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The economy and how it impacts families is a burning issue today, as inflation and high interest rates dominate the news in the United States, becoming a key element in the midterm elections. In the United Kingdom, economics is at the heart of the troubles plaguing the island nation and former empire that welcomed its third prime minister in 2022. Throughout the world, too, it is a major talking point.
As you read through our list of the seven best books that cover economics, you’ll find diverse and in-depth viewpoints covering how this science plays out in everyday life.
In Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London, our best overall book, sociologist Caroline Knowles takes you through the neighborhoods of the capital city telling stories of how the ultra-wealthy live and work; how they spend their money, marry and divorce; and why London is one of the best places for those with nefarious intentions to hide money from authorities. The Times of London called the book a “latter-day Canterbury Tales.”
Another fascinating read is When McKinsey Comes to Town: The Hidden Influence of the World’s Most Powerful Consulting Firm by Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe, which investigates the prestigious, powerful consulting firm, revealing where it has failed to live up to its carefully cultivated sterling reputation. The New York Times investigative journalists detail how McKinsey sometimes works for opposing sides, without revealing its very obvious conflicts of interest, and offers its clients advice that can lead to unsafe outcomes.
Cambridge University political economist Helen Thompson has generated buzz for her Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century, which delves into the reasons for the world’s instability. In her telling, that shakiness is tied to geopolitics, which centers on energy; economics; and how the democracies of the most powerful nations work and interact.
Best Overall: Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London
Coverage of the ultra-wealthy rarely reveals the reality behind their day-to-day lives—their many houses and super-yachts, the tony schools they attend, their memberships in exclusive clubs, traveling adventures, and the ease and perks that being very well-heeled affords them. Here’s a book that shows you just that. It is especially relevant now, as Britain’s richest-ever prime minister (at least in modern times), Rishi Sunak, a former investment banker, and his wife, Akshata Murty, a tech heiress who reportedly is wealthier than King Charles III, take up residence at No. 10 Downing Street.
In Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London, author and sociology professor Caroline Knowles takes you on a slow, satisfying stroll through super-wealthy London, thanks to interviews with movers and shakers, support staff, and consultants. In the context of the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers, both of which revealed offshore entities used by the global elite, Knowles writes, “London is internationally renowned for its expertise in hiding money.” She is a former professor at Goldsmiths and now a global professorial fellow at Queen Mary, both University of London, and the author of Flip-Flop: A Journey Through Globalisation’s Backroads and co-author of Hong Kong: Migrant Lives, Landscapes, and Journeys.
The book features maps of London neighborhoods and stories from 43 individuals, all of whom remain anonymous and are given nicknames. They include: Boy, a young entrepreneur and owner of a bar in Shoreditch, a hipster neighborhood adjoining The City, London’s Wall Street; Quant, an algorithm writer for a bank; Cake, a former banker and private equities dealer specializing in fintech; Butler, a butler who has worked in some of London’s wealthiest households; Journo, a Russian journalist and chronicler of London’s invisible Russian entrepreneurs; Walker, a family office employee who works on domestic and family services; Palace, a Notting Hill mom, who hails from the landed aristocracy and does volunteer work; Babysitter, a young woman who explains life in a commuter village; and Traveller, who organizes unusual luxury trips and travel experiences for very wealthy clients.
After observing protests outside the Saudi embassy, Knowles notes, “Just as in London, you are supposedly never more than six feet away from a rat, in [moneyed] Mayfair, you are rarely far from a human rights violation.” Another story tells of a London divorce in which the soon-to-be ex-wife, a former model, asks the court for £500 million annually to fund a lavish lifestyle that includes three staffed homes, steady replenishment of her shoe and jewelry stock, and many other excesses, and is awarded £53 million instead.
Knowles also discusses how plutocratic London co-exists side by side with wealth from the Middle East and Britain; how income inequality was at its ugliest in the lead-up and aftermath of the fire at the low-income-housing Grenfell Tower in 2017 that killed 72 people and displaced everyone living there; and how life among some of London’s wealthy has carried on uninterrupted for generations.
Best Exposé of a Powerhouse Company: When McKinsey Comes to Town
Any employee or ex-employee of a corporation knows that “when McKinsey comes to town,” heads are going to roll, and it could be theirs. In Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe’s riveting, heavily annotated book When McKinsey Comes to Town: The Hidden Influence of the World’s Most Powerful Consulting Firm, the authors blow McKinsey’s cover as the good guys with integrity and discretion. They detail how this influential, tight-lipped consulting firm plays both sides of the fence, so to speak, by working for opposing sides without acknowledging conflicts of interest, and renders advice to some unsavory clients at the expense of safety and other unfortunate outcomes, in the interest of driving up short-term profits for the client and collecting high fees for McKinsey.
Both authors are award-winning journalists who now report for The New York Times. They explain how this “company defined by numbers, spreadsheets, and PowerPoint slides” enjoys near-absolute loyalty from its consultants, sometimes years after they have left the firm, and how that steadfastness proved a challenge in their reporting. Fortunately, though, some “McKinseyites” stepped forward to proffer insights into the firm’s practices and personalities.
McKinsey faced a disaster of its own making in South Africa, detailed in the chapter “Clubbing Seals: The South African Debacle.” McKinsey came to Johannesburg, hoping to establish a lucrative African foothold. Eventually, the firm became the focus of several government investigations involving “tainted contracts” and other irregularities connected to the country’s railroads and electricity utility, the airline South African Airways, and the financial consultancy Regiments Capital. McKinsey publicly apologized to the South African government several times, but the series of faux pas; links to the influential, corrupt South African Gupta family; and other illegal dealings rendered it mortally wounded in South Africa and left a stain on its global reputation.
Best Biography of an Economist: Empathy Economics
Janet Yellen is a rare individual. She is a highly accomplished woman and scholar in a male-dominated profession and is now the first female U.S. Treasury secretary. She has held the other two top economic policy jobs in the nation—chair of both the Federal Reserve and the Council of Economic Advisers—and was the first woman in both posts. In Owen Ullmann’s meticulous and laudatory Empathy Economics: Janet Yellen’s Remarkable Rise to Power and Her Drive to Spread Prosperity to All, he outlines Yellen’s philosophy of lifting up those from the economic ladder’s lowest rung and her humanity, which stands out in the brutal world of Washington politics.
Yellen grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, N.Y. She is the daughter of a physician who employed a pay-what-you-can policy for his patients and a former elementary schoolteacher mother, who also ran her husband’s practice after he had a medical setback. Ullmann, an award-winning journalist, takes the reader from Yellen’s happy, stable childhood, where she observed economic disparities among the patients who visited her father’s office. He recounts the gender discrimination she has faced at universities and throughout her career, and her 1978 marriage to George Akerlof, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics.
He details her stints at the Fed—including her firing by then-President Donald Trump, who said in a staggeringly superficial pronouncement that she was too short to be Fed chair, a job she had been doing well for four years before Trump took office—and her professional life today. Ullman writes of Yellen: “One signature achievement involves climate change: For the first time, she made it the focus of every aspect of the financial world that the Treasury supervises.”
A speech to her Treasury Department staff after her confirmation shows how Yellen’s earliest experiences are still with her. “My father was a doctor in a working-class part of Brooklyn, and he was a child of the Depression,” she said. “He had a visceral reaction to economic hardship, telling us about patients who lost their jobs or who couldn’t pay. Those moments remain some of the clearest of my early life, and they are likely why, decades later, I still try to see my science—the science of economics—the way my father saw his: as a means to help people.”
Best on Economic Fault Lines in Today’s Unstable World: Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century
University of Cambridge political economist Helen Thompson writes about long-standing political rivalries among the great powers in her well-received Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century, which was short-listed in September 2022 as one of the Financial Times’ best books this year. The book’s subtitle is a homage to author Charles Dickens and “his meditation on industrial civilization pitted against ‘the innumerable horsepower of time’” in Hard Times: For These Times.
Today’s pressure points and shocks, writes Thompson, are in economics, technology, military strength, and domestic political resilience. She notes that disruption in the last decade has been wrongfully attributed to populist nationalism, in the context of the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 and the plummeting of a “purportedly liberal international order,” adding that “at the systemic level much remains unexplained, not least because energy has gone unrecognized as an important cause of the geopolitical and economic fault lines at work.” Thompson builds her message around three histories—geopolitical, which centers on energy; economic; and democracies—all of which she ties together to help explain the growing instability in the world today.
Best Collection of Opinions: Economics and the Left
In Economics and the Left: Interviews with Progressive Economists, editor C.J. Polychroniou presents 24 economists “whose lifework has been dedicated to both interpreting the world and changing it for the better,” in their own words and on various topics. These include their home countries, modern monetary theory (MMT), Marxian and Keynesian perspectives, how their upbringing and parents helped to form their economic views, and the impact of COVID-19.
The group includes Brazilian Nelson Fihlo Barbosa; Briton Diane Elson; American, specifically Californian, Teresa Ghilarducci; Chinese, now U.S.-based, Zhongjin Li; and Turkish, now U.K.-based, Ozlem Onaran. Polychroniou is a political scientist, political economist, author, and journalist who has taught and worked at numerous universities and research centers in Europe and the United States. About the economists, the Bloomsbury Publishing website writes that “they are all people dedicated to the principles of egalitarianism, democracy and ecological sanity. The result is a combustible brew of ideas, commitments and reflections on major historical events, including the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting global economic recession.”
Best on Economic Pursuit as the New Religion: Work Pray Code
Religions and their services and rituals are often the go-to destination for many individuals outside of work as a place not only of faith but also of fellowship, and of developing an identity and sense of belonging and purpose. Yet that’s not the case for some tech workers in Silicon Valley, according to University of California-Berkeley sociologist Carolyn Chen in Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley. These white-collar employees, in sync with their employers’ aim in Silicon Valley, have created a “theocracy of work,” she argues, now willingly accepting “spiritual” sustenance from their workplace and employers.
Chen is an associate professor of Asian-American and Asian diaspora and comparative ethnic studies at the San Francisco-area university. She notes that some Silicon Valley employers willingly take on the pastoral roles that ministers, rabbis, priests, and imams once handled. In addition to doling out pay and providing traditional perks such as company cafeterias, which were common in paternalistic companies like the film company Eastman Kodak in the 1950s and ’60s, tech companies now assume maternalistic roles. Their perks can include wellness offerings—yoga, massages, and mindfulness classes—and 24/7 foods and snacks that are often gourmet in quality and cater to a variety of tastes and ethnicities.
Most tech workers at knowledge hubs come from elsewhere, be it a foreign country or another part of the U.S. They arrive in Silicon Valley with virtually no network, so they commence forming their connections and identity in the tech workplace. Chen’s research and interviews show also that some formerly religious individuals abandon their faith practices upon relocating in Silicon Valley. They then put the energy and fervor that they once injected into their spiritual life into tech startups and jobs—a trend more prevalent among workers in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s than in older techies.
“Silicon Valley indeed killed the Buddha,” writes Chen, who also authored Getting Saved in America: Taiwanese Immigration and Religious Experience. “But they have replaced the Buddha with another religion’s leader, the productivity leader in the religion of work. Like the dry cleaners, chefs, masseuses, and executive coaches, he’s there to ‘awaken’ tech workers to their full productivity.”
Best for Making Economics Simple: Talking to My Daughter About the Economy or, How Capitalism Works—and How It Fails
Sometimes the “soft science” of economics warrants a series of simple explanations that build as new concepts are presented. That’s the approach taken by former Greek finance minister and University of Athens economics professor Yanis Varoufakis in Talking to My Daughter About the Economy, or How Capitalism Works—and How It Fails. While nearly everyone can benefit from reading this book, it is the beginner to economics who will gain the most.
The author begins with the chapter “Why So Much Inequality?,” a question that his daughter, Xenia, asked him when she noticed the economic disparities among children in the world. He spells out the ancient beginnings of markets, surpluses, the advent of writing, debt, money, and the state. In subsequent chapters, he delves more deeply into the birth of a market society, the marriage of debt and profit, banking, and pandemics. Varoufakis is also the co-founder with Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat of DiEM25, the Democracy in Europe 25 organization, a pan-European organization that aims to restructure European treaties.
If you want to pull back the curtain on London’s vast wealth and the secretive world of its mega-rich, then spend time with Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London, by sociologist Caroline Knowles. She used her interviews with representative individuals in London and surrounding areas and research to paint a vibrant portrait and create a satisfying read about where Londoners spend, hide, save, and invest their “serious money.”
Why Trust Investopedia?
Michelle Lodge knows how to find the best of its kind in the book world. She has been published in Publishers Weekly and was an editor and writer for Library Journal, both of which cover books and the industry. While a book review editor at Library Journal, which recommends books for public library collections, she selected a number of top books on economics for review. She was also the editor of the On Wall Street Book Club, in which she reviewed books and interviewed authors on a podcast.
Seeking out a diversified field of books on economics requires lots of reading, including releases from book publishers and industry consultants, a passel of contenders, as well as publications, such as the Financial Times, The New York Times, the London Review of Books, and Bloomberg, and consultations with many experts. Lodge also pulled her resources together by collecting recommendations from Investopedia Financial Review Board members and Investopedia editors. Lodge’s aim is to present the reader with factual, actionable books that are well-written, enjoyable to read, and cover the bases in subject matter and expertise. Her goal is also to tap into a diverse pool of new and established writers, whose coverage reveals the many influences on and perspectives about economics.