well, it’s my list. These books dominate airport bookshops at the moment so you can pick them up almost anywhere. I hope that means many people will read them. The series starts with a history of humanity, moves to a long-range assessment of where humanity might be headed and then flips back to the present day with the last book. If I were to pick one of these books which is most valuable, it would, without doubt, be Homo Deus. The fresh thinking here about what humanity faces in the next 50, 100, 150 years is unusual, and something many more people should be thinking about. Sapiens is perhaps more entertaining, and it’s worth reading “first” as background. Homo Deus is the most original though. 21 Lessons is a little predictable in places but also has pockets of wisdom. While I don’t agree with all the author’s conclusions, there is no doubt that few of today’s societies are preparing for some radical shifts which are to come. The humanity of 2100 will be 5 or 10x more different from today than today’s humanity is from 1918.
  • Inequality: What Can Be Done?” by Anthony B. Atkinson: A succinct way to describe this book would be “the bible of economic/political solutions to inequality”. Atkinson is an extremely experienced economist. In writing, he is responding to Thomas Picketty’sCapital in the 21st Century” and walks through many of the clear (and some innovative) methods to combat inequality in the modern economy. The theories are well presented, and the book provides a thoughtful grounding in underlying economic effects driving economy: a very worthwhile read. Unfortunately reading the book led me (at least) to conclude that almost none of these solutions were likely to come about in the United States any time soon. Political solutions seem very much off the table in most cases.

Honorable mentions from the year include “Poor Economics” (Abhijit V. Banerjee, Esther Duflo) with some interesting perspectives on solutions to poverty and Hernando de Soto’s “Mystery of Capital” which digs deep in the need institutions as well as markets for economic success.

All in all, it’s heartening to see that the economic theory behind what drives inequality solidifying, even if the public media sphere seems almost completely at a loss for how to even debate such topics.

There are no straight-forward solutions, but there is a lot to be learned which can be used to make people’s lives better.

Next up… A lighter topic – 2018 SciFi books…

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

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