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Summer reading guide from The Conversation’s economists

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Challenging, inspiring and funny: a handful of our economics writers share the favourite books they read this year.

Rodney Maddock, Adjunct Professor of Economics, Monash University

W.W. Norton & Company

The Courage to Act by Ben Bernanke

Ben Bernanke’s The Courage to Act gives a wonderful insight into the problems he faced in trying to deal with the crisis, around legislative restrictions, and blame shifting amongst the various regulators.

Penguin Random House

Doing Good Better by William MacAskill

William MacAskill’s Doing Good Better is a great read about the problems with international charities and on ways in which we can do better in providing assistance.

Penguin Random House

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last was my best novel of the year: she is simply a wonderful writer and this one extrapolates ideas about how a prison might be run for profit, posing a possible end state of privatisation.

Echo Publishing

Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic

Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay is the perfect holiday detective story set; perfect for aeroplanes or the beach.

Janine Dixon, Senior Research Fellow, Victoria University

Niche Press

Creating Cities by Marcus Westbury

Marcus Westbury, founder of Renew Newcastle, identified a problem and set about trying to fix it. An economist would hardly credit the idea that the main street in the CBD of a major Australian town could lie mostly empty, while at the same time property owners were declining genuine offers of business. Without being an economics textbook, Creating Cities gives us insight into the market incentives that lead to this sub-optimal allocation of resources. The book takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the process of renewal of an urban centre. Westbury describes the failure of large, centrally-led projects (think monorail) to revive Newcastle, and the surprising success of individuals and small enterprises in breathing life into the once empty shopfronts.

Melbourne University Publishing

City Limits by Jane-Frances Kelly and Paul Donegan

“A higher proportion of Australians live in cities than almost any other country, and most of our national wealth is generated in them.” There is no question that well-functioning cities are a great enabler of economic activity and provide residents with a high standard of living. However, in cities a diverse range of individuals and agencies operate and respond to incentives which are not always in the interests of the greater good. This book gives detailed and informative descriptions of the state of many Australian cities, and explores the many challenges faced by city planners, residents and businesses alike.

Allen & Unwin

The Economics of Just About Everything by Andrew Leigh

I’ve been lucky enough to hear Andrew Leigh speak on a couple of occasions and he tells a great yarn. His message is clear – economics is about incentives – and he illustrates his point over and over with interesting data and stories to go with it. He dispels the myth that economists are only interested in money. I’ve got this one for my 14-year-old nephew for Christmas this year.

Stephen King, Professor, Department of Economics, Monash University

Federation Press

From Protection to Competition by Kerrie Round and Martin Shanahan

I reviewed this book for an international competition law journal earlier this year. It is a great little book that provides a history of Australia’s attitudes to competition and our competition laws from 1788 to 1974 (the end date is when our current competition laws were introduced). It is a comprehensive work of economic history and also a great “story”. It is easy to forget that for most of Australia’s history businesses happily and legally formed cartels to prevent “undesirable” competition and to harm consumers. It is also interesting to see government responses (e.g. having government owned businesses to try and increase competition - they usually failed). It is a gem that I referenced in my most recent article on The Conversation.

Deborah Ralston, Professor of Finance, Monash University

Melbourne University Publishing

Advanced Australia by Mark Butler

Much of my research over recent years has been on post-retirement and I think this book is a really accessible discussion of the issues involved. Although a sitting member, Butler seems to take a pretty balanced view of how the ageing population is impacting on the economy. His track record as Minister for Mental Health and Aged Care through a period of considerable reform to aged care gives him a fairly authoritative point of view. I really enjoyed his speech on this topic to the National Press Club recently.

Ross Guest, Professor of Economics, Griffith University

Cengage Learning

Real-world Economic Policy by Jan Libich

This is the best book for me this year. Succinct contributions on a range of topical themes from economists from various fields and persuasions.

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW Australia

Crown Business

Zero to One by Peter Thiel

Paypal founder and noted venture capitalist Peter Thiel discusses how monopoly is essential for innovation, not the terrible thing economists have always told you.

Penguin Random House

Destiny and Power by Jon Meacham

Biography of George Herbert Walker Bush (aka Bush 41).

Simon & Schuster

Crippled America by Donald Trump

Just because…

Penguin Random House

America’s Bank by Roger Lowenstein

How challenging it was to create the US Federal Reserve system.

Catherine de Fontenay, Associate Professor, Melbourne Business School


Poor Economics by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo

In the last decade, development economics has undergone a revolution, led primarily by Esther Duflo, an intense young Frenchwoman who is a professor at MIT. The new approach emphasises using randomised control trials (similarly to medicine) to test the efficacy of different policies, and to build a more accurate picture of the economic challenges of the bottom billion (the poorest billion people on earth). The insights garnered are simply amazing, and will lead to changes in policy that will have a profound effect on the condition of the poor for many decades.

Tim Harcourt, J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics, UNSW Australia

Princeton University Press

Why Australia Prospered by Ian McLean

Ian McLean turns economic history conventional wisdom on its head in this thought provoking book.

Crown Publishing Group

Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Why did the USA succeed while Mexico struggled? Same with Argentina or Australia or Botswana and Sierra Leone? The role of institutions matters. A country needs well defined property rights and democratic rights to succeed.

Simon & Schuster

Korea: The Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor

How South Korea went from one of the world’s poorer nations to an OECD nation in five decades.

Penguin Books Australia

Australia’s Second Chance by George Megalogenis

Even better than his first book. Megalogenis looks at the role of immigration in Australian economic development.

Penguin Books Australia

The Story of Australia’s People by Geoffrey Blainey

Australia is 50,000 years old, not 230, and Geoffrey Blainey tells us why. Amazing stories of indigenous history and innovation.

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