The Best Political Economy Books of 2019

A history of American antimonopoly, the case against Big Tech, and how Europe got better than the US at free markets: here are (in no particular order) some of the best books published during the past year.

 

 

 

Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy by Matt Stoller

 

America is at a crossroads: Inequality has reached historic levels, market power is the law of the land, and the upcoming presidential election seems likely to pit plutocrats against populist progressives vowing to remake the US economy. Americans have, in fact, faced similar circumstances before. If the present feels unprecedented, it is only because much of that history has been forgotten. In that regard, Matt Stoller’s Goliath serves as a crucial reminder of both history’s hard-earned lessons regarding the relationship between authoritarianism and monopoly power and how Americans were able to avoid sliding into fascism by reining in corporate power.

 

Goliath, a 500-page exploration of American antimonopoly’s lost history, is a vital read: a remarkable, deeply-researched work that is both scholarly and urgent. [You can read an excerpt here; also, see here Stoller’s contributions to ProMarket]

 

 

Capitalism, Alone by Branko Milanovic

 

Having eviscerated communism, Milanovic argues in his latest work, capitalism now stands alone as the first economic system in history to rule over the entire world. But what are the implications of capitalism’s ultimate triumph? Far from the “end of history”-type utopia that many in the 1990s believed was in store, the world is now largely divided between two competing modes of capitalism: the “liberal” capitalism of the US and Western Europe and the “political” (or authoritarian) capitalism of China. Both, Milanovic argues, are vulnerable to inequality, social unrest, and oligarchic rule.

 

Milanovic’s latest builds on themes explored in his last two books: 2016’s Global Inequality and 2010’s The Haves and the Have-Nots. Few economists can compete with his stunning erudition, or with his skill in weaving together seemingly disparate figures with complex philosophical ideas to produce a coherent thesis that feels highly-relevant to our troubled times. Capitalism, Alone is one of the most ambitious economics books published this year, in terms of its breadth and scope, and definitely one of the most fascinating. [Read our interview with Milanovic here and an excerpt from the book here; Milanovic is also a frequent contributor to ProMarket]

 

 

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff

 

Shoshana Zuboff coined the term “surveillance capitalism” in 2014 to describe the ways in which tech giants were increasingly monitoring and manipulating human behavior for profit. Zuboff, professor emerita at Harvard Business School, saw this as not just a disturbing violation of privacy, but something larger: the beginning of a “new economic order” that relies on hoovering up as much data as possible and then translating it into vast corporate empires of unprecedented power and scale. Her analysis proved prescient, and her long-awaited book quickly earned comparisons to such seminal works as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. At 700-plus pages, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is an exhaustive, startlingly original analysis of what Zuboff describes as a “bold and unprecedented shift in capitalist methods,” one that ignores “older distinctions between market and society, market and world, or market and person.” [Read an excerpt here]

 

The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets by Thomas Philippon

 

At the heart of The Great Reversal is a historical irony: for many years, the US economy was hailed as the epitome of free and competitive markets, in sharp contrast with the lugubrious, monopolistic economies of Europe. The relationship, however, has reversed: Most European markets today are cheaper and more competitive than their US equivalents. Whether it’s wireless plans, airline tickets, high-speed internet, cable TV, or health care, Americans nowadays pay much more and get far worse service than their European counterparts. The irony? That Europe managed to achieve this reversal by mimicking American-born antitrust policies that US regulators have turned their backs on. The Great Reversal, which draws on Philippon’s research with co-author Germán Gutiérrez, provides an in-depth, evidence-based examination of how unchecked corporate power harms workers, consumers, and the economy,  all while making a passionate case in favor of competitive markets. [Read our recent interview with Philippon here]

 

 

The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman

 

In this slim volume, jargon-free and rich in data, Saez and Zucman uncover the role that America’s regressive tax system plays in its growing inequality crisis. For the first time in over 100 years, they show, the wealthiest 400 US households paid a lower tax rate than middle- and working-class Americans last year. Having grown spectacularly rich over the past four decades, America’s billionaires now pay lower total tax rates than school teachers and secretaries. This shift, they argue, was not the result of democratic choices made by informed voters who collectively decided not to tax the rich, but occurred thanks to obscure policy changes, a deliberate lack of enforcement, and an international race to the bottom on corporate taxation, all of which contributed to the growth of a lucrative tax-avoidance industry. “This is the tax system of a plutocracy,” they warn. Their book offers an impassioned plea for a fairer tax system and a sharp rebuke of the argument that nothing can be done.

 

 

The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality by Katharina Pistor

 

“Capital and the system it has given its name was not designed by anybody in a coherent fashion, but neither can it be described as the product of natural evolution,” writes Katharina Pistor in her revelatory analysis of the legal systems that have undergirded the evolution of capitalism over the past 400 years. Capital, after all, is the result of “legal” coding that turns mere objects and ideas into wealth-generating assets, and it is lawyers who, throughout history, have proven themselves to be “the true masters” of this code. “Global capitalism is not a system that is detached from states or state law,” she writes. “Instead, it is rooted in select legal systems that have accommodated capital for centuries.” [You can read an excerpt from The Code of Capital here]

 

 

Don’t Be Evil: The Case Against Big Tech by Rana Foroohar

 

“The tech industry provides the starkest illustration of the rise in monopolistic power in the world today,” argues Rana Foroohar in her incisive indictment of Silicon Valley. As a columnist for the Financial Times, Foroohar is one of the clearest voices on the dangers of Big Tech’s unchecked power. Her latest book expertly traces the path of today’s tech barons from young libertarians spouting idealistic slogans like Google’s now-discarded corporate mantra to ruthless monopolists more concerned with eliminating competition than with the implications of their business models on democracy and society at large.

 

 

Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America by Christopher Leonard

 

The ways in which the Koch brothers (Charles and David, who passed away earlier this year) managed to leverage their wealth to gain political influence has been told time and time again, most notably in Jane Mayer’s excellent 2016 book Dark Money. Where Kochland makes a meaningful contribution to the study of America’s most influential and secretive billionaires, however, is by focusing on how the Kochs were able to amass their enormous fortune to begin with, in large part by either skirting existing regulations or subverting the very notion of a regulatory regime. Leonard, an investigative reporter, also provides some crucial details about the Koch brothers’ ceaseless promotion of climate change denial, a crusade that is as financially-motivated as it is ideological.

 

 

Liberalism at Large: The World According to the Economist by Alexander Zevin

 

When it comes to influencing world affairs, no journalistic outlet could ever hold a candle to The Economist. Since its founding in 1843, the magazine has been the world’s chief proponent of liberalism and a longtime favorite of the world’s political, financial, and intellectual elites. The list of avid readers is vast and includes pretty much every major historical figure of the last 176 years, ranging from Karl Marx to Friedrich Hayek, from Woodrow Wilson to Mussolini, and from Franklin Roosevelt to Angela Merkel. The high regard with which it was (and is) held in the corridors of power, argues Zevin, has allowed The Economist to not just report on the state of the world but actively shape it. Liberalism at Large, then, is not only a critical history of one influential publication, but of the entire liberal project. It’s a riveting read.

 

 

The Great Democracy: How to Fix Our Politics, Unrig the Economy, and Unite America by Ganesh Sitaraman

 

“This is not an ordinary political moment,” writes Ganesh Sitaraman in the introduction to his new book. The history of American politics since the 1930s, he argues, can be divided into two distinct periods: the first, the liberal era, began with the New Deal and ended in the late 1970s. The second, the neoliberal era, stretched from the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s presidency to the end of Barack Obama’s second term. The 2008 financial crisis and the election of Donald Trump signified a collapse of neoliberalism and brought forth a third era, an “epochal transition” that could either lead to greater democracy or to the rise of a “nationalist oligarchy.” Sitaraman offers several ambitious ideas on how to bring about the former, but the book’s greatest value is in its sharp diagnosis of the current political crisis and its concise distillation of the main choice that faces American citizens (as well as the citizens of other liberal democracies) today.

 

More Great Books:

 

Roger McNamee’s Zucked is a thrilling exposé of Facebook’s inner-workings by one of the company’s earliest investors (read our profile of McNamee, as well as an excerpt); Heather Boushey’s Unbound lays out a powerful argument on how inequality harms growth, competition, and innovation; Binyamin Appelbaum’s The Economists’ Hour is a highly-entertaining account of how economists’ rise to prominence helped shape the world we live in today; Jonathan Baker’s The Antitrust Paradigm shows how antitrust reforms ostensibly aimed at spurring competition ended up causing an increase in market power (read an excerpt here); Ganesh Sitaraman’s and Anne L. Alstott’s The Public Option makes a compelling case for affordable government-funded services that coexist with private options (read an excerpt here); and Kimberly Clausing’s Open shows that globalization and free trade can, in fact, be redesigned to help struggling ordinary Americans.

 

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