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Gift Books for Econ Lovers

Understanding economists and joining their conversations

    Typical of “life” at the University of Chicago, at .the end of academic quarters, students will approach me with: “I love economics, what else can I read?” Or, “What book would you recommend for my parents? With the holidays as well as cold, dark days approaching, here are some suggestions for airplane reading, curling up in front of a fire, or gift-giving.
   Ignoring textbooks, which in the early years meant either Paul Samuelson’s or Campbell McConnell’s simply entitled tomes Economics and “7-Steps to Jump-Starting Your Career” business books, which are dreadful as a genre, the “popular economics” field is just about 50 years old. A chunk of the public cut its teeth on John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society (1957). Then along came Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (1962) and, with wife Rose, Free to Choose (1980). But that was about it for economics flair or fare in the 20th century.
   While some economists have attempted to put their toes into mass-market waters, the 21st century floodgates seemed to open five years ago with the surprising bestseller Freakonomics by economist (and University of Chicago colleague) Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner. “Volume II,” or SuperFreakonomics, debuted in 2010. But what others are “out there” and a worthwhile expenditure of a few dollars and hours?

The Economic Crisis
   To learn more about the 2007-2010 economic crises, three recommendations: In Fed We Trust by David Wessel; Crisis Economics by Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm; and Fault Lines by Raghuram Rajan. And Justin Fox’s The Myth of the Rational Market injects psychological factors (aka behavioral finance) into failures in our financial markets.
   For somewhat playful romps through those same mine fields, you can complete your “Market Madness” tournament brackets in a game I developed last year: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AEA/Annual_Meeting/market_madness_2010.html. Even more entertaining is the five-minute YouTube Hayek v. Keynes rap video.

   With regard to globalization, international trade and economic growth, here are the best of a good bunch (and also support for the old adage that if  you laid all economists end to end they’d never reach a conclusion): Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales, Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists; Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms, Jagdish Bhagwati, In Defense of Globalization; David Warsh, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations; Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty; William Easterly, The White Man’s Burden; Joseph Stiglitz, Making Globalization Work; and Benjamin Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth.

Behavioral Economics
   The intersection of economics and psychology—“behavioral economics”—is currently a hot field. Contributions worth reading: Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely and Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. In that same vein, Michael Shermer’s The Mind of the Market offers a taste of neuroeconomics, the latest research frontier.

Economists Just Want to Have Fun
   In the wake of Freakonomics’ (financial) successes, wannabes cleaned out their file cabinets and produced some enjoyable and insightful (or inciteful) volumes: Robert Franks’ The Economic Naturalist; Steven Landburg’s The Armchair Economist and More Sex is Safer Sex; Diane Coyle’s Sex, Drugs and Economics; The Undercover Economist and The Logic of Life by Tim Harford; Tyler Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist; and Parentonomics by Joshua Gans.
   Extending this playful side, economists have also ventured into the realm of fiction. No mistaking them for Agatha Christie; nevertheless, these aren’t bad: the ‘Marshall Jevons’ volumes, Murder at the Margin, The Fatal Equilibrium and A Deadly Indifference; three by Russell Roberts, The Choice, The Invisible Heart, and The Price of Everything; and two by Michael Walden and M.E. Whitman Walden, Micro Mayhem and Micro Mischief.

Odds and Ends
    A miscellaneous, catch-all section would have to include: Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan; John Siegfried’s Better Living through Economics; Michael Watts’ The Literary Book of Economics; Robert Nelson’s Economics as Religion; Burton Malkiel’s A Random Walk Down Wall Street; Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff’s Thinking Strategically; The Hesitant Hand by Steven Medema; and Partha Dasgupta’s Economics, A Very Short Introduction.
   Finally, in keeping with 21st Century modes of communication, there are a number of blogs to bookmark. The ones most perused regularly by professional economists: N. Gregory Mankiw, http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/; J. Bradford DeLong, http://delong.vox.com/; Paul Krugman, http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/; Freakonomics, http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/; Gary Becker and Richard Posner, http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/; Tyler Cowen, http://www.marginalrevolution.com/; and, Mark Thoma, http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/.
    Of course, one should never forget where economics began: Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. And remember: test on Thursday!

Published: December 09, 2010
Issue: 2010 Philanthropy Issue


A wonderful one
Thanks a lot! That's what all the students need!
Imil Nurutdinov, Dec-09-2010
Who's a Wannabe?
You inexplicably include Steve Landsburg (PhD '79) as a Steve Levitt "wannabe," while in fact "The Armchair Economist" was published in 1993, at which time Steve Levitt was still in graduate school.
Adam, Dec-09-2010
Just bought "The Mind of the Market" for $6 in Like New condition off Amazon... thanks Mr. Sanderson & Mr. Mankiw!
Wimivo, Dec-09-2010
Great list
But: "The Armchair Economist" is really the first popular and fun book describing the economist as a sort of Sherlock Holmes. If anything it was probably a little too far ahead of its time. I think Coyle's "The Soulful Science: what economists really do and why it matters" as a better choice (for budding economists anyway) than her "Sex" book. And Adam Smith's "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" is actually a better fit with the behavioral theme, and arguably even greater than the "Wealth of Nations". Eamonn Butler's Primer on Adam Smith is short and wonderful though not a fun book.
Paul Johnson, Dec-12-2010
On Levitt predecessors
And before Landsburg was the book that got me into economics: Abortion, Baseball and Weed by Doug North and Roger Miller. I read it for a book report in a high school economics course.
Jeff Smith, Dec-12-2010
What of Turgot and Hume?
Wealth of Nations is of course a great book. But to say it is where economics started seems inaccurate. What about David Hume's Essays Moral and Political presages nearly all Smith's arguments on trade and the usefulness of merchants. And what about Turgot
Will, Dec-13-2010
Smith and Coase should rank at the top list
Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and Ronald Coase's The Firm, the Market, and the Law are two most important books in economics. The next three are Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom, Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Freedom, and John Maynard Keynes's General Theory
DXG, Dec-13-2010
Hayek's book should be The Road to Serfdom, not Freedom, a mistake of mine in the above post.
DXG, Dec-13-2010
Another Sanderson Op-Ed Masterpiece
This article is more boring than one of your entry-level economics lectures. Even the ones sprinkled with your half-baked recycled jokes.
EKON@UofC, Dec-20-2010
Richard Cantillon
Read Richard Cantillon's essay to see how little progress economics has made in the past 300 years: http://mises.org/resources/5773/An-Essay-on-Economic-Theory
Roger McKinney, Dec-27-2010