Thursday, May 20, 2010

My greatest intellectual influences

Not too long ago Kevin "Angus" Grier and Tyler Cowen wrote about the books that influenced them the most and I feel inspired to do the same. The catch is that my generation also learns a lot from videos, podcasts and essays, so I've included them as well.

  • Politics and the English Language by George Orwell. This brilliant essay introduced me to six of the seven rules of writing I live by (the extra one was provided by a high school English teacher - put the focus of the sentence at the beginning, and not the end). In addition, Orwell mocked the blocky, obtuse writing of eggheads - something I have never stopped doing. A companion influence is The Elements of Style by William Strunk and EB White.
  • Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. A research trip to Papua New Guinea for bird physiology lead to Diamond's provocative explanation for international inequality and provides powerful examples of how innovation, trade and specialization all create wealth. I confess to never reading the book and only watching the National Geographic documentary.
  • Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. This taught me the Broken Window fallacy, and it's countless forms. Fallacies have an eternal nature and its important to recognize all their mutations. Companion influences are essays by Frédéric Bastiat; both That Which is Seen, and That Which is Unseen and the satirical Candlemakers' Petition.
  • Milton Friedman. His entire body of work is so important to me that it's hard to find a single lecture, essay, book or video to link. Hopefully this 1978 exchange does the trick. There has never been a greater champion for the rights of the individual than Friedman. He taught me that trying to save a society directly will destroy it, while empowering the common man will save the society at large.
  • Economics for Dummies by Sean Masaki Flynn. I was concerned I was learning too much of economics from libertarian sources, so I went out of my way to learn the basics from a neutral source. Flynn was the right man for the job - a Keynesian who wasn't shy to call Karl Marx discredited. Flynn reminded me that reasonable people can disagree.
  • Pop Internationalism by Paul Krugman. I'm a Krugman hipster - I like his old stuff better. David Henderson called this the best book on trade around. Krugman outlined the case for free trade and dismantled a number of economic fallacies in a short, accessible format. This is a lively book and I still enjoy thumbing through it. A companion influence is Krugman's 1997 article In Praise of Cheap Labor which nailed the moral argument in support of sweatshop labor.
  • Cornucopia: The Pace of Economic Growth in the Twentieth Century by J. Bradford DeLong. Originally, I started referencing Krugman and Delong because their status as loud left wingers made my economic points appear stronger and universal. Today I link them because they have produced some amazing work. This essay on how much wealthier we are today, and how hard it is to measure that wealth, is nothing short of astounding. It's easy enough for anyone to read, and absolutely everyone should read it.
  • The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan. The best introductory book to scientific skepticism around. Chapter 18, The Wind Makes Dust, taught me to appreciate Yankee ingenuity for what it is: people learning science the moment it becomes practical to their lives. A companion influence is the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast.
  • Seanbaby. My favorite internet comedy writer. He shaped my sense of humor and steered me towards appreciating the hokey, the kitschy and the unintentional.
  • The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich August von Hayek. This book solidly trounced the concept of central planning. However, it suffers from the strained writing style of Austrian-born Hayek. George Orwell reviewed this book, which tells us he read it. Unfortunately, Hayek couldn't read Politics and the English Language before he wrote this important book; this book predates that essay by two years.
  • The Myth of Violence by Steven Pinker. This 20 minute lecture is the ultimate answer to anyone who argues that modern society have brought about an epidemic of violence. Pinker demolishes that idea, shows its quite the opposite and makes a strong case for the peaceful effects of international trade.
  • EconTalk hosted by Russ Roberts. I found this podcast when I wanted to find out what economists think of "buy local" campaigns - and boy did I get an answer. Roberts has a constant stream of fascinating and counter-intuitive guests. When I was a kid I always saw intellectual programs as stuffy and dull. I've learned this is seldom the case, and when Roberts invites Mike Munger onto the show I know I'm in for some solid humor as well as economics.


  1. I'll definitely have to check out "The Myth of Violence." I've always argued that our world is significantly better off than before - despite the atrocities of the early 20th century (and ignoring possible environmental threats.) Robert Wright (an evolutionary psychologist) wrote a great book called "Nonzero" that also illustrated the increasing complex construct of human relations that is driving us towards interdependence and peace. It's more of an anthropological book - but fascinating, none the less.

    I wonder... do you ever find leftist works that - while maybe not completely convincing - at least leave you questioning your present economic understandings?

  2. Sean Masaki Flynn did that very strongly. The idea of subsidizing things that produce positive side effects (externalities) to encourage them is a defendable position, as well as "Pigovian taxes" to discourage things with negative side effects. This is very much an anti-free market policy, but it uses market forces.

    Because of him, I feel I understand the limitations on market-based solutions and the case for government intervention, and my libertarian influences weren't tripping over themselves to make them known. I imagine I could get the same lessons from any economics intro book, but Flynn was concise and fun.

    George Orwell, Paul Krugman, J. Brad Delong, Carl Sagan are all true blue leftists, two of them economists. I've yet to read something from any of them that truly shook my foundation. As I hinted at, modern Krugman isn't as good, and I don't think he's as good a source as he was.

    I have yet to hear a good argument for central planning or the abolishment of capitalism. I have heard many good arguments for government spending and market intervention.

  3. Economics in One Lesson is one of my favorite books.

    My own list would include Atlas Shrugged, the Anarchists Cookbook, Xenophon's Anabasis of Cyrus, David Mamet's On Directing Film, among others.