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Ten books from 2020 you must not miss

(From left) Economist Tim Harford; former RBI governor Urjit Patel; and Maruti Suzuki chairman R.C. BhargavaPremium
(From left) Economist Tim Harford; former RBI governor Urjit Patel; and Maruti Suzuki chairman R.C. Bhargava

  • The pandemic has put paid to airport reading, but there’s always Mint’s listing of top business and economy books
  • It’s tough to make predictions. But Mauro F. Guillén’s 2030 uses insights, data and research from different subjects in making predictions about how the world will look 10 years from now

This has been a difficult year. But even in difficult times, books can often come to the rescue. So, here is a list, in no particular order, of the best business and economy books to make sense of these incredible times. Lie back and enjoy.

Brand New Nation: Capitalist Dreams and Nationalist Designs in Twenty-First Century India

Ravinder Kaur

This was by far the most original book I read this year. Kaur, who is an academic at the University of Copenhagen, makes the contention that in the twenty-first century, nation branding has increasingly been replacing nation building. As she writes: “What is dubbed a growth story in policy-business circles is essentially an enchanting fairy tale of capitalist dreamworlds, a fairy-tale blueprint of economic reforms along with calls for a strong political leader to implement it."

The book goes on to reveal how “twenty-first century capitalism and cultures of hypernationalism are fully locked in embrace" and businessmen love this national structure simply because “capital has always rooted for strong, decisive leaders and centralized governance that can ensure its swift mobility and put the nation’s resources at the disposal of investors." This book needs to be read by any and every serious student of the Indian economy. The trouble is that the publisher Stanford University Press doesn’t have a reasonably-priced Indian edition.

2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything

Mauro F. Guillén

Economists typically do not like to forecast, simply because they get it wrong. As the old joke goes, economists have predicted nine out of the last five recessions. What makes 2030 work is the fact that the book is full of predictions about how the world will change in the next 10 years. Unlike many other economists, Guillén casts a broad net, uses insights, data and research from different subjects in making these predictions. Also, he tackles very thorny issues from why immigration is important to why the world has more toilets than cellphones.

For Indians reading this very global book, the key takeaway is around China’s one-child policy and the great Indian middle class dream of the government controlling the country’s population. Guillén offers the Chinese example and tells us that in 1979 when China adopted the one-child policy, its fertility had already been falling dramatically since the mid-1960s. As he writes: “Most of the decrease [was] driven by the same factors as in other parts of the world: urbanization, women’s education and labour force participation."

Overdraft: Saving the Indian Saver

Urjit Patel

Patel, who was the governor of the Reserve Bank of India between September 2016 to December 2018, lays out everything that is wrong with Indian banking. The trouble: He does it in a language which the general junta cannot easily understand. This leads to the question, why would you do so, when the subtitle of the book talks about saving the Indian saver.

Despite this fundamental problem with the book, Patel makes very important points. The basic problem with the banking system is what Patel calls banking sector fiscalization or the government’s constant need to fiddle with the banking sector because it wants to drive up economic growth. This is something that has continued post 2008 and well into 2020. And it makes Patel angry. He offers solutions to tackle the problem but ends the book on a very bleak note saying nothing is going to happen.

It’s so well put in the very first paragraph, where Patel writes: “I have been in the news; while it lasted, the contretemps made good theatre. It ended when I stepped down. The theatre of eminences has been going on for centuries and will continue for many more; eventually, everyone is forgotten." Clearly, this book will not be forgotten in a hurry.

The Psychology of Money

Morgan Housel

Personal finance is a subject which is made complicated by people selling personal finance products along with those regularly writing on it. Housel does exactly the opposite: serving up wisdom in very simple English.

The key message behind this book is that we should save for the sake of saving. While this might sound very simple, it is not. Most people like to save with a goal in mind. Save for a holiday. Save for education. Save for a wedding and so on. But only when you save for the sake of saving are you in a position to make the decisions you want to make in life and not have to accept the decisions that life forces upon you.

As Housel puts it: “Only saving for a specific goal makes sense in a predictable world. But ours isn’t. Saving is a hedge against life’s inevitable ability to surprise the hell out of you at the worst possible moment." This is something which became very obvious this year as the pandemic spread.

Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing

Jacob Goldstein

The history of money has been one of the most well-explored subjects over the years, with a number of books having been written on it. What makes Goldstein’s book different is the fact that unlike many other books which get lost in the details, this book doesn’t miss the wood for the trees. Hence, if you are the kind who wants to read about the basic history behind how money and the financial system have evolved over the centuries, this is the book you should be reading.

The chapter on how paper money started and spread in China much before it reached Europe is particularly interesting. Of course, this shouldn’t be surprising given that the basic ingredients needed to make paper (money, paper, printing and ink) were all invented in China. Another chapter on how the world was forced off the gold standard also makes for a riveting read. The book will end up giving the reader some context of the massive amount of money currently being printed by central banks all over the world.

How Innovation Works

Matt Ridley

Very few writers have the ability to weave sensible narratives covering subjects as different as biology and physics with economics and business. Matt Ridley is one such writer. The fundamental point that a reader can take away from this book is that no innovation is the work of just one man, sitting, thinking and experimenting away in his workshop or laboratory. This goes totally against what one is taught in school, where James Watt is the inventor of the steam engine and Thomas Alva Edison is the inventor of the electric bulb.

As Ridley’s book tells us, that is not totally true.

One of the most interesting portions of the book is where Ridley talks about the agricultural revolution of the 1960s and the 1970s across large parts of the world, including India and Pakistan. (On a very different note, it might also give you some background on the current protest being carried out by farmers outside Delhi). Believe it or not, the agricultural revolution all started in Japan, from where it spread across the world.

How to Make the World Add Up: Ten Rules for Thinking Differently About Numbers

Tim Harford

Tim Harford is one of the few writers who over the years has tried to make economics accessible to a general reader. Hence, not surprisingly, he continues to do so in this book with numbers. While there is a lot of gyan on how to read numbers and how not to, the part of the book I found most fascinating was around propaganda.

As Harford explains, modern propaganda was started by the tobacco companies in the United States in the 1950s when new research showing that tobacco was injurious to health first started to be published.

As he writes: “They muddied the waters. They questioned the existing research; they called for more research; they funded research into other things they might persuade the media to get excited about things such as sick building syndrome or mad cow disease. They manufactured doubt. A secret industry memo later reminded insiders that ‘doubt is our product’." If this sounds familiar, it is primarily because many governments across the world are currently following this model.

The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and How to Build a Better Economy

Stephanie Kelton

Over the years, a small section of economists have started to believe that printing of money by governments, under certain conditions, cannot be a bad thing. In fact, they believe it is a good thing. This subject under economics is referred to as modern monetary theory (MMT) and has been finding some takers since the financial crisis of 2008.

This is perhaps the first book which explains MMT to a general audience in a very simple way. The fact that it was published in June 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, makes it even more important. Western central banks have been printing money big time to drive down interest rates as well as help their governments spend more money.

Will this lead to high inflation? How will it impact the economy at large? Can we print more money? Kelton answers these and many more such questions in the book. Interestingly, the book also explains why developing countries like India cannot adopt money printing in the same way as Western countries can.

Quest for Restoring Financial Stability in India

Viral Acharya

Viral Acharya was a deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India between January 2017 and July 2019. This book is a collection of the speeches that Acharya made during the period. Other than the speeches, there is an excellent essay at the beginning titled “Fiscal Dominance: A theory of everything" in India. The masterful essay is in itself worth the price of the book.

The government in India has a presence across large parts of the Indian system through public sector banks, other large state-owned financial institutions (e.g., the Life Insurance Corporation of India) and public sector enterprises. This influences the private sector in a very negative way.

As Acharya writes: “The government has incentives to influence policies as such and (the fact) that it is not at arm’s length from the regulators drives the private sector into hyperactive lobbying (read an overdose of “consultations" with the government and regulators); this, in turn, induces an overall culture in the system of putting in place business-friendly policies that are pro-incumbents, at the cost of market-friendly policies that encourage creative destruction, asset reallocation, ease of doing business and new entry."

The next time someone asks why India has so much crony capitalism, read them the above paragraph.

Getting Competitive: A Practitioner’s Guide for India

R.C. Bhargava

R.C. Bhargava has a unique perspective, thanks to the fact that he has had extensive experience working for the government as an IAS officer and then running Maruti Suzuki, which is India’s biggest car company. A lot of what Bhargava writes in the book around the importance of labour reform, the importance of competition etc., to get Indian manufacturing going has been written before. But the fact that it comes from his experience makes it important.

Having said that, the key point in the book is around why the government shouldn’t mix its social objectives with the businesses it is present in through public sector enterprises.

As Bhargava writes: “Japan became a highly competitive and industrialized nation and has a high degree of equality and social justice. The policies for regulating and promoting industrial growth do not have any social content in them. Social equality was a result of the political and industrial leadership understanding that manufacturing competitiveness would be enhanced if there was greater equality and the bulk of the people were enabled to become consumers of manufactured goods." If only Indian politicians and bureaucrats understood this very basic point.

Vivek Kaul is the author of Bad Money

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