Summer Nonfiction

What are you currently reading or planning to read?

June 29, 2014

It has been a couple of months since we last caught up on the nonfiction that we’ve been reading.

In my case, “reading” really means “listening”, as every book in the list below was purchased from Audible and injected into my brain via my iPhone.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

Truth be told, reading (listening) to Piketty’s Capital is a bit of a slog. Great ideas. Terrific analysis. Even some good writing. Just too much of it.  

I think Piketty set out specifically to not synthesize his ideas, research or findings. He wanted to lay everything out with the idea that by sheer mass and detail alone his arguments would gain traction.  Judging by how much press that Capital has received he may have been correct.  

I wonder what proportion of people talking about Capital have actually read Capital. And who could blame them? At 25 hours and 696 pages the book is just way too long.   

But you should make the effort to read Capital. Particularly if your day job is that of an academic social scientist.  

Piketty’s work is one part an explanation as to why the inequality has been increasing (the famous wealth growing faster than income conclusion), and one part indictment of the social science profession for losing sight of the big questions that once animated academic work. Piketty is unsparing in his critique of the tendencies of social scientists to indulge in methodological one-upmanship.

Every grad student in the social sciences should read Piketty before deciding what sort of life of the mind they wish to follow.

Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

A must read for anyone that goes through an annual performance review or gives performance reviews. Or really anyone that is evaluated by other people, or evaluates others (including educators - as evaluating the work of others is key to what we do).

This is an amazing book.  Stone and Heen’s main point is that all of us have the opportunity and the responsibility to make better use of all the feedback that we receive.  That while we usually can’t change the feedback systems or the quality of the evaluations that we receive, we can change the frame in which we absorb and act on this feedback.

Reading Thanks for the Feedback changed how I think about receiving my annual performance review and the regular feedback that I get from colleagues. I’m much more likely to look for opportunities to grow and change based on this feedback than I was prior to reading this terrific book.

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte

Everyone that I know works all the time. Honestly. I don’t know anybody in the professional world that seems to have any extra time on their hands. This is not limited to colleagues with kids at home, although they are particularly nuts. Really - nobody I know that is not retired will tell me that they have decided to follow John Lennon when he sung about dreaming my life away, watching the wheels go round and round.

Schulte explains to us why we are all overwhelmed, and gives some really good advice to become less so.  

I’m a total sucker for books like Overwhelmed. Books that combine synthesis of social science with personal narrative and life hacking tips.  

None of Schulte’s findings or advice will seem particularly surprising.  We all know that we work more because work has become more competitive, distributed, and technologically mediated.  We all know that we all work more compensate for stagnant wages and rising housing, education, and medical costs.   And we all know that working more does not always mean working smart, and that we would all be wise to set limits and boundaries and try to have a more balanced life.

We may know all these things, but Overwhelmed is still enormously gratifying and edifying to read.  Putting our crazy lives within a larger economic, social, and cultural context is worthwhile.  

Overwhelmed will make you think, and it may even lead to some changes in how you approach the impossible task of balancing it all.

Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan by Francesca Gino 

I’ve been meaning to write up this list of mini reviews for a couple of weeks now, but I keep getting sidetracked. Too much immediate work (and World Cup distractions) to navigate. Too little discipline.  

Reading Sidetracked will, I hope, help me to stay more on track going forward. It just may work. The great thing about Sidetracked is that the behavioral miscues and cognitive biases that Gino exposes are correctable.  If we understand the situations and behaviors that are likely to hurt our own efforts to meet our own goals we can take steps to change things.  

I imagine Francesca Gino as a brilliant and glamorous (she is Italian) Harvard academic who never ever gets sidetracked. Certainly reading her book contributes to that conclusion, as a huge proportion of the research that Gino references is research that she has done herself.  This fact makes Sidetracked particularly enjoyable to read, as we learn not only about the experiments about about the thinking that motivated the experiments in the first place.  

I hope that this book get widely read, and it should certainly be included in the library of anybody making their way through the literature (pop and academic) on behavioral economics.

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi

This is a book that I had more trouble with than I expected. Maybe I’m just getting old - stodgy and conservative.  

Taibbi does something quite interesting in The Divide. He tries to create a narrative where the privileges of the very wealthy, including not only rapid income growth but seeming immunity from prosecution, is paired with the growing population of people that are either in prison, awaiting sentencing, or on parole.  

The argument is that both developments, vast wealth and criminal immunity as well as the criminalization of large sectors of the population (including illegal immigrants) should be understood as one story.  That the wealth of former depends on the subjugation of the latter.  

Or something like that.  I never quite got the causal links that Taibbi was trying to construct.  

Very few people that I know thinks that it is a particularly good thing that the U.S. incarcerates somewhere north of 2 million people.  Are we proud that our prison population per 100,000 (716) is ahead of such notable champions of human rights such as Russia (470), South Africa (294), and Iran (284).  (For some perspective, Japan’s incarceration rate is 51).

Maybe.  I tend to think that the world is a much more complicated place than Taibbi seems to believe, but maybe I’m wrong.  

Read the book and judge for yourself.

This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! in America's Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich

A must read for anyone that lives in our nation’s capital, is a political junkie, or just enjoys reading about the ridiculousness of our American elites.  

Leibovich, a longtime NYTimes political reporter, has a great nose for the combination of neediness and narcism that drives our political and media class.  He is particularly devastating in his description of the "monetization of government service” - the practice of politicians and political staffers making the leap to lobbying as soon as an opening arises. 

What makes This Town so good is the obvious affection that Leibovich has for all DC’s flawed characters.  He finds the very smart and somewhat messed up people that tend to land and stay in the capital to be endlessly fascinating.  I did as well.

Resource Revolution: How to Capture the Biggest Business Opportunity in a Century by Stefan Heck and Matt Rogers

Can I assign Resource Revolution to all my colleagues, peers, and friends in academia?  Really, what I loved about being a college professor was that I could tell people what to read.  I could put it on the syllabus.

But all of you should read Resource Revolution if for no other reason that time with its authors, a director and McKinsey (Rogers) and professor at Stanford (Heck) is really expensive.

These are smart guys, working in smart organizations, and they have a message.  That message is that changes in technology and business models, paired the growing worldwide demand as hundreds of millions of people join the global middle class, will fundamentally alter the economic landscape faced by current and future U.S. workers and companies.  

For those professionals and firms that can navigate a new reality of rapid technological change and adaptation the future is very bright.  For those stuck in old model and old patterns things will be difficult indeed.

This is a better book than I am able to express in this brief review.  It is not simple argument for a limitless future based on fracking or techno-utopian fantasies.  

Heck and Rogers are clear that there are good strategies and bad strategies for people and companies (and colleges and universities) to deal with globalization and technological change.  

There will be tradeoffs, winners and losers.  Resource Revolution does a good job of explaining where we might be going, and why we are all on this new path.

Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong by Robert Bryce

A sort of companion book to Resource Revolution, Bryce makes that case the familiar (if possibly correct) case for a bright technology led future.  My techno-utopian tendencies (always dangerous) tend to be fueled by this sort of fun book.  

Who couldn’t buy into a brighter future while reading the NYTimes on their iPhone?  

Where Bryce diverges from the typical techno-utopianist, at least the one’s I hang out with at EDUCAUSE, is that he is a huge alternative energy skeptic.  He thinks that are brighter future will mostly be fueled by natural gas, not windmills (he really hates wind for some reason), and that we should all get with the fracking program.  

The fact that many of you will dislike this book based solely on your distaste drilling and burning (and possible aquifer contamination) should not stop you from reading it.   We may want solar on every roof (or even windmills on every mountain), but the electrons used to power the device you are using to read these words will most likely originate from extracting and burning natural gas (better) or coal (worse).  

An author that I may have some disagreements with has produced a book that I enjoyed reading.  A book that challenges some of my long-held beliefs, and a book that I learned more than a little from reading.

What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster by Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last and I have divergent political views (he is a pro-life conservative, I am a pro-choice moderate), and a common set of policy concerns.  We both worry about babies.  

Specifically, not enough babies.  Or at least not enough babies to pay for Medicare and Social Security.  

Anyone trained as a demographer, as I was, probably can’t help but to think in terms of fertility, age structures, and mortality.  The simple fact to remember is that when countries fall below replacement fertility level (of just over 2 babies per woman) that absent enough immigration the population will first get older and eventually start to shrink.  

The U.S. has been luckier than almost every other industrialized nation in that our TFR (total fertility rate) is close to replacement (about 1.9).  Compare this TFR to South Korea (1.3), Japan (1.4), or Italy (1.4) and you can see that we are doing pretty well.  How countries with TFR’s like South Korea will pay for and take of its elderly (without massive immigration - unlikely) is anyone’s guess.  

Last worries that the U.S. may follow the rest of the wealthy world into a lowest low fertility regime.  The consequences for our entitlements programs of rapidly following fertility would be devastating.  In fact, it is already pretty grim, as our rapidly aging population (one-fifth of Americans will be 65 or older by 2050) means that our window to align Medicare (hard) and Social Security (hard, but doable) to the demographic realities (both programs are pay as you go) is relatively narrow.

Where Last gets it wrong is when his politics (or at least his conservative social views) creeps into his policy recommendations.  

Last seems to be barely tolerant of those that choose to remain childless, claiming that they will get benefits like Social Security without contributing to the creation of the future workers (today’s babies) that make these programs possible.  

Sure, we need kids or immigrants to avoid becoming the next Japan.  But people without children also make it possible to run our public school systems.  They pay the same property taxes I do, but don’t benefit (directly) from the schools that these taxes fund.   Nor is giving birth to future FICA tax payers the only way that citizens can contribute to the commonweal.  The last I checked people without kids pay tons of taxes, create tons of businesses, and employ tons of people.  (They also take care of other family members beyond immediate offspring, caregiving and investment that Lind completely ignores).

It is a shame that Last chooses to focus his attention too much on those that choose not to have children, and not enough on those that would wish to do so but face obstacles.  When was the last time The Weekly Standard (where Last is a senior writer) called for more federally funded childcare?  

Again, don’t let a difference in politics stop you from reading this otherwise excellent book.  

We should be very concerned that US fertility could follow the European and wealthy Asian path.  It is not clear to me that we are all that different from our Italian brothers and sisters, and at some point immigration and higher immigrant fertility will not be enough.  

Anyone that depends on a steady stream of young people to keep our business going, such as almost everyone in higher education, might want to check out What to Expect when No One’s Expecting, if nothing else to find something else to worry about.

Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile by Nate Jackson

Until I fell down the World Cup rabbit hole this month I was convinced that football (American football I should say) was the world’s best TV sport.  I was wrong.  Soccer is better.  But watching the NFL on the tube (or in my case the laptop) is still pretty great.

Anyone who is an NFL fan, which is a huge number of us as the NFL is the world’s most lucrative league with about $9 billion in annual revenues, should also be aware how dangerous a sport that pro football has come.  

Nate Jackson’s football memoir is really an autobiography of injury.  Yes, he had a good 6 season pro career, but his body paid the price for our football enjoyment.  Injuries, bad injuries, are normal for the NFL.   The game is simply too fast and too violent not to result in tears, sprains, breaks, and (most disturbingly) concussions.  

Slow Getting Up is a book about the cost of football to player’s bodies as told by a player.  But it is also a terrific inside look at NFL culture and the business of pro football.  Did I mention that the book is also as funny as it is disturbing?  

I’ll keep watching pro football.  But will do so from now on with a bit more guilt.

Do we have any overlap between what you have been reading or plan to read?

Can you suggest some summer nonfiction?


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