Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

The best books we read this year

Mint columnists and staffers share the books they enjoyed in 2014

Political Order and Political Decay by Francis Fukuyama

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

This is a sequel to Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order in which he traced the development of institutions of government around the world from 3000BC to the Industrial Revolution. The sequel follows on from there to events in 2014. Fukuyama’s thesis is that political order has three requirements: the rule of law, mechanisms of accountability to citizens, and a functioning state.

India today has a fair amount of the first two; not enough of the third. “A functioning state", says Fukuyama, “holds a monopoly on legitimate use of force over a defined territory." He observes, “The first and most important institution that fragile or failing states lack is an administratively capable government." India’s state is failing in its tribal heartlands and on its peripheries in the north-east and the north. Even elsewhere in India, there is rising discontent with the Indian state’s inability to provide the public services citizens want: from law and order and speedy justice, to provision of a range of public utilities.

A capable state machinery requires a professional management system that is not beholden to changing political dispensations. Fukuyama has analysed two conditions which led to the building of the state: in China 3,000 years ago, in Britain and Germany almost 200 years ago, and Japan and the US later. China is an outlier. Firstly, everywhere else, economic and social mobilization created a new “middle class" that forced state reforms. Secondly, the recognition of a “national identity" focused the state building agenda.

Fukuyama’s book provides good insights and provokes troubling questions too.

The Indian middle class is engaging with political movements to demand better performance of the state: more accountability, less corruption, and more efficiency. However, if a national identity is a precondition for a performing state, what is India’s national identity? Perhaps the recent controversies about Hindu, Bharat, and India are indications of the need to define who we are. One prays that the way in which we find out who we are will not divide us any further. It must unite us with a higher 21st century vision of India: ruled by law; with a strong state; and democratic, diverse, and inclusive, not divisive.

Arun Mairais a former member of the Planning Commission.

****

The Unloved Dollar Standard: From Bretton Woods to the Rise of China, Ronald I. McKinnon

Publisher: Oxford University Press

The editor has graciously allowed me to stretch my book selection to one published in 2013. The reason is that the author, the brilliant and iconoclastic economist Ronald McKinnon, unexpectedly and tragically passed away a few months ago after suffering a fall. I had met McKinnon at Robert Mundell’s Siena conference in July, which is when I learned of his recent work, and, in that short time, the book has profoundly shaped my own thinking on international macroeconomics and finance and, in particular, the role of the dollar.

McKinnon’s thesis, both in the book and other of his last writings, is that the US has consistently subordinated the possibility of behaving as a global central banker—and thus “internalizing" or correcting the potentially damaging effects of US monetary policy on other economies—and, instead, has chosen to focus narrowly and exclusively on what is best for the US itself. He dates this behaviour to the decision by former president Richard Nixon to close the “gold window" and thereby break the link between the dollar and gold—which, essentially, brought to an end the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates anchored to a dollar which fixed the price of gold at $35 an ounce. The end result was a breakdown of global monetary order—and a world of “managed" flexible exchange rates—a world McKinnon (as well as Mundell) considered disorderly and far from ideal.

Closer to the present, McKinnon is a sharp critic of US unconventional monetary policies—characterized by interest rates at or near zero, large scale asset purchases (“quantitative easing"), forward guidance, and the like. McKinnon’s view is that such policies have led to a flood of dollars sloshing into emerging economies in the “search for yield", leading to potentially destabilizing consequences when the money flows out in the wake of policy changes in the US. The “taper talk" crisis of May 2013 perfectly bears this out. (The inflow, of course, is also potentially destabilizing—as it may cause emerging economies to overheat and lose monetary control, as McKinnon also emphasized.)

Interestingly enough, recent pronouncements by Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan echo some of McKinnon’s critiques—in particular, where Rajan points to the potentially damaging effects of “net spillovers" from US monetary policy to emerging economies such as India.

Here as elsewhere, McKinnon is prescient, provocative, and wise.

Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist.

****

Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics by Daniel Stedman Jones

Publisher: Princeton University Press, 2012

The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the Depression by Angus Burgin

Publisher: Harvard University Press, 2012

The political scientist Sunil Khilnani had once helpfully asked me to read a book on how Keynesian ideas spread across the world after the end of World War II The volume edited by Peter Hall is titled The Political Power of Economic Ideas.

Khilnani pointed me to two more similar books over breakfast one morning in 2014. These were paradoxically on the ideas of the two economists most responsible for the decline of the Keynesian hegemony after the stagflation of the 1970s—F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman. The first book by Daniel Stedman Jones is on the birth of neoliberal politics after the election victories of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US. The second book by Angus Burgin is a history of the libertarian group called the Mont Pelerin Society.

Such an interplay between ideas and events shows that intellectuals do have an impact on the societies they live in. Both Keynes and Hayek agreed on this one issue, even though they disagreed on most other issues. The stories in these two books about the ascendence of conservative or neoliberal or free market ideas (take your pick) in recent decades shows that the two masters were more in tune with reality that modern public choice theorists who say that policy is merely hostage to special interest groups.

No intellectual battle is won permanently. It is interesting that Keynes has made a dramatic comeback after the 2008 global financial crisis. Perhaps some writer on economic ideas is already working on a book that tells us the story of this comeback.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is Executive Editor of Mint.

****

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Publisher: Metropolitan Books

There are so many stories in Atul Gawande’s book on the unfortunate tendency in modern medicine and society to look for ways to prolong the lives of the aged rather than seek to make them more meaningful, that it is impossible not to find yourself in one of them. And as you zero in on the one or the many that describe your own life or that of the elders you are taking care of, a sense of despondency is inevitable. For Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a staff writer for The New Yorker, and a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health, isn’t offering false hopes. His objective is to show that through the inevitable process of ageing and death, the goals of medical practitioners and all those in allied businesses often diverge from those of the elder they set about to treat. In itself that’s not much of an insight. Anyone caring for an older parent knows the invariable clash between the former’s search for safety and the latter’s for variety and richness. What Gawande does successfully is to show that an old man’s evident stubbornness may have a reasonable basis: just the desire to close out the last chapter in life with dignity and some of the spirit that for care-givers spells danger.

Being Mortal isn’t quite my favourite book of the year as much as it is the one that shook me most for its disturbing truths and the uncomfortable conclusion that there may be no reconciliation possible between the needs of the aged and the compulsions of the care-givers tasked with looking after them.

Sundeep Khanna is Executive Editor of Livemint.com

****

Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on it by Ian Leslie

Publisher: Basic Books

The book starts with a quote from Albert Einstein—“I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious". The author Ian Leslie, classifies curiosity into two main categories—diversive and epistemic. Diversive curiosity is the restless desire for the new and the next. The microblogging world of Twitter and the likes are examples of baits that cater to our insatiable diversive curiosity. Leslie observes that our dwindling attention span can be seen in almost all spheres—for example an average shot in Hollywood movies has shrunk from 27.9 seconds in 1953 to two seconds today. While diversive curiosity exposes us to new experiences, it becomes a waste of time and energy unless we follow it up with deeper reading or purposeful practice. The deeper, more disciplined and effortful type of curiosity is called epistemic curiosity. It represents the deepening of a simple seeking of newness into a directed attempt to build understanding. It involves hard work and sustained cognitive effort. People who are epistemically curious see life as an ongoing mystery rather than as a solvable puzzle.

The Internet, powered by search engines such as Google, supply answers to questions with ruthless efficiency. While this might close information gaps, it also forecloses curiosity that is so essential to better learning. The Kaiser foundation observes that American children now spend at least 10 hours a day with digital devices, up more than 50% since 1999. Teachers lament that students suffer from the “Wikipedia problem"—they are so used to finding answers within a few clicks that they balk at the hard work of investigating problems which don’t yield answers quickly. Studies show that in 1961 students in US colleges spent an average of 24 hours a week studying, compared to a little more than half of that time today.

Leslie challenges the “progressive" educators who argue that the natural curiosity of children is stifled by adult pedagogy. He rubbishes the claim that schools ought to prioritize “learning skills" over knowledge. Our mind stores information in 1) working memory (short-term) and 2) long-term memory. Working memory is the brain’s scratch-pad, whereas long term memory is the hidden power behind the cognitive skills and our storehouse of knowledge. This knowledge seeks out more knowledge. If new information can’t find any networks to affix itself it slides out of the clutches of working memory within about 30 seconds. In short, the more wider the net of our knowledge base, the more new information gets caught in it, and builds on our learning. The book ends with Leslie prescribing ways to tackle our curiosity deficit.

Amay Hattangadi works with Morgan Stanley Investment Management.

****

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Publisher: Penguin in India

It is always an interesting read when a practitioner writes about his profession, not the technical aspects of it but the real life situations and dilemmas that come with the job. It is refreshing when a doctor does this and writes it in a way which is accessible to people sans medical training but without having to “dumb down" the contents and it is quite unique when a doctor shows open-mindedness about questioning the tenets of his own profession. Dr Gawande wears three hats, that of a surgeon, a professor and a writer and his latest book Being Mortal is about the inadequacy of medical science to be more helpful to patients in the process of ageing and mortality. Modern medicine is a problem-solving science with a narrow focus on fixing things but is generally oblivious to the fact that there are emotions involved and choices that patients may want to exercise that aren’t congruent with the solution that medicine prescribes.

The book offers several perspectives around this central idea with a host of case studies and research references. Dr Gawande contrasts the last days of his grandfather in India, spent with an extended family, pretty much in a business as usual fashion with that of his wife’s grandmother who breathed her last in a medical facility after rounds of problem-solving attempts had totally sapped her of the will to live. The book journeys through the effects of demographic change, extended life expectations, the concept of assisted living on one’s own terms rather than with complete loss of freedom at a medical facility and even the things that doctors should do when conveying bad news to patients.

Along the way there are interesting insights such as how unlike a century ago being aged is no longer a rarity and so people are more likely to under-report their age than in the past and stirring observations such as how old age homes are more likely to doll themselves up to appeal to the middle-aged who generally decide which one to select for their parent. What’s also impressive is the breadth of literature that Dr Gawande draws from, quoting from Plato to Tolstoy and even Daniel Kahneman while being mindful of keeping the overall narrative tight. Though the book touches upon how incentives and government grants influence the direction of medical treatments, one feels that the findings from the book should influence public policy and hopes that Dr Gawande takes this to its logical conclusion. The other criticism could be that the book may not entirely resonate in countries such as India where these issues might be thought of as rich world challenges as priorities here are still about lowering infant mortality and increasing life expectancy. But that should not deter readers from enjoying a well-written book about a universally present but rarely acknowledged topic.

Swanand Kelkar works with Morgan Stanley Investment Management.

****

Seam by Tarfia Faizullah

Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press

Much of my reading in the past year has focused on Bangladesh, mainly because I was writing a book on that country’s troubled history (which was published in November). This means several good books that have come out in the past year have remained on my desk, to be read. The book I found most engaging and poignant is a slim collection of poems, called Seam, by the Bangladeshi-American poet, Tarfia Faizullah. It was published in March. She is an acclaimed poet who went in 2010 to Bangladesh to interview rape survivors, and wove her experience, interviews from the encounters, and distilled her understanding in powerful, moving poems that gave voice to the untold stories of those women. It has won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award.

Faizullah’s poetry is deceptively simple, encapsulating the pain of the experience of the young women who were ignorant of the harm that was about to come to them. (During my research I interviewed several women; most of them were between 15 and 20 in 1971, when they were raped). Their lives were scarred by that experience. Faizullah writes of a grandfather who calls her granddaughter mishti maya, or a girl of sweetness; the same girl is called kutta, or dog, by the Pakistani soldier who assaults her. In another poem, she writes: “I didn’t know my body’s worth until they came for it." And in yet another poem, she raises the central question about the identity of her country:

Are you

Muslim or Bengali, they

Asked again & again.

Both, I said, both—then

Rocks were broken along

My spine, my hair a black

Fist in their hands, pulled

Down into the river again

And again. Each day, each

Night: river, rock, fist.

The war in Bangladesh was not the first time soldiers demonstrated their power over women by sexually assaulting them; nor will it be the last. These stories, and these poems, resonate beyond wars, beyond Bangladesh, beyond faith, regardless of the girl’s, or woman’s, age, as anyone who simply glances through the headlines of our newspapers would notice, day after day—“each day, each night—river, rock, fist", as Faizullah puts it, reminding us of that harrowing reality many women face.

Salil Tripathiis a Mint columnist.

****

Microeconomics (A very short introduction) by Avinash Dixit

Publisher: Oxford University Press

They say the difference between a weatherman and a macroeconomist is that the weatherman at least knows what happened yesterday. The joke captures an essential truth—we still have a rather fuzzy understanding about how the economy truly works. The same set of data is often justified to prove diametrically opposite assertions, and predictions are routinely wayward. And yet, most of the public discourse, even in India, is around the macro aspects of the economy with little appreciation of its micro foundations. For instance, while the financial crisis of 2008 resulted in wide ranging macroeconomic ramifications such as high unemployment and fall in growth across the globe, it was the microeconomic changes—multiple market and regulatory failures—that essentially led to the recession.

In stark contrast to macroeconomics, our understanding about microeconomic principles is quite exact. Ironically, that also makes it a difficult subject for a lay reader to understand. Most standard texts are either too technical or fail to elucidate the link between cause and effect.

That is exactly why this 120-odd page edition by Avinash Dixit of Princeton University is such a standout effort. Dixit lucidly and engagingly explains the most important concepts of microeconomics using every possible device at hand, including dialogues from Coppola’s The Godfather.

Without resorting to mathematics, Dixit’s book succeeds in providing readers with frameworks that help them not only analyse everyday policies but also make connections that are often lost in political rhetoric or jargon. For instance, do policies such as rent control or tax deductions for the interest paid on home loans truly help society? Or why is it that the handful of automobile companies in India holdback from providing more facilities such as safety features on their own? Or how a weak legal system in the less developed countries, such as India, explains—via the notion of transaction costs—the preponderance of large conglomerates in the country. And how having monopolies in different sectors of the economy is actually more damaging to the economic prospects of the nation than even the financial crisis led recession.

India’s economy is at a critical juncture where the quality of public debate on economic policies will have a decisive impact on India’s fortunes. Microeconomics is must read for anyone who wishes to better understand the functioning of the economy and what ails it.

Udit Misra is Assistant Editor (Views) at Mint.

****

Intellectual Privilege: Copyright, Common Law, and the Common Good by Tom W. Bell

Publisher: Mercatus Center at George Mason University

When it comes to intellectual property (IP), there is overwhelming consensus among economists today that IP policy should aim to strike a delicate balance between incentives driving innovators and general public welfare. Support for this view emanates from another core belief widely held in the academia: in the absence of legal monopoly granted by IP laws, innovators would lack the economic incentive required to come up with new technology and inventions crucial to propelling economic growth.

Tom W. Bell, a professor at Chapman University’s Fowler school of law, questions this fundamental belief behind the enactment of various copyright statutes—most notably in the US. Bell explores the sufficient scope that the common law, with its protection of inventors’ natural right to property and contract, offers to inventors to maintain the exclusivity of their original works while not inhibiting the rights of others to compete through independent discovery of the same or similar works.

Such limited exclusivity—compared to today’s wide IP statutes—may not guarantee innovators the spectacular profits some enjoy today. But it is bound to be socially efficient and, more importantly, can help economies avoid the problem of interest group capture of IP policy to serve crony interests—something that has quite clearly led to the creation of huge monopolies that hamper innovation and growth. Bell’s book is a definite read for anybody looking for a counter to the usual case for IP.

To learn about the rich history of innovation that has spanned over many centuries in the absence of IP laws, Bell’s book may not be the best bet. For this reason, Against Intellectual Monopoly by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine would be the perfect complement to Bell’s impressive work.

Prashanth Perumal is Assistant Editor (Views) at Mint.

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