Tom Jackson asked me for a couple of best books for his year end column. I don’t read as many books as Tyler so consider these some favorite social science books that I read in 2013.
In The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, Tim Harford brings his genius for storytelling and the explanation of complex ideas to macroeconomics. Most of the popular economics books, like The Armchair Economist, Freakonomics, Predictably Irrational and Harford’s earlier book The Undercover Economist, focus on microeconomics; markets, incentives, consumer and firm choices and so forth. Strikes Back is that much rarer beast, a popular guide to understanding inflation, unemployment, growth and economic crises and it succeeds brilliantly. Mixing in wonderful stories of economists with exciting lives (yes, there have been a few!) with very clear explanations of theories and policies makes Strike Back both entertaining and enlightening.
Stuart Banner’s American Property is a book about property law, which sounds like an awfully dull topic. In the hands of Banner, however, it is a fascinating history of what we can own, how we can own it and why we can own it. Answers to these questions have changed as judges and lawmakers have grappled with new technologies and ways of life. Who owns fame? Was there a right to own one’s own image? Benjamin Franklin, whose face was used to hawk many products, would have scoffed at the idea but after the invention of photography and the onset of what would later be called the paparazzi thoughts began to change. In the early 1990s, Vanna White was awarded $403,000 because a robot pictured in a Samsung advertisement turning letters was reminiscent of her image on the Wheel of Fortune. American Property is a great read by a deep scholar who writes with flair and without jargon.
On June 3, 1980, shortly after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. president’s national security adviser was woken at 2:30 am and told that Soviet submarines had launched 220 missiles at the United States. Shortly thereafter he was called again and told that 2,200 land missiles had also been launched. Bomber crews ran to their planes and started their engines, missile crews opened their safes, the Pacific airborne command post took off to coordinate a counter-attack. Only when radar failed to reveal an imminent attack was it realized that this was a false alarm. Astoundingly, the message NORAD used to test their systems was a warning of a missile attack with only the numbers of missiles set to zero. A faulty computer chip had inserted 2’s instead of zeroes. We were nearly brought to Armageddon by a glitch. If that were the only revelation in Eric Schlosser’s frightening Command and Control it would be of vital importance but in fact that story of near disaster occupies just one page of this 632 page book. The truth is that there have been hundreds of near disasters and nuclear war glitches. Indeed, there have been so many covered-up accidents that it’s clear that the US government has come much closer to detonating a nuclear weapon and killing US civilians than the Russians ever did. Thankfully, we have reduced our stockpile of nuclear weapons in recent years but, as in so many other areas, we are also more subject to computers and their vulnerabilities as we make decisions at a faster, sometimes superhuman, pace. Command and control, Schlosser warns us, is an illusion. We are one black swan from a great disaster and if this is true about the US handling of nuclear weapons how much more fearful should we be of the nuclear weapons held by North Korea, Pakistan or India?