What Our Thinkers Think — and Write

Twenty must-read books written by experts from this year's list.


FP's Global Thinkers authored some of the most thought-provoking and top-selling books of 2012. From the biology behind market booms and busts to the psychology of political partisanship, add these titles to your reading (or holiday shopping) list.

1. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

The MIT economist and Harvard University political scientist examine why, over centuries, some states have flourished while others have floundered.

FP‘s Global Thinkers authored some of the most thought-provoking and top-selling books of 2012. From the biology behind market booms and busts to the psychology of political partisanship, add these titles to your reading (or holiday shopping) list.

1. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

The MIT economist and Harvard University political scientist examine why, over centuries, some states have flourished while others have floundered.

“Why did Western European nations and their colonial offshoots filled with European settlers start growing in the nineteenth century, scarcely looking back? What explains the persistent ranking of inequality within the Americas? Why have sub-Saharan African and Middle Eastern nations failed to achieve the type of economic growth seen in Western Europe, while much of East Asia has experienced breakneck rates of economic growth? One might think that the fact that world inequality is so huge and consequential and has such sharply drawn patterns would mean that it would have a well-accepted explanation. Not so. Most hypotheses that social scientists have proposed for the origins of poverty and prosperity just don’t work and fail to convincingly explain the lay of the land. … Countries differ in their economic success because of their different institutions, the rules influencing how the economy works, and the incentives that motivate people.”

2. There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, by Chinua Achebe

Famed for his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, Achebe here recalls his life during Nigeria’s 1967-1970 civil war, when he took the side of the Biafran separatists.

“Africa’s postcolonial disposition is the result of a people who have lost the habit of ruling themselves. We have also had difficulty running the new systems foisted upon us at the dawn of independence by our ‘colonial masters.’ Because the West has had a long but uneven engagement with the continent, it is imperative that it understand what happened to Africa. … Most members of my generation, who were born before Nigeria’s independence, remember a time when things were very different. Nigeria was once a land of great hope and progress, a nation with immense resources at its disposal — natural resources, yes, but even more so, human resources. But the Biafran war changed the course of Nigeria. In my view it was a cataclysmic experience that changed the history of Africa.”

3. The Crisis of Zionism, by Peter Beinart

Beinart, whom Haaretz calls “U.S. Jewry’s enfant terrible,” critiques Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the American Jewish establishment’s deep-seated support of it.

“[Y]ounger American Jews have never known Israel as a full democracy. For forty-four years, twice a college student’s life span, they have seen Israel control territory in which millions of Palestinians lack citizenship. And since the 1980s, they have seen Israel fight wars not against Arab armies but against terrorists nestled amid a stateless and thus largely defenseless Palestinian population. Thus, they are more conscious than their parents of the degree to which Israeli behavior violates democratic ideals, and less willing to grant Israel an exemption because it stands on the brink of destruction. The more the American Jewish establishment forces today’s realities onto the procrustean bed of 1939 or 1967, the more young liberal-minded American Jews turn away.”

4. The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings, and the Biology of Boom and Bust, by John Coates

A Cambridge University neuroscientist and former Deutsche Bank trader examines the biological processes underlying the risk-taking that moves markets.

“[Re]cent advances in neuroscience and physiology have shown that when we take risks, including financial risk, we do a lot more than just think about it. We prepare for it physically. Our bodies, expecting action, switch on an emergency network of physiological circuitry, and the resulting surge in electrical and chemical activity feeds back on the brain, affecting the way it thinks. In this way body and brain twine as a single entity, united in the face of challenge. Normally this fusion of body and brain provides us with the fast reactions and gut feelings we need for successful risk taking. But under some circumstances the chemical surges can overwhelm us; and when this happens to traders and investors they come to suffer an irrational exuberance or pessimism that can destabilize the financial markets and wreak havoc on the wider economy.”

5. The Crisis of the European Union, by Jürgen Habermas

Germany’s most famous living philosopher considers what the fallout from the European Union’s financial crisis means for its political future.

“The political elites continue to shy away from the daunting prospect of a revision of [the Lisbon Treaty]. Presumably this hesitation is not just a matter of opportunistic power interests and a lack of decisive leadership. The economically generated apprehensions are inspiring a more acute popular awareness of the problems besetting Europe and are lending them greater existential significance than ever before. The political elites should embrace this unusual boost in public prominence of the issues as an opportunity and also regard it as a reflection of the extraordinary nature of the current situation. But the politicians have also long since become a functional elite. They are no longer prepared for a situation in which the established boundaries have shifted, one which cannot be mastered by the established administrative mechanisms and opinion polls but instead calls for a new mode of politics capable of transforming mentalities.”

6. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt

New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains why humans are so compelled to separate themselves into political and religious tribes.

“As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists. Darwin’s ideas about group selection fell out of favor in the 1960s, but recent discoveries are putting his ideas back into play, and the implications are profound. We’re not always selfish hypocrites. We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns. Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war, and genocide. Once you see our righteous minds as primate minds with a hivish overlay, you get a holw new perspective on morality, politics, and religion.”

7. The World America Made, by Robert Kagan

In a book that earned the praise of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, Brookings Institution senior fellow Kagan takes on the American declinists.

“The most important features of today’s world — the great spread of democracy, the prosperity, the prolonged great-power pace — have depended directly and indirectly on power and influence exercised by the United States. No other power could have or would have influenced the world the way Americans have because no other nation shares, or has ever shared, their peculiar combination of qualities. Some of the most important qualities are obvious. America’s unique geographical circumstances, its capitalist economic system, its democratic form of government, and its enormous military power have together shaped a particular kind of international order that would have looked very different had another nation with different characteristics wielded a similar amount of influence. Less easy to grasp, but just as important to understanding the nature of the American world order, is the complex character of the American people.”

8. The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan

Globetrotting author Kaplan reminds us why geography has mattered — and still does — in the realm of geopolitics.

“The regimes that had fallen soon after the Berlin Wall did — in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and elsewhere — were ones I had known intimately through work and travel. Up close they had seemed so impregnable, so fear-inducing. Their abrupt unraveling was a signal lesson for me, not only about the underlying instability of all dictatorships, but about how the present, as permanent and overwhelming as it can seem, is fleeting. The only thing enduring is a people’s position on the map. Thus, in times of upheaval maps rise in importance. With the political ground shifting rapidly under one’s feet, the map, though not determinitive, is the beginning of discerning a historical logic about what might come next.”

9. End This Depression Now!, by Paul Krugman

The New York Times columnist and Princeton University economist lays out his pro-stimulus prescription for economic recovery in the United States.

“We are suffering woes that, for all the differences in detail that come with seventy-five years of economic, technological, and social change, are recognizably similar to those of the 1930s. And we know what policy makers should have been doing then, both from the contemporary analysis of Keynes and others and from much subsequent research and analysis. That same analysis tells us what we should be doing in our current predicament. Unfortunately, we’re not using the knowledge we have, because too many people who matter — politicians, public officials, and the broader class of writers and talkers who define conventional wisdom — have, for a variety of reasons, chosen to forget the lessons of history and the conclusions of several generations’ worth of economic analysis, replacing that hard-won knowledge with ideologically and politically convenient prejudices.”

10. 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

Two congressional experts lambaste America’s legislative body for unprecedented political partisanship — and gridlock.

“The debt limit crisis of 2011 inspired as much coverage as any political story of the year, but we believe we need to revisit it, from its genesis on, to understand its future implications. The crisis underscored for many Americans the utter dysfunction in our politics and the disdain of our elected officials for finding solutions to big problems. To be sure, prolonged and contentious negotiations over important policies are not new, and the endgames usually go right up to the deadlines, and occasionally beyond. But these negotiations were so prolonged and contentious, and involved so many threats by top leaders that they would, according to Jason Chaffezt of Utah, ‘have taken it [the debt limit and America’s credit] down’ unless the Republicans’ inflexible demands were met. The final deal to raise the ceiling left a clear impression that the next time might well be worse.”

11. From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, by Pankaj Mishra

Indian-born novelist and essayist Mishra explores the intellectual history that shaped the rise of the East.

“Today Asian societies from Turkey to China seem very vital and self-assured. This wasn’t how they appeared to those who condemned the Ottoman and Qing empires as ‘sick’ and ‘moribund’ in the nineteenth century. The much-heralded shift of economic power from the West to the East may or may not happen, but new perspectives have certainly opened up on world history. For most people in Europe and America, the history of the twentieth century is still largely defined by the two world wars and the long nuclear stand-off with Soviet Communism. But it is now clearer that the central event of the last century for the majority of the world’s population was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence from the ruins of both Asian and European empires. TO acknowledge this is to understand the world not only as it exists today, but also how it is continuing to be remade not so much in the image of the West as in accordance with the aspirations and longings of former subject peoples.”

12. Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray

Controversial author Charles Murray argues the cultural gap between rich and poor white Americans is wider than the country has ever known.

“In 1960, college graduates were still a minority, usually a modest minority, in even the most elite places in the United States. Only Beverly Hills had a median family income greater than $100,000. Over the next forty years, these places, already fashionable in 1960, were infused with new cultural resources in the form of college graduates and more money to pay for the tastes and preferences of an upper class. These infusions were not a matter of a few percentage points or a few thousand dollars. The median income in these fourteen elite towns and neighborhoods went from $84,000 to $163,000 — almost doubling. The median percentage of college graduates went from 26 percent to 67 percent — much more than doubling.”

13. The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age, by Martha Nussbaum

University of Chicago law professor Nussbaum describes the roots of the religious fear behind acts of intolerance in the post-9/11 world.

“Once, not very long ago, Americans and Europeans prided themselves on their enlightened attitudes of religious toleration and understanding. Although everyone knew that the history of the West had been characterized by intense religious animosity and violence — including such bloody episodes as the Crusades and the Wars of Religion, but including, as well, the quieter violence of colonial religious domination by Europeans in many parts of the world, domestic anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism, and culminating in the horrors of Nazism, which implicated not only Germany but also many other nations — Europe until very recently liked to think that these dark times were in the past. … Today we have many reasons to doubt this complacent self-assessment. Our situation calls urgently for searching critical self-examination, as we try to uncover the roots of ugly fears and suspicions that currently disfigure all Western societies.”

14. Government Bullies: How Everyday Americans Are Being Harassed, Abused, and Imprisoned by the Feds, by Rand Paul

The Tea Party-ing junior senator from Kentucky makes the case for a smaller U.S. government, with less regulation and less foreign intervention.

“We have sent billions of dollars to Africa to authoritarian regimes that rape, pillage, and torture their own people. We continue to give them more money each year in the hope that they might one day change their ways. It hasn’t worked. We need a firmer hand. We need a stronger voice. We need to say no more aid to countries that do not have democratic elections, no more aid to nations that terrorize their own people — and no more aid to anyone who detains innocent Americans! … America doesn’t even have the money to send them. We’re borrowing the money from China to aid people who don’t like us. This is illogical. It’s an insult. And it should end.”

15. Islam and the Arab Awakening, by Tariq Ramadan

The year after the Arab Spring, Ramadan, a professor of Islamic studies at Oxford University, challenges Muslims to embrace democracy on their own terms.

“The presence of the Islamists is now well established; they are fully participating in the future of their respective countries. The popular movements have transformed them into opposition political groups among many, while polarization between secularists and Islamists is becoming increasingly evident. Islam as a frame of reference will surely become a determining factor in domestic political debate in the societies in North Africa and the Middle East. Some speak of a Turkish or Indonesian variant, while others point to new paths to be explored. The Islamists themselves have markedly evolved on a number of issues (though this in itself may not yet be enough) … There can be little doubt that the relation between Islam as the majority religion and the aspiration to freedom and liberal democracy, or even a liberal economy, will emerge as considerations crucial to the future of Arab societies.”

16. Joseph Anton: A Memoir, by Salman Rushdie

Novelist Rushdie describes (in the third person) his life on the run after the 1989 Iranian fatwa condemning him to death for his book The Satanic Verses. The book is named for the pseudonym he adopted while in hiding.

“He drove home alone and the news on the radio was all bad. Two days earlier there had been a ‘Rushdie riot’ outside the U.S. Cultural Center in Islamabad, Pakistan. (It was not clear why the United States was being held responsible for The Satanic Verses.) The police had fired on the crowd and there were five dead and sixty injured. The demonstrators carried signs saying RUSHDIE, YOU ARE DEAD. Now the danger had been greatly multiplied by the Iranian edict. The Ayatollah Khomeini was not just a powerful cleric. He was a head of state ordering the murder of the citizen of another state, over whom he had no jurisdiction; and he had assassins at his service and they had been used before against ‘enemies’ of the Iranian Revolution, including enemies living outside Iran. There was another new word he had to learn. Here it was on the radio: extraterritoriality. Also known as state-sponsored terrorism. … [T]o live in a different country from one’s persecutors was no longer to be safe. Now there was extraterritorial action. In other words, they cam after you.”

17. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael Sandel

Harvard political philosopher Sandel argues the rush toward “commodification” — of everything from human kidneys to elite education — has gone too far.

“While it is certainly true that greed played a role in the financial crisis, something bigger is at stake. The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong. To contend with this condition, we need to do more than inveigh against greed; we need to rethink the role that markets should play in our society. We need a public debate about what it means to keep markets in their place. To have this debate, we need to think through the moral limits of markets. We need to ask whether there are some things money should not buy.”

18. Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles, by Ruchir Sharma

Morgan Stanley’s director of emerging market equities looks past the BRICS to the next up-and-coming economies to watch.

“The next decade is full of bright spots, but you can’t find them by looking back at the nations that got the most hype in the last decade, and hope they will hit new highs going forward. … One of the great economic stories of the century is largely overlooked, because the European Union is widely spoofed as an ‘open-air museum’ and in late 2011 is in the throes of a severe debt crisis. But the EU is also a stabilizing model and still an inspiration for some new members, particularly Poland and the Czech Republic, which are in the rare class of nations poised to break through and join the ranks of the rich elite. Not every little EU member is a Greece.”

19. Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays, by George Soros

The billionaire hedge fund manager offers a 27 collection of essays on Europe and the United States in the fallout of the economic crisis.

“At any moment of time there are myriads of feedback loops at work but all of them fall into two categories: positive or negative. A positive feedback reinforces prevailing misconceptions while a negative feedback corrects them. Most of the time the two types of feedback loops cancel each other out. Only occasionally does a positive feedback loop generate a bubble that is large enough to overshadow the other feedback loops, but on the rare occasions when this occurs the bubble assumes historic significance. The present moment is such an occasion. The euro crisis trumps all other considerations; financial markets dance to its tune all day long. This has a destabilizing effect on the behavior of market participants. Therefore it qualifies as a far-from-equilibrium situation.”

20. The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent, by Vivek Wadhwa 

Wadhwa, an Indian-American entrepreneur and academic, says U.S. immigration policy should do more to support growth-driving immigrant entrepreneurs.

“[A] vibrant United States that opens its doors to skilled immigrants will provide a greater benefit to the rest of the world than a closed, shriveling United States because the rules by which the US practices the game of economic development, job formation, and intellectual capital formation grow the global economic pie. And the ethos that drives America’s entrepreneurs and inventors, and has driven US policy until very recently, is critically important for the continued development of the global economy. That ethos is exemplified in the ingenuity, the persistence, and the perseverance of the wave after wave of talented immigrants who have lifted America to ever greater economic and technological heights from one generation to the next, for nearly 250 years.”

21. A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity, by Luigi Zingales

University of Chicago business professor Zingales argues that the U.S. economy, once the golden standard of the free-market system, has been corrupted by crony capitalism.

“Indeed, the corporate world has become ever more skillful in milking money from the government. Only in the 1980s did Congress start to pick winners and losers by earmarking funds for specific business recipients. … [T]he growth in these earmarks, once it started, was enormous. Intensifying this growth has been the widely accepted — and misguided — view that public funds can promote private-sector growth in the form of ‘public-private partnerships.’ All of this has helped increase the power of business interests over the market. And as business started to control more of the political agenda, popular support for the free-market system began to decline.”

22. The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, by Slavoj Zizek

Marxist Slovenian philosopher Zizek looks back at the revolutions that shook 2011 and asks why the discontent that sparked those events has faded.

“In 2011, we witnessed (and participated in) a series of shattering events, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street movement, from the UK riots to Breivik’s ideological madness. It was the year of dreaming dangerously, in both directions: emancipatory dreams mobilizing protesters in New York, on Tahrir Square, in London and Athens; and obscure destructive dreams propelling Breivik and racist populists across Europe, from the Netherlands to Hungary. The primary task of the hegemonic ideology was to neutralize the true dimension of these events … The media killed the radical emancipatory potential of the events or obfuscated their threat to democracy, and then grew flowers over the buried corpse. This is why it is so important to set the record straight, to locate the events of 2011 in the totality of the global situation, to show how they relate to the central antagonism of contemporary capitalism.”

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