Ten books you must read in 2013

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A friend recently asked me for a book recommendation, and I rattled off a few titles,  and felt good about the recommendations I had just made. But on reflection, I realized that I hadn’t suggested the BEST books to read, given the paucity of time that we all have. So, if your interests are in the area of Political Science, Critical theory and (or) Civil Society, here are my favorite books.

I have read these and a few more related titled this year and highly recommend them. These are not ranked in any particular order and are clearly books you should consider buying. Collectors items indeed!

  1. Before European Hegemony by Janet Abu Lughod – A classic in its own right. Abu Lughod de-constructs how the current global market system is a by-product of 13th century European trade system. An eye-opening analysis, done with meticulous care.  She talks about how trade was impacted by demographic shifts, weather, wars among other things. You should read her work on Egypt, as well. She is brilliant.
  2. Shadows of War by Caroline Nordstrom – Another gem of a book by an Anthropologist. She analyzes “shadow economies” in war zones, how they are formed, perpetuated. Her work questions deep-rooted assumptions of what is legal and illegal. I kept asking myself, “so who is the criminal here?”, not knowing if it was the diamond smuggler or the corrupt NGO person who was at fault. A true page turner.
  3. Political Order in Changing Societies  by Samuel Huntington – Well, Samuel Huntingtion is not all evil. That is the conclusion I reached after reading his first book. This was written way back in the day (even before I was born), and it shows the power of his analysis (perhaps at his best). He looks at how political growth and economic growth don’t necessarily go hand in hand and how societies adapt to democracies.
  4. Leadership without easy answers by Ronald Heifetz – In case you want to read some leadership stuff. This is a fairly easy read, but his analysis of leadership is quite rich. He is a good writer, who brings in insights from cognitive psychology, his first profession.
  5. Marx- Engels reader –  I must admit, I read my fair share of Marxist theories this semester, and have started to appreciate the necessity of reading Marx, whether you like him or hate him – you just cant ignore him. Much of political economic analysis, globalization theories owe him a lot. My Libertarian friends may disagree.
  6. Rule of Experts by Timothy Mitchell – Another solid book on how the Western intervention in Egypt has played out over the past several decades. This takes a close look at the technologies of knowledge production and colonization in Egypt. A fascinating read.
  7. World Systems Analysis by Immanuel Wallerstein – If you think the whole world is one big mess, you would be agreeing with Wallerstein. It was his idea that one has to look at the world, as an organizing unit for analysis and not each nation state separately. Though the theory is over 30 yrs old, it is still useful today.
  8. The Sociological Imagination by C Wright Mills – Mills is to Sociology what Einstein is to Physics. So, I would encourage you to pick this book up. And he is a great writer too! Very readable book. Short and crisp, it will shake you up a bit.
  9. The Souls of Black Folk by WEB Du Bois – I just finished reading this classic yesterday and I must admit, it was almost poetic. The language is fluid, beautiful and extremely sensitive to the subject that he handles. Considered one of the most important books about African-Americans, this is a book you should not miss. Du Bois was the first Black man to get a PhD ( from Harvard University, no less) and is still considered one of the greatest Black leaders of all times. An intellectual giant.
  10.  The Nuclear Borderlands by Joseph Masco – Masco takes us on a journey to explain how the Manhattan project has shaped public consciousness of the Atomic bomb in the U.S. Using ethnographic studies of parts of the U.S which have housed the nuclear power plants, he looks at how native American lands have been taken over by the state, how the poor have been treated and how the fascination for the bomb continues, in its own strange way, even to this day.

 

“The boundary of political discourse unfortunately is around 4.6% taxes “

“The  boundary of political discourse today unfortunately is around  4.6% taxes “

– Jeffrey Sachs, Special Advisor to UN Secretary General  and Professor of Economics at Columbia Uni.

In a talk which offered a crash-course in  economic history of the modern US, and gave a glimpse into the  implications of the current administration’s policies in not addressing the key issues before us, Jeffrey Sachs sought to offer a  “differential diagnosis” of the problems and also offered solutions, which he thought would address the systemic problems that plague the country, and threaten its leadership position in the world. These insights are presented in his newly released book “ The price of Civilization”. The talk was held at The World Bank last week.

“ 39 yrs ago when I got started in this business, I thought that the US would not need our help, and my country would not need any sort of urgent attention, and one could devote one’s life to problems overseas; where problems were more acute”, he said.

He added  : “Economically, the US today is  a mess and our political system is a mess too. Since the political institution is one block East of here, and the work that this institution works involves dealing with this mess, we really do need to dis-entangle what is happening in the US and what can be done about it. It is my own way to find my way through this puzzle. Not to find the specific problems associated with the problems of Lehmann brothers , or the specifics of debate about the last quarter.  I do write a lot about that. But the bigger challenge is what I seek to address through my book”.

He further noted that as he criss-crossed summits across the world in over 22 countries, he was amazed to see the total lack of American leadership voices.

“A very strange feeling that what we see inside is also visible on the outside. Our presence is felt in war-zones and in war-torn areas, but not in problem solving areas. I am not sure I have gotten to the core of it, but writing this book and analyzing the issues  feels like peeling an Onion. And I had to take a societal view, a holistic perspective of problems as they are all inter-connected”, he pointed out.

Taking a jab at the political parties, he pointed out “The Republican offer is simple “ Cut spending and cut taxes”, and taxes are the only thing in their model which can solve problems. In the Democratic model, they are all about “Stimulate”, and I don’t think it is an effective model to get us on track”.

America has become a two-tier society:

Sachs also sought to highlight the growing income disparities and pointed out that they were the key issue which subsequent administrations have ignored. Though president Obama came in with the promise of change, his policies have not done much to significantly address this complex issue.

“If Brazil has figured out a way to close the income disparities, we seem to have shunned this problem and ignored it altogether. Currently, the income share of the top 1% is 20-25 % of all household income and this is analogous to modern history. Up to 1980, the share was 10% and since then, we have had a steep incline in the gap. 12,000 households take home about 6% of household income. That’s a lot. That is more than the poorest 20 mn households”, he added.

Sachs also added that the current scenario is dismal, and one of the markers of this is that the peak of male household earning was in 1973, for 38 yrs there has been no increase in median earnings for male full-time workers. “Something clearly changed in American economy, something deeper than a financial bubble”, he pointed out.

Corporate America and the Political establishment :

The rise of  President Ronald Reagan clearly marked an era of the decline in American spending on “Non-security discretionary budgets” . This, Sachs remarked is one of the key reasons for the decline of the  American competitiveness and is a result of the “less government” movement in the country, which has had very negative effects on the economy as a whole.

“We got Wall-street to bail out Wall-street firms recently and this is a symptom of what ails our country” he added.

He concluded with the following note :” A differential diagnosis is what I have offered here. Once we have a better diagnosis, the way out is easier to find. I think that both political parties are not offering any serious approach to America’s problems”.  His solution to the problems facing the US included cutting defense spending by a few percentage points, by increasing the Non-security discretionary budget spending as well as looking at the problems holistically and taxing the rich, which seems to be the holy-grail of American political discourse.

Perhaps time will tell whether the political establishment heeds his advice. For now, President Obama seems to be busy trying to rally support for his jobs bill. Short-term gains seem to be the order of the day, when long-term strategic thinking is what is really needed. It is a time for visionaries, and perhaps, one for true leadership – which goes beyond rhetoric and realpolitik.