Book Recommendations from 2019

Book Recommendations from 2019

As 2019 is ending, we asked a few of our colleagues to share a bit about their favorite books they read this year. We hope that one or maybe even a few of the books will make your reading list for 2020.

Lindsay Marie – Policy Analyst, Criminal Justice

Prisoners of Politics
By: Rachel Elise Barkow

At the current pace of criminal justice reforms and decarceration, it will take 75 years to cut the prison population in half, according to the Sentencing Project. While many politicians call for an end to mass incarceration, few, if any, have released a proposal that would even make a sizeable difference. The plans they put forth often focus on decriminalizing marijuana and reducing sentencing for non-violent drug and property crimes which affect only a small percentage of the prison population. Through examples, research, and facts, Barkow details what is actually driving mass incarceration, overly broad criminal laws that lump offenders together regardless of culpability and mandatory minimums handed down to all offenders in a category, even though they were designed with the worst offender in mind.

Barkow also discusses in great detail how criminal justice policy is often rooted in misinformation, fear, knee-jerk reactions to a single crime, and emotion. She rightfully advocates for policy based on case studies, evidence, and facts and proposes an institutional shift in the formation of criminal justice policy.

Law Man: Memoir of a Jailhouse Lawyer
By: Shon Hopwood

Hopwood is a professor of law at Georgetown Law Center, an appellate lawyer, and a convicted felon.  In his memoir, he recounts his time in federal prison, what lead him there, and what allowed him to survive. In ten years, Hopwood transformed himself from a bank robber to one of the best, if not the best, jailhouse lawyers in the country. By the time he left prison, the Supreme Court had granted two of his petitions for certiorari, something unheard of for a practicing lawyer, let alone a jailhouse lawyer.

Although Hopwood was behind bars, he wasn’t on his journey alone. He began writing back and forth with a girl from back home that he’d always had a crush on. She, too, was going through a tough time; she was battling an eating disorder and her osteoporosis was worsening. They were both fighting for their lives and those handwritten letters filled with encouragement, love, and support, were their saving grace.

His memoir is a story of redemption, second chances, and grace.

Meg Tuszynski – Texas Policy Fellow

Who Killed Civil Society: The Rise of Big Government and Decline of Bourgeois Norms
By: Howard A. Husock

In the United States, social services are provided through a wildly expensive government edifice, which imposes one-size-fits all solutions to a variety of perceived social problems. These government programs are reformative in nature; that is to say, they only treat problems once the symptoms begin to manifest themselves. In this book, Manhattan Institute vice president for research and publications Howard Husock examines the history of social assistance in the United States, and finds that when civil society was in charge of providing aid, the approach was formative in nature. The organizations that provided aid focused on promoting the development of healthy norms and values amongst those who received assistance, thereby setting them on a clear path toward upward mobility.

Husock discusses the work of several past social reformers, and highlights the benefits of their formative approach to social assistance. Importantly, he details similar efforts that exist today, and provides suggestions regarding what the future might look like.

Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way through the Unfree World
By: Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell

Bernie Sanders. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Both are self-described “socialists”, and both are attracting scores of young voters to their so-called socialist ideology. The resurgence of popularity in what has historically been such a damaging doctrine is at best unsettling – at worst, terrifying.

Lawson and Powell make it clear that what Sanders and AOC are peddling is not, in fact, socialism. The two economists marshal both data and their own experience travelling the world to distinguish between real socialist countries like Venezuela, and those large welfare-state — but nonetheless capitalist — countries like Sweden that today’s socialist sympathizers hold up as a beacon for what they want our society to look like. Lawson and Powell make it clear that everywhere real socialism has been tried, it’s been a disaster. Even if the data isn’t enough to convince an aspiring young Chávez that Socialism is a damaging ideology, the fact that they couldn’t find a good beer in the truly Socialist countries might pack a punch!   

Cutter W. González – Urban Policy Fellow

The Color of Law
By: Richard Rothstein

Urban policy wonks speak ad nauseam about the economic effects of land use regulation and housing policy. The discussion has gained national attention, with candidates in the Democratic primary debating the proper fix for what has been dubbed a “housing crisis.” Meanwhile, the Trump Administration is posturing to take on single-family zoning.

The social implications of urban policy get a mixed reception. For some, they interrupt the economic debate, derailing possible reforms with intensely emotional stories and sometimes-unquantifiable claims that sow unnecessary division. Others view social issues as tantamount, making democracy and equality end goals worthy of any means. The balance is, of course, somewhere in between.

Rothstein’s book, The Color of Law, is a narrative-busting history of land use regulation and housing policy that shows how these concerns are historically intertwined. He reminds us that our current urban patterns did not come to us out of thin air. In fact, they were guided largely by the progressive reforms and racial mores of the early- and mid-twentieth century—and how governments at all levels intervened, or failed to intervene, in ways that determined how our cities are lived in today.

Readers will be hard-pressed to find a more fair treatment of this subject anywhere else. Rothstein acknowledges at once the injustice made possible when the state is given unjust authority and the underlying social ills that motivated its abuse. It is an informative historical account that should remind policy makers to think critically about context—geographical, social, economic, and historical—when making even well-intentioned decisions for all of us.

Doug McCullough – Director

Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt
By: Arthur Brooks

Building on his 2017 work, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, Brooks makes the compelling and loving case that the way to make a better America is not through less agreement, but better disagreement. Social media and smashmouth politics incentivize us to belittle or “own” our political opponents and treat them as enemies. Brooks preaches that we should put aside contempt and speak to friend and foe alike with respect and genuine curiosity about their ideas. Persuading our opponents is merely one upside to treating others with respect. By respectfully treating others as neighbors, we makes our shared communities more liveable and create space for having substantive conversations about big ideas and policy.

Though not a book, I would also highly recommend watching Brooks’ movie The Pursuit. The film builds on Love Your Enemies by demonstrating how to listen first, even when we disagree with others ideas (or how they articulate them). In some ways, The Pursuit is an homage to free enterprise. But it is deeply humane, empathetic and personal. It beautifully depicts how many of us have shared motivations in pursuing happiness and prosperity that are based on worthwhile aspirations for ourselves and families, rather than greed and naked ambition.

Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse
By: Timothy Carney

Carney goes beyond the banal observations of this or that is “how we got Trump” and really explores how different sections of the country are faring. Carney brings a journalistic approach to weaving in data and story telling. The book is not heavy on policy, but digs deep into the commonalities and correlations among thriving communities on one hand, and localities that are failing on the other. Carney’s work is not done in service to any particular political narrative. The book is not about President Trump, but how different areas of the country are doing at the local, community level. It examines the relationship between economic prosperity or distress and community flourishing. This isn’t a cold economic analysis though. This is a thoughtful, robust look at how relationships, community and local institutions foster flourishing, and a sober look at what happens to communities when those institutions fail.

If you are interested in understanding the 2020 electorate, this is a good starting point. More importantly, if you want to get a feel about how various parts of the country are doing, this is an excellent resource.

Franklin J. Parker – Free Enterprise Analyst

On Certainty
By: Ludwig Wittgenstein

Every now and then, I like to polish the glasses through which I see the world. That often means a return to philosophical fundamentals, and 2019 was, for me, just such a time. My recommendation is not a recently published book, nor is it particularly practical. Even so, I found it remarkably relevant.

Written toward the end of his life and collected from his various notebooks, in On Certainty Wittgenstein struggles with what we can really know. Refreshingly, this book is not written by a philosopher with all the answers; rather, it reads more like the travel notebook of a man searching for answers alongside the rest of us. By digging into our most deeply held assumptions of the world, Wittgenstein demonstrates how those assumptions are often adopted unquestioningly and then become not facts we can observe but the lenses through which we view all other facts. The danger, then, is that we live life with obscured vision because we never question these assumptions. Wittgenstein goes on to illustrate how even the ideas we are capable of thinking are largely channeled by these unquestioned assumptions. Like a river, our flow of ideas is directed by the riverbed upon which they rest. In his words, “I distinguish between the movement of the waters on the river bed and the shift of the bed itself; though there is not a sharp division of the one from the other.”

Of most relevance, however, is Wittgenstein’s demonstration that certainty is a fool’s errand. As I look around the world today, as I listen to pundits and Facebook friends, I find myself genuinely baffled at how certain everyone seems to be, particularly with something as large and complex as the modern economy. This certainty, undoubtedly born of blind tribalism, is obscuring and distorting our vision. And it would appear to me that our bad vision is putting us in danger.

An aspect of libertarian thought I find appealing is the reliance on decentralized problem solving. Rather than rely on a monolithic structure ruled by dogma, it can be trivially shown that free markets and decentralized governments can find and adopt solutions much faster, but only if people recognize and adopt the successful solutions and discard the unsuccessful ones. When blinded by certainty, however, we become unable to distinguish between successful and unsuccessful solutions and the system fails (it would fail in a blinded centralized system, too).

As we begin a new decade, I invite readers to take off their glasses to both question and polish them. I can think of few better places to start than Wittgenstein’s On Certainty.

The Recommendations have been updated with a recommendation from Franklin J. Parker.