Economic Fables by Ariel Rubinstein

Part memoir, part introduction to microeconomic theory, this beautifully written book by Ariel Rubinstein should be required reading for any student of economics. It provides an elegant nontechnical introduction to the methodology of economics and game theory, but it’s framed, unusually, through personal anecdote and professional introspection. Underlying the text is Rubinstein’s gentle insistence that theoretical academic economics has no value in addressing social and political issues, instead, at best, it provides exercise for the brain, and food for thought:

I also find myself from time to time looking at something from a perspective I have acquired from the study of economic theory. But I am quite sure that if instead of devoting my adult life to economic models I had engaged in a non-academic profession, I would view life from standpoints that are less abstract but no less useful.

Rubinstein has long been a puckish cat amongst the pigeons in the economics profession. His arguments carry special weight since at first glance he would appear to be the consummate insider, with a lengthy and prestigious publication record of abstract mathematical economics. Yet, throughout his career he has sought to puncture the self-importance of the economics profession (“Dilemmas of an Economic Theorist”) and has worried openly that students’ opinions on matters of policy are affected by the exclusive focus on mathematical methods in the economics curriculum (“A Sceptic’s Comment on the Study of Economics”). This book is an entertaining exploration of the themes of Rubinstein’s intellectual career.

Economics Evolving by Agnar Sandmo

A common lament among economists with a humanistic bent is that the history of economic thought is alarmingly absent from the contemporary curriculum. Agnar Sandmo has written a book that can serve both as a text for such a course and a fascinating read for the layperson. This is a minimally technical introduction to the life and work of many of the most significant figures in the progression of economics from its birth in moral philosophy and political economy, through the formalization of its core methods, to its influential adolescence in 20th-century policy debates. I find the book especially valuable for its fairly sympathetic treatment of Marx, who is often and understandably marginalized in the history of economic thought due to the technical shortcomings of his conception of economic systems. But even as Sandmo makes this clear, he acknowledges that Marx’s ambitions were not for academic rigor, but to persuade and shape public discourse on the organization of the economy. Few could argue against his unmatched success in this goal, for better or for worse.

Economics from the Heart by Paul Samuelson

I’m pretty sure this book has been out of print since the 80s, but I once grabbed a used copy of it from a dollar bin and got some pretty good value from it. Samuelson is one of the most important figures in codifying modern economic methodology: his 1948 undergraduate textbook remains the template for economics teaching today. That book is well worth the read, written with a personality and style that its modern facsimiles have never been able to replicate. But this one is a relative throwaway. It’s a collection of Samuelson’s popular writing, newspaper and magazine columns about the economic issues of the day in the 1970s. To read the casual writings of one of the profession’s greats on issues that have now passed into fossilized history is a privilege certainly worth the price of a used paperback. And what a brilliant title!

Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson

This isn’t really an economics book. It’s a history of the early days of computers that focuses on the contributions of the Hungarian-American polymath John von Neumann and the MANIAC machine built at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in the early 1950s. Among von Neumann’s many and varied intellectual achievements are his key role in the founding of the field of game theory and his use of then-novel mathematical techniques in mathematical economics that have since become standard. His 1944 book with Oskar Morgenstern, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, is among the most influential contributions to economics of the 20th century. Turing’s Cathedral, though, is about another strand in von Neumann’s career, his championing and organizing of one of the first major projects to turn computers from a theoretical possibility to reality. The book’s focus on the MANIAC project may overstate von Neumann’s role a little, but the story is so wonderfully told and the central players so compelling that perhaps a little exaggeration is forgivable.a

Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes

This too is not strictly an economics book, although it concerns things that economics has thought a lot about over the years: disruptive innovation, intellectual property disputes, and industrial competition. Empires of Light is a history of the early days of electricity and the ruthless competition among Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse to dominate the new technology. What other industrial case study could possibly be as interesting as the one that electrified our world? The book is compulsively readable and particularly fascinating if you’re interested in the ruthlessness and romanticism of the Gilded Age. Pair it with Thomas Pynchon’s novel  Against the Day for an immersive double dip into another time that seems like another world.

Image Credit:  quattrostagioni via flickr

About The Author

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Academic Correspondent, Economics

James Campbell is an economist specializing in applying methods from game theory, microeconomic theory, and graph theory to topics including targeting in social networks, privacy regulation, coordination problems, and open access policies. He received a B.A. in Economics and Management from Oxford University in 2005 and a Ph.D. in Economics from Brown University in 2010. Since 2010 he has been appointed as an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, and is currently appointed as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Brown University. His research has been published in the Review of Network Economics, Quantitative Marketing and Economics, and the Journal of Economics and Management Strategy.