The Global Thinkers’ Book Club
From psychology to biography, economics to tech, see what some of the world’s top minds are reading.
When FP chose this year’s 100 Global Thinkers, we asked each of them to tell us the top three books they read in 2012. Their responses ranged unsurprisingly wide — from Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson and John Lewis Gaddis’s of George Kennan to Katherine Boo on Mumbai slum life and James Fallow on China’s booming aviation industry. But theses eight books — three of them written by current or former Global Thinkers — drew the most recommendations. From psychology to biography, economics to tech, see what some of the world’s top minds are reading.
1. Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)
By Daniel Kahneman
Recommended by Eliot Cohen, Daphne Koller, Bjorn Lomborg, Thomas Mann, Patrice Martin, and Shai Reshef
Daniel Kahneman, the Princeton University psychologist (and 2011 Global Thinker) who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, is famous for his work exposing human irrationality. In his book last year, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he consolidated his decades of findings, arguing that the human mind operates according to two systems: one that makes slow, deliberative choices and the other — put to much more frequent use — that makes fast, intuitive judgments.
Many years ago I visited the chief investment officer of a large financial firm, who told me that he had just invested some tens of millions of dollars in the stock of Ford Motor Company. When I asked how he had made that decision, he relied that he had recently attended an automobile show and had been impressed. “Boy, do they know how to make a car!” was his explanation. He made it very clear that he trusted his gut feeling and was satisfied with himself and with his decision. I found it remarkable that he had apparently not considered the one question that an economist would call relevant: Is Ford stock currently underpriced? Instead, he had listened to his intuition; he liked the cars, he liked the company, and he liked the idea of owning its stock. From what we know about the accuracy of stock picking, it is reasonable to believe that he did not know what he was doing.
2. Steve Jobs (2011)
By Walter Isaacson
Recommended by Eugene Kaspersky, Kai-Fu Lee, Richard A. Muller, Andrew Ng, and Sebastian Thrun
After Apple CEO Steve Jobs died of cancer in early October, his authorized biography by Walter Isaacson — known for his books on big thinkers like Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin — was rushed to press, appearing on the market just weeks later. Based on dozens of interviews over two years of reporting, the book chronicles Jobs’s entrepreneurial rise, his reign as Apple’s meticulous (some would say overbearing) chief, and his legacy as perhaps the most revered innovator of our time. In the following passage, a teenage Jobs and his later Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, use parts from Radio Shack to construct a Blue Box, a tone-generating device that can crack phone networks to make free calls illegally, in an episode that would prove a catalyst for the duo’s later ventures.
At first the Blue Box was used for fun and pranks. The most daring of these was when they called the Vatican and Wozniak pretended to be Henry Kissinger wanting to speak to the pope. ‘Ve are at de summit meeting in Moscow, and ve need to talk to de pope,” Woz intoned. He was told that it was 5:30 a.m. and the pope was sleeping. When he called back, he got a bishop who was supposed to serve as the translator. But they never actually got the pope on the line. “They realized that Woz wasn’t Henry Kissinger,” Jobs recalled. “We were at a public phone booth.” It was then that they reach an important milestone, one that would establish a pattern in their partnerships: Jobs came up with the idea that the Blue Box could be more than merely a hobby; they could build and sell them. “I got together the rest of the components, like the casing and power supply and keypads, and figured out how we could price it,” Jobs said, foreshadowing roles he would play when they founded Apple. The finished product was about the size of two decks of playing cards. The parts cost about $40, and Jobs decided they should sell it for $150.
By Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (Global Thinkers No. 64)
Recommended by Nadim Matta, Sima Samar, and Radoslaw Sikorski
Why do some countries succeed while others flounder? Mining data stretching back thousands of years and across dozens of countries and societies, MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and Harvard University political scientist James Robinson argue that state failure arises primarily from “extractive institutions” — governments and other entities that perpetually concentrate power and riches in the hands of a small elite class. To take one example:
How African institutions evolved into their present-day extractive form again illustrates the process of institutional drift punctuated by critical junctures, but this time often with highly perverse outcomes, particularly during the expansion of the slave trade. There were new economic opportunities for the Kingdom of Kong when European traders arrived. The long-distance trade that transformed Europe also transformed the Kingdom of the Kong, but again, initial institutional differences mattered. Kongolese absolutism transmogrified from completely dominating society, with extractive economic institutions that merely captured all the agricultural output of its citizens, to enslaving people en masse and selling them to the Portugese in exchange for guns and luxury goods for the Kongolese elite.
4. The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011)
By Steven Pinker
Recommended by Jonathan Haidt, Robert D. Kaplan, and Nick Mathewson
In this sweeping 2011 tome, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker (a 2010 and 2011 Global Thinker) argues that over the course of human history violence — from slavery to war, infanticide to genocide — has declined. (The title is a reference to Abraham’s Lincoln’s first inaugural address.)
A fundamental insight of modern economics is that the key to the creation of wealth is a division of labor, in which specialists learn to produce a commodity with increasing cost-effectiveness and have the means to exchange their specialized products efficiently. One infrastructure that allows efficient exchange is transportation, which makes it possible for producers to trade their surpluses even when they are separated by distance. Another is money, interest, and middlemen, which allow producers to exchange many kinds of surpluses with many other producers at many points in time. Positive-sum games also change the incentives for violence. If you’re trading favors or surpluses with someone, your trading partner suddenly becomes more valuable to you alive than dead. You have an incentive, moreover, to anticipate what he wants, the better to supply it to him in exchange for what you want. Though many intellectuals, following in the footsteps of Saints Augustine and Jerome, hold businesspeople in contempt for their selfishness and greed, in fact a free market puts a premium on empathy.
By Eric Ries
Recommended by Kai-Fu Lee, Vivek Wadhwa, and Jocelyn Wyatt
Not surprisingly, Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup comes recommended by three entrepreneurial Global Thinkers. Ries, a programmer who went on to write a well-read blog offering advice about being a technology entrepreneur, argues the reason so many new companies fail is that they put too many resources into their ideas upfront without adequately testing them on consumers. Instead, Ries explains, “We want to think big, but start small. And then scale fast.”
Why are startups failing so badly everywhere we look? The problem is the allure of a good plan, a solid strategy, and thorough market research. In earlier eras, these things were indicators of likely success. The overwhelming temptation is to apply them to startups too, but this doesn’t work, because startups operate with too much uncertainty. Startups do not yet know who their customer is or what their product should be. As the world becomes more uncertain, it gets harder and harder to predict the future. The old management methods are not up to the task. Planning and forecasting are only accurate when based on a long, stable operating history and a relatively static environment. Startups have neither.
6. The New New Deal (2012),
Recommended by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein
Before Bill Clinton sung the praises of Barack Obama’s economic policy at the Democratic National Convention in September, Time magazine senior national correspondent Michael Grunwald had crunched the numbers to figure out whether Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package in 2009 had really worked. In short: yes. With his new book, adapted for an article in Foreign Policy‘s September/October issue, Grunwald says it’s time to give the president credit.
Critics often argue that while the New Deal left behind iconic monuments — the Hoover Dam, Skyline Drive, Fort Knox — the stimulus will leave a mundane legacy of sewage plants, repaved potholes, and state employees who would have been laid off without it. Even the Recovery Act’s architects feared that like Winston Churchill’s pudding, it lacked a theme. In reality, it’s creating its own icons: zero-energy border stations, state-of-the-art battery factories, an eco-friendly Coast Guard headquarters on a Washington hillside, a one-of-a-kind “advanced synchrotron light source” in a New York lab. It’s also restoring old icons: the Brooklyn Bridge and the Bay Bridge, the imperiled Everglades and the dammed-up Elwha River, Seattle’s Pike Place Market and the Staten Island ferry terminal.
By Lawrence Lessig
Recommended by danah boyd and Luigi Zingales
Best known for pushing to modernize U.S. copyright laws, in his latest book Lawrence Lessig tackles what he sees as the primary obstacle preventing those and other legislative reforms: corruption in Congress. In the year of the Occupy movement, the Harvard law professor nailed the body for the outsized, but legal, role that money — in the form of lobbying dollars and campaign financing — plays in the policymaking process.
The great threat to our republic today comes not from the hidden bribery of the Gilded Age, when cash was secreted among members of Congress to buy privilege and secure wealth. The great threat today is instead in plain sight. It is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other. The single most salient feature is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself. We have created an engine of influence that seeks not some particular strand of political or economic ideology, whether Marx or Hayek. We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected to the rich.
By Rebecca MacKinnon
Recommended by Sana Saleem and Jonathan Zittrain
In Consent of the Networked, Rebecca MacKinnon — a New America Foundation fellow and FP contributor who co-founded of the international blog network Global Voices — argues it’s time for policymakers to address what Harvard political scientists Joseph S. Nye calls “one of the great unsolved problems of the 21st century”: how to prevent governments and corporations from infringing on Internet users’ civil liberties, or, as MacKinnon puts it, “how digital technology can be structured, governed, and used to maximize the good and minimize the evil.”
Internet platforms and services, made commonplace by companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, along with a range of mobile, networking, and telecommunications services, have empowered citizens. They have empowered us to challenge government, both our own as well as other governments whose actions affect us. But the Internet also empowers governments themselves — or at least the growing number whose police, military, and security forces understand how the Internet works and who have learned the value of employing computer-science graduates. All governments, from dictatorships to democracies, are learning quickly how to use technology to defend their interests. … In the Internet age, the greatest long-term threat to a genuinely citizen-centric society — a world in which technology and government serve citizens instead of the other way around — looks less like Orwell’s 1984, and more like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: a world in which our desire for security, entertainment, and material comfort is manipulated to the point that we all voluntarily and eagerly submit to subjugation. If we are to avoid this dystopian fate, political innovation will have to catch up with technological innovation.
Plus: In addition to Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail, six other books written by this year’s Global Thinkers were recommended by fellow members of the list:
1. Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (No. 62)
Recommended by Jocelyn Wyatt
2. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt (No. 98)
Recommended by Norman Ornstein
3. The World America Made, by Robert Kagan (No. 50)
Recommended by Hussain Haqqani
4. It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein (No. 46)
Recommended by Jonathan Haidt
5. 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami (No. 49)
Recommended by Scott Sumner
6. Joseph Anton: A Memoir, by Salman Rushdie (No. 33)
Recommended by Ruchir Sharma