Easter reading list

April 8, 2009

Whoever is wondering what good book to take home for Easter, a book with substance but that is not a dry academic treatise, maybe a few of the following recommendations might be of interest. I am not a person who is very good at keeping up with new book publications all the time, and who finds it important to catch up with old classics and books that are a few years old. The recommendations below reflect this.

On USA, democracy, freedom

I am advocate of always revisiting old classics. One I recently really appreciated is Tocqueville’s Democracy in AmericaIn a context of crisis of US leadership in the world, “Obamamania”, and the US’ public’s reaction to the financial crisis, this book written by the eminent French aristocrat in the 1830s remains astonishingly valid. It’s a classic text available in about every language, generally in paperback. If you can read it in its original language, French, do it. The language is just beautiful and inspiring, and the book full of drama, while remaining very rigourous in the scientific research and analysis undertaken to write it. Today’s scholars should take an example to make their works more palatable to the general public. 

On an emerging economy – India

If one is to catch up with not too old books, here is one that has been on my book pile, started but unfinished, for a very long time. I came round to getting to the end while I was recently writing an article on India’s opening to the world economy. It’s Gurchararan Das’ India Unbound. It came out in 2002. Yet seven years later it remains very up to date. This is highly readable book by a former Procter & Gamble CEO turned journalist is a wonderful mix of autobiography, Indian economic history, investigative journalism, management tips, political essayism and musings on Indian culture and family values, mixed up with sprinkles of global brands. It’s really lovely, entertaining, informative and well written. Yet the reader is allowed to remain a bit sceptic on sometimes excessively enthusiastic bouts about India’s leap from peasantry to high tech by an author who has worked for probably too long in marketing.

Background to the financial crisis and G20 issues

The FT’s Martin Wolf’s last book Fixing Global Finance is a very useful read to understand the background of current debates on the international financial system, in particular the issue of global macroeconomic imbalances, China vs US. It is also a good revision of the problem of emerging market financial crises and gives explanations that help understand the current plight of Eastern European countries. Wolf is very good at making technical and complex matters easily understandable to the reader. A rather profound and very well written book, but less punchy than his previous Why Globalization Works. It came out mid 2008, just before the financial crisis burst out of control, so one is left with a little sense of dissatisfaction at some missing issues. The subprime and complex derivative regulations issue for example is missing.

Aid and Development

William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden is my favourite book on aid and why it generally fails. It’s a wonderful book . Very persuasive, well-written and contrary to what one might expect given the kind of publicity it has gotten, even from the likes of Amartya Sen, everything but superficial, sloganeering and ideological. Decades of experience (including a childhood ) in Africa, in aid agencies and in economic research lead Easterly to a scathing assessment of all the achievements of aid agencies including not only UNDP but also the World Bank, the IMF, the EU etc. He is for aid, but one that is focused and targeted, and responds to the needs and demands of the poor, not to the agendas of rich donors.

For my French friends

I am not sure I should recommend this book for a calm Easter week-end, since people concerned with France’s economic reforms might rather get depressed: Pierre Cahuc’s and Andre Zylberberg’s new Les Reformes Ratees du President Sarkozy. The book however is short and can be read quickly, so the duration of the pain can be kept short. It’s a tale by two eminent French economists of how France’s pensions, labour market, product market, services (taxi) market reform attempts were completely mishandled, badly prepared, and bogged down in a complex and intransparent process. They are leading to the contrary of their intended result: they actually entrench the grip of special interests on France’s economy. The authors call for a drastic reform of France’s democratic system: trade union law should be reformed so as to really make these groups more representative of the average French employee, and the French parliament should be given more power generally and receive real means to gain economic and technical expertise. Without such reforms France will remain hijacked by special interests in the foreseeable future. – 100% d’accord!

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