Thought-provoking Reads 2017

Happy New Year! In honor of the season and my new blog, I’ve selected a few (non-fiction books) books among the 80+ I read/listened to in 2017 that stayed with me through the year and in some way made me think. Many of you may have heard me wax on about a few of these.

It was tough to pick. The list is heavily skewed by my attempt to find tools to better understand the evolving policy agenda of Trump’s America. I also read a lot ahead of and during my trips to Australia, Italy (Puglia) and Romania, though only one book directly linked to those made the final cut.

Honorable mentions to Judith Flanders’ Christmas: A Biography, which highlights how Christmas almost always was more a secular than religious holiday and one where commercial interests were quick to define tradition. Dani Rodrik’s Straight Talk on Trade, and Ray Hartley’s Ramaphosa: the Man who Would be King, which were part of my unfinished holiday reading. They respectively are key guides to assess upcoming trade negotiations and reviews that will punctuate 2018 and useful background for the continued fight over South Africa’s leadership and institutions.    But those are a matter for 2018.

In no particular order:

A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy Justin V Hastings (2016).
This was the most compelling of the many books I turned to when I needed to get up to speed quickly on North Korea’s economy, its trade with China, Russia and others and the impact of sanctions. Hastings deconstructs internal and cross border trade including the development of hybrid (public and private) shell companies used across the DPRK-China border. A good read to understand the varied interests in China as sanctions are set to deepen.

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency (2017) by Chris Whipple.
With 2017 being a year of much tumult in the White House and general understaffing in the federal government, Whipple’s book, one of two on chiefs of staff was a useful guide. He combs through a half century of U.S. political history to talk about the evolution of the chief of staff role and how administrations floundered when the gatekeeper role was weakened o circumvented. The discussions bringing together reflections of past chiefs to inform their successors were particularly strong – and welcome in today’s partisan air.

Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas  Daniel Drezner (2017)

Dan Drezner deconstructs many key institutions in “think tank land”, a complicated set of policy bodies, mostly in the U.S of which he (and increasingly I, am a part. These bodies are one of several providing institutional memory in the U.S. policy arena – all the more so given understaffing in key departments. Given the challenges of funding and mandates, the book is a key read and highlights some areas of caution.

Capitalism Without Capital : The Rise of the Intangible Economy Johnathan Haskell and Stian Westlake (2017)
Over the last few years we economists have spent a lot of ink assessing why fixed investment has been so weak, intangible investment (in branding, internal processes and R&D have been a regular explanation. Haskell and Westlake pull together extensive academic and policy work on intangible investment. It’s a rare economic book that very clearly describes economic theory for non-economists.  Worth a read for anyone trying to understand providing some explanations for low productivity, My homework for next year will include trying to extend some of its charts to countries in the emerging world.

The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency that Changed the World Sharon Weinberger (2017)

This book filled key gaps in my understanding of DARPA (long one of the Pentagon’s Research bodies)  – which I knew only as an institution I was only vaguely  – because of its role in sponsoring the projects that developed the internet, drones and other military equipment, as well as attempts to seed similar institutions in energy and intelligence (ARPA-E and IARPA). This book rectifies this neglect. Weinberger’s book suggests that some of the successes reflect benign neglect of key research priorities, alignment with key foreign policy goals (rather than narrow technical ones) and highlights the cases of over-reach (use of counter-insurgency techniques, especially in South Asia) At heart this is a story of evolving institutions, and highlight the challenges of changing mandates.

Curry: A Tale of cooks and Conquerors. Lizzie Collingham This book uses food  to tell Indian history, especially interactions with the Colonial European powers. An interesting if external take on South Asian history. Don’t read while hungry.

Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the rules of Race Anthony Christian Ocampo (2017). Ocampo’s book takes as its subject Filipino immigrants and their sympathies with Latino communities they have often intermingled with – with Catholicism, and family networks. A good Input into the diversity of Asian immigrant communities.  The book could have benefited from a bit more editing to summarize some of the academic claims.

Out of the Flames: The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar, a Fatal Heresy, and one of the Rarest books in the World (2002) Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone

My pilgrimage to Romania gave me the push to finally read this book which had long been languishing on to read list and it was well worth the wait. The book is required reading ahead of a Transylvanian pilgrimage, but also an amazing account of reformation history across central Europe. Beyond its tale of continual pushing of religious boundaries, it also details some early breakthoughs in biology. The tale of the book’s creation, the religious and political challenges it provoked and its eventual reappearance is a great read of literary detective work.

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