The Top 10 business and economics books of 2018

Mint cuts through the stacks of airport reading to serve up the must-read business and economics books of 2018. Lie back and enjoy

Here is a list, in no particular order, of ten best business and economics books which will be well worth your time and money.

‘Capitalism in America—A History’ by Alan Greenspan/Adam Wooldridge

Until the financial crisis of 2008 broke out, Alan Greenspan was the Rockstar of the global financial markets. After that, he came to signify all the excesses of the previous two decades.

Greenspan is 92 now, and walks with a bent back, but his mental faculties are still fine. In his latest book, Capitalism in America, co-authored with Adam Wooldridge, the political editor of The Economist, Greenspan primarily explains what made America great. As a central banker, Greenspan spoke in a language which everyone did not understand. But as a writer, he writes beautifully. This is how economic history should be written with a lot of data and stories, presented in an extremely lucid and racy way.

The book is Greenspan’s ode to creative destruction, which he thinks got America where it is today. In fact, lookout for the portion where the authors discuss how General Motors beat Ford, over the years. This one example tells us what made America great, and what is currently holding it back.

‘Factfulness—Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think’ by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund

Hans Rosling was a Swedish doctor and a professor of health, who built a global following through his extremely innovative and entertaining presentations at TED conferences. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2017.

Factfulness, which Rosling co-authored along with his son and daughter-in-law, is essentially a continuation of the core message of his TED presentations; the world is a much better place than most humans feel it is.

This tendency of overall negativity comes from looking at the world in a binary fashion. As the Roslings write, there is “a basic urge to divide things in two distinct groups, with nothing but an empty gap in between". “We love the dichotomize. Good versus bad. Heroes versus villains. My country versus the rest."

The Roslings offer a whole host of publicly available data to show that the world is improving on most parameters, from health to education to population. It’s just that change in many cases is low and takes decades.

The book is an excellent read for data journalists. It shows how to present data in an interesting way, without losing the overall perspective.

‘Truth—How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality’ by Hector Macdonald

In 2018, many books on fake news were published. Hector Macdonald’s Truth goes beyond that and tries to look into a much deeper question; is there anything like truth out there or does everyone have their own version of it? (as a famous Hindi film dialogue from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara goes).

The former American president Barack Obama was once criticized for saying that terrorism cost fewer lives in America than bathtubs. Turns out he was right. As Macdonald writes: “According to the National Safety Council, 464 people drowned in American baths in 2013; 1,810 drowned in natural water… and more than 30,000 died by falling. That same year, just three people were killed in America by Islamic terrorists." MacDonald offers many such examples of how things really change once we try and dig a little deeper. Look out for the example on Chinese suicides.

The book is an excellent lesson on how to use and read numbers correctly. Of all the books I read this year, this book was by far the most original of the lot.

‘21 Lessons in the 21st Century’ by Yuval Noah Harari

This is not an out and out book on business or economics, but it has some interesting lessons on the future of business and economics, which is why it is a part of this list.

Yuval Noah Harari has achieved great fame with his last two books Sapiens and Homo Deus. A key idea that Harari discusses in these books is the rise of robots and artificial intelligence, and how they will take over human jobs.

In 21 Lessons in the 21st Century discusses the basic problems with the idea of robots taking over human jobs. As he writes: “If unemployed masses command no economic assets, it is hard to see how they could ever hope to obtain… luxuries." The point being that if the robots takeover human jobs, and human being don’t earn enough money, how will they ever get around to buying all that will be produced by the robots. Harari discusses this and many such issues.

As a standalone, the book is a decent read. But if you have read Harari’s previous two books, you will find a lot of repetition.

‘The Growth Delusion’ by David Pilling

Over the last few years, the Indian Gross Domestic Product(GDP) has been a subject of discussion even on family WhatsApp groups. Nevertheless, the question is should GDP be given as much importance as it is. David Pilling tries to answer this question in The Growth Delusion.

In fact, the GDP was a product of the Great Depression of 1929. The American economist Simon Kuznets is considered to be the father of the concept. Interestingly, Kuznets was working towards something that would measure economic welfare. What the world got instead was a measure which was a crude summation of all economic activity.

A must read for everyone having that argument on the Indian GDP on their family WhatsApp group.

‘Bad Blood—Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup’ by John Carreyrou

Michael Lewis invented an entire genre of a non-fiction financial thriller by writing Liar’s Poker. The genre is still alive and kicking.

In 2018, the best book in this genre was John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood, even winning the Financial Times-McKinsey Book Award.

The book chronicles the rise and the fall of a start-up called Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes. Holmes was titled the female Steve Jobs, having dropped out of Stanford.

In fact, Holmes was in love with Jobs herself, to the extent of even dressing like him. After his death, she is said to have even lifted Jobs’ management tactics from Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography on the Apple founder.

With Theranos she wanted to do away with the hypodermic needle, through a machine, which, with a simple pinprick and drawing a few drops of blood could be used to perform a whole range of blood tests.

On this premise Homes raised a lot of money from big investors including Oracle’s Larry Ellison. The problem was that the technology did not work.

Carreyrou, a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, started asking some tough questions. These questions ultimately led to the fall of the company. Carreyrou spoke to nearly 150 people to write the book. This research is visible in the way Carreyrou puts together the story of Theranos’ fall.

If you are the kind who would like to know what crazy things a start-up can do to keep itself going, this is the book for you. The book is also an excellent lesson in how investors give huge valuations to companies with negative cash flows and burn their fingers in the process. This is capitalism at its very best, the good, the bad and the very ugly.

‘Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World’ by Adam Tooze

Some of the best books on an economic event are written years later. In fact, one of the best books on the Great Depression of 1929, The Great Crash 1929 written by John Galbraith, was published a quarter century later.

Adam Tooze’s Crashed has come in 10 years after the financial crisis of 2008 broke out. There are many things going for the book. One that it has been written by an economic historian and not an economist, and hence, is extremely lucid and readable. Two, ten years later, whatever happened is now in the past, and has helped the writer separate the wheat from the chaff. Third, it doesn’t stop at the financial crisis of 2008, but deals with all that has happened since then including, the Greek crisis, the crises in other parts of Europe, the taper tantrum, Brexit and even the phenomenon of Donald Trump.

If you still haven’t gotten around to reading about what caused the financial crisis of 2008 and how and why the world is still dealing with it, this is the book to read.

‘The People V/s Democracy—Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It’ by Yascha Mounk

If there are only two books you can read this year, this has to be one. The other being Factfulness. Yascha Mounk works at the Harvard University. In this book he tries to explain why liberal democracies are going through of crisis. He also explains the rise of nationalism and nationalistic leaders. Further, he indulges some magnificent Trump bashing. The most significant section of the book is where Mounk explains why voters fall for simplistic solutions to problems, offered by nationalistic leaders, and in turn, vote for them. As he writes: “Glib, facile solutions stand at the very heart of the populist appeal. Voters do not like to think that the world is complicated. They certainly do not like to be told that there is no immediate answer to their problems." Does that have a whiff of acche din aane waale hain?

Where the book falters a little is towards the end, where it tries a little too hard in offering solutions to how to keep liberal democracy going.

‘The Myth of Capitalism—Monopolies and the Death of Competition’ by Jonathan Tepper and Denise Hearn

In 2003, Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales wrote a very important book titled Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists. The Myth of Capitalism is a sort of a 2018 sequel to that book. In this book, Jonathan Tepper and Denise Hearn tell us that the capitalists have already taken over the United States and the large parts of the Western world, and destroyed competition in the process. The examples offered in the book are: 1) Two corporations control 90% of the American beer market. 2) Four airlines control the airline traffic. 3) Five banks control half of the American banking assets. 4) Google dominates 90% of the internet searches. 5) Facebook has nearly 80% of the share of the social networks.

There are many more examples, which tell us that over the last few decades, the regulators and the governments, have been asleep at the wheel, or for certain considerations, they have simply looked the other way, and allowed capitalists to takeover.

‘Bullshit Jobs—A Theory’ by David Graeber

If you work for a corporate, and question yourself every day, as to why you are still holding on to that job, then its best to stay away from David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs. It will make you hate your job even more.

Graeber lists out five kinds of bullshit jobs. 1) Flunkies—jobs that are around to make someone else feel important. 2) Goons—a term used in reference to lobbyists, PR specialists, telemarketers and corporate lawyers. Like goons they have negative effect on the society. 3) Duct tapers—employees who are there in the organization to solve a problem, which should not exist in the first place. 4) Box tickers—employees who exist to allow a firm to be able to claim that it is doing something, when it’s not. 5) Taskmasters—those who assign work to others. If your job falls in any of the five categories, it is a bullshit job. So, if you really want to spend the last ten days of the year, brooding, about how life has come to this, this is the book to read.

(Vivek Kaul is author of the Easy Money trilogy).

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