Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Favorite books I read in 2009

One more 2009 post and that's it, I promise.

Only one of these books actually came out in 2009, but I don't keep tabs on the hardcover world enough to justify a collection of new books. This is a slice of the books I read in the past year with an emphasis on thought provocation.

The Invisible Hook by Peter T. Leeson.

This is the one I looked forward to the most when I heard Leeson talk about his book in an interview with Russ Roberts. Leeson presents pirates in an unexpected way - intelligent, orderly men who were after profits - not violence.

Leeson, an economics professor argues convincingly than we can only understand the behavior of sea-faring pirates if we look at them through the lens of economics. Pirates had checks and balances, democracy and racial tolerance - and all before the American revolution. An intriguing book that teaches the reader about economics and pirates at the same time.

Prove It before You Promote It: How to Take the Guesswork Out of Marketing by Steve Cuno

Another combination book, Cuno teaches the reader marketing and critical thinking at the same time, and douses a lot of marketing myths along the way. I haven't read many marketing books, but after reading Cuno's book, I will feel compelled to roll my eyes whenever I heard someone claim marketing depends on creativity.

Cuno reminds the reader that point of marketing isn't to win hearts, entertain people or win awards - it's to generate sales. He offers a peak inside a marketing world where sensitive artists ignore sales goals in order to create their next masterpiece, and well-intentioned bookkeepers assume that if a marketing campaign is launched and sales increase, then it was the campaign at work and outside forces can be ignored.

From Harley Davidson to "Got Milk?" Cuno slays a lot of dragons and gives needed praise to a decades-old Wall Street Journal campaign that lacks flash, but dominates in results.

Pop Internationalism by Paul Krugman

I heard about this collection of essays from someone who used to be a Krugman fan but feels he's let political gain taint his scientific aims. They held this Clinton-era book up as an example of how informative and persuasive Krugman could be.

From my perspective, Pop Internationalism is pornography for right wing econ fans. Written by an outspoken liberal, this book trumpets the case for globalization and free trade loudly. Krugman has never been accused of being too kind to his intellectual opponents, and his treatment of Bill Clinton and his economic entourage, "common sense" economists, modern mercantilists and anti-globalizationists is a joy unto itself.

The book also includes a swan song for Lawrence Summers, who's bold criticisms of "pop internationalists" cost him a spot in the Clinton White House. Flash forward to the current day where we now have the same Lawrence Summers as
Director of the White House's National Economic Council. Although the economic policy of the Obama administration hasn't reflected the free trade world Krugman encouraged in this book, even Greg Mankiw believes Summers is too good for the administration to give up.

This book is very important for anyone who thinks they know how international trade works. Krugman gives the same lesson in different essays written for different audiences, but they are all worth reading.

Now for the biggest literary disappointment of the year.

The 5000 Year Leap: A Miracle That Changed the World by W. Cleon Skousen

I really wanted to like this book, but Skousen fought me at every turn.

I had The 5000 Year Leap presented as a history of the constitution. I thought the premise was going to be that the Founding Fathers were students of history, and looked at the failures of establishing a benevolent government as clues. They decided on a system of restrained governmental powers and the Republic it formed changed the world.

That would have been a great book, but instead I found myself reading a religious pamphlet that heavily implies that the Christian god gifted the constitution to our Founding Fathers.

Skousen's writtings drift out of bounds a few times. Pages 95 and 96 read:

"The mind, for example, will not accept the proposition that the forces of nature, churning about among themselves, would ever produce a watch, or even a lead pencil, let alone the marvelous intricacies of the human eye, the ear, or even the simplest of the organisms found in nature. All these are the product of intelligent design and high-precision engineering."

What was frustrating was that occasionally Skousen had some good points. For example, he argues that the constitution is not at risk of being outdated because the principal of limited power is eternal. We will always have human nature to grapple with. Sadly, he waters down this point by arguing against loans and debt, and for manifest destiny.

I don't pretend to know enough about our founding fathers religious lives to take a stance on Christianity's role in the founding of America. My secular influences tell me a lot of the Founding Fathers, like Thomas Paine, were deists and would probably have become atheists if exposed to Darwinian theory. Right-wing sources bring out a lot of actions and deeds from the Founding Fathers that include non-denominational support for Christianity in American government. Answering this question requires more research than my interest in the subject, so I must remain agnostic.

However, implying over and over that the constitution was a gift from God is an insult to the genius of America's founding, and I find this book to be too demeaning to the brilliance of man to respect.

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