I was biking to work at our 5th and K location one morning when I saw the telltale signs of an eviction right around the corner from the store: the pile of furniture and personal effects disgorged on a sidewalk less than a block away from the store, with armed, flak-jacketed US Marshals standing nearby. That morning, still shaken by the sight, I pulled a copy of Matthew Desmond’s newly arrived book off the shelf. Desmond transforms what could have been a thinly topical current affairs book into a masterwork of reportage with the depth of an anthropological study. As the book shifts between the narratives of the landlords and their tenants, Desmond maintains profound empathy for all the individuals he portrays; yet he also undergirds these narratives with a flinty contempt for the ways in which structural inequality keep so many in precarious housing situations.
A recent article in the Guardian about the U.K.’s economy, titled “Austerity effect hits women twice as hard as it does men”, explained that austerity measures there have disproportionately affected women. After reading that piece, when I came across Katrine Marcal’s book it presented itself as a required read. Did you know that today almost 60% of American women are in the workforce but they still hold less than 15% of top jobs and 62% of minimum-wage jobs? Marcal introduces these startling statistics in the preface, and immediately in chapter one starts challenging the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, and his “economic man”, the idea that our actions are motivated by self-interest. She criticizes his exclusion of unpaid and caregiving work from economic modeling, an oversight that persists even today. This fast-paced and entertaining book illustrates how economic models work using examples from Russia, China, the U.S., and even Dubai; she even uses comparisons with Robinson Crusoe, Goethe’s Faustus and David Bowie to teach us about economics. Oh, and spoiler alert… it was his mother.
If you are at all curious about Economics, when it works and when it fails us, and how it needs to be practiced, then the next book on your reading list should definitely be Economics Rules, by prize-winning economist Dani Rodrik. From Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” to modern day economic theories, Rodrik gives us a guide to better understand the power and limitations of a social science that affects every aspect of our lives. He evangelizes for the practical utility of economics: his main premise is that there are abundant, simple economic models that could be applied to different public problems, from combating disruptions in the global economy, to financing public transport, to fighting poverty. On the other hand, he is well aware that economics often fails us, and through analysis and examples shows us why economists sometimes don’t get it right. And no, this book is not intended only for those with the background in economics; it is written in a way that is approachable, funny and interesting. You can enjoy it and learn from it even if you’ve never heard about Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, or John Maynard Keynes before.