Read the Best Books First

There was for many years a photo on a hallway wall of our family home: an aged woman avidly reading in a canopied four-poster bed.  The caption was a line from Henry David Thoreau: “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”

October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election (Public Affairs), by Devlin Barrett, arrived Monday last week, a day ahead of schedule. I read the first twenty pages standing up.  I sat down and resumed reading, finishing the 325-page book the next day.

As a Wall Street Journal reporter covering the Justice Department, Barrett wrote two stories that may have affected the outcome of the election (neither of them available any longer for free on the Web).The first surfaced details of an unsuccessful bid for a Virginia State Senate seat by Dr. Jill McCabe, wife of Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, in which her campaign received a large contribution from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a longtime friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton.  The second disclosed the existence of an ongoing FBI investigation of the Clinton Foundation. Between the first and the second, FBI Director James Comey notified Congress he had reopened the Clinton email investigation.

Donald Trump won the election by a razor-thin margin. A couple of months later, Barrett moved to The Washington Post, where he continued to cover the growing turmoil at the FBI, often with fellow reporter Matt Zapotosky.

In 2017, Comey was fired, former FBI director Robert Mueller was hired as special counsel to investigate links between the Trump campaign and Russia. Investigation of the leaks to Barrett began. Senior FBI investigator Peter Strzok was dismissed from the Mueller task force, after a series of texts he exchanged with FBI attorney Lisa Page was uncovered. Eventually the Inspector General of the Justice Department went to work on the case. The running narrative of the Strzok-Page text eventually was published.

Barret has weaved all these complicated elements into a spell-binding account that is in equal measure knowledgeable, intelligible, and fair-minded. Not since All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, has there been anything like it. In October Surprise, it is an intelligence service and law enforcement agency, not a presidency, that comes apart. And Barrett, like Woodward and Bernstein, is coy about his most important sources.  In the end, though, Barrett’s is the more thorough explanation.

That said, it is more than a little confusing to read forty days before the 2020 election, since it has almost entirely to do with the Justice Department and the FBI, and little to do with the broad choices now facing American voters. That’s why it’s a book, not a newspaper story.  For that reason, it will take some time for the book to arrive at the center of public discussion.  (The WPost ran an excerpt from it Sunday a week ago on the front page, followed by a review.)  Moreover, Barrett’s conclusion, that the harm arose from the FBI trying to save itself, failed to persuade me. But what a stupendous achievement is his untangling of the web of alarms and confusions!

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What are the best business books of today?  Of the newspapers and reviews I read to keep up with general-interest publishing in and around economics, the most useful by far is the Financial Times.  Book reviews appear without warning throughout the week. The weekend edition’s Life and Arts section is almost always ahead of the curve. There are special sections in summer, autumn, and winter, in which staffers survey new books on their beats.

And then there is the annual FT McKinsey Best Business Book contest, an international agenda-setting device. You can test your sophistication against its long lists here, or catch up in a hurry on what you have missed.

Now in its seventeenth year, the FT prize has become a reliable indicator of cosmopolitan fashion in ideas, “making sense of the near future,” as a panel discussion put it last week.  (For a time Goldman Sachs was sponsor). To make its point, the contest offers big prizes, £30,000 to the winner, £10,000 each for five runners-up. A panel of though-leader judges, chaired by incoming FT editor Roula Khalaf, assures global reach: Mitchell Baker, chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation; Mohamed El-Erian, economic advisor at Allianz; Herminia Ibarra, of London Business School; Randall Kroszner, of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business; Dambisa Moyo, economist and board member, 3M Company and Chevron; Raju Narisetti, of McKinsey & Co.; and Shriti Vadera, chair-elect of UK’s Prudential PLC.

Fifteen titles were named to a long list. The judges chose six, which were announced last week,

 Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Princeton University Press (UK) & (US)

No Filter: The Inside Story of How Instagram Transformed Business, Celebrity and Our Culture, by Sarah Frier, Random House Business (UK); Simon & Schuster (US)

No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer, WH Allen, Penguin Random House (UK); Penguin Press (US)

Reimagining Capitalism: How Business Can Save the World, by Rebecca Henderson, Penguin Business, Penguin Random House (UK); PublicAffairs (US)

If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future, by Jill Lepore, John Murray Press (UK); W.W. Norton (US)

A World Without Work: Technology, Automation and How We Should Respond, by Daniel Susskind, Allen Lane (UK); Metropolitan Books (US)

The winner will be announced December 1 at a ceremony in London.

Judges haven’t shied from books on weighty topics. Capitalism in the twenty-first century, by Thomas Piketty won in 2016,   Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World, by Adam Tooze, made the long list in 2018. Adaptive Markets: Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought, by Andrew Lo, and The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality, by Walter Scheidel, made the short list in 2017, and Economics for the Public Good, by Jean Tirole, the long list. The Rise and Fall of American Growth, by Robert Gordon, made the short list in 2016, while Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World, by Deirdre McCloskey, made the long list.

There have been interesting omissions. Three in particular stand out, because they represent an unusual degree of convergence on the importance to economics, at least as it has long been understood, of institutions and culture. The three books are:

 A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, by Joel Mokyr, of Northwestern University.

The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, respectively

The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today, by David Stasavage, of New York University.

No selecting mechanism is perfect, or even near perfect. And global thought-leaders don’t have time for heavy lifting. The Best Book prize is as well-focused on the news frontier as any other forward-looking instrument we possess.


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