Ten books and ten papers for political economists

As the readers of this blog know, I have a bit of an emotional relationship with the stuff I read, and with my books in particular. With a friend, we were discussing the possibility of organizing a list of good reads that have been particularly influential in the way we think about the world and research in general. In one way, I couldn’t be more enthusiastic, as if there is something I love is talking/bragging about books, papers, and music. On the other hand, selecting a list involves excluding so many readings I would like to include that I can only feel it is extremely unfair.

To facilitate this task, I have followed some rules: a) I only selected readings in English b) I tried them to reflect a mixture of my interests, my background, and my current orientation. I have tried to avoid including readings that do not reflect my profile as a political economist, even if they have been influential in the way I think (for example, wonkish books on the philosophy of language or ethics :/) c) I have included only ten works in each category and not one more d) The selection tries to include an interdisciplinary dimension. e) I have included books that I think political economists would benefit from reading, independently of whether they work on my field or not.

Books

  • German Social Democracy, 1905–1917: The Development of the Great Schism, by Schorske: The title is not very seductive. It would look that, unless you are highly interested in the story of socialism, there is no point of reading it. I disagree. One of the books that did not make the cut and that has highly influenced me suggests that good history works are like case studies that feed your intuition that you may then build into theory. The history of the Great Schism (between reformism and communism) in the SPD is full of interesting lessons that show up in all types of social contexts. How do social movement behave? What role does their ideology shape in organizing that behavior? How Do they confront strategic decisions?  How does a party reconcile its internal and external contradiction? Bonus point: if you read Roemer’s seminal book on party competition, one of his models is based on this book
  • Search of Modern China, Jonathan Spence: I read this book some years ago, and it remains one of my favorite history books. I have included it partly for the same reasons as Schorske’s: it is a great history about the road to modernization of a country. But also, I think that political economist should read, at least a little bit, about societies that are substantially different from theirs to avoid the sin of being to provincial in their way of thinking.
  • Codes of the street by Elijah Anderson: this book is an ethnographic study of the Philadelphia’s ghetto. As someone coming from the other side of the methodological continuum, I found this book wonderfully written, and informative. Given that I work mainly on inequality, having some sense of what people think and feel like behind the numbers seemed important to me.
  • Democracy and the Market: Przewroski is probably one of my favorite social scientists and I wanted to include at least one of his works in the list. I read D&M  8 years ago, with enormous excitement. It was the first Przewoski book I read, I remember it had all kind of insights and ideas that fed my understanding of how democracies interact with the market.
  • Power, a radical view, by Stephen Lukes: Being a political economist, it is unavoidable to talk about power. A friend recommended it to me long ago. He suggested that a) It was a good exposition of the idea of subgame perfection and b) It put substantial order in the debate separating the three dimensions of power. His words have stayed in my mind each time I think about the relationship between theory and empirics. Most of what you do in political science is about off-the-path stuff, that is, subgame perfection. Interestingly, Lukes does this coming from the ‘radical’, political theory tradition.
  • Making sense of Marx, by John Elster. Karl Marx is, with the possible exception of Jesus Christ, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, the most influential and insightful thinker in history of Western civilization. Yet, nowadays, its ideas are only studied by obscure political theorists who, together with its critics, claim that most of Marx ideas are at odds with modern social science. A group of brilliant people spent some time examining this claim and trying to reconcile and translate many of Marx’s ideas with modern social science.   This, and its baby version were the books with which I became familiar with the work of the September Group.
  • Economic theory and cognitive science, by Don Ross: when I started studying economics, I was feeling uneasy about the contradiction between the ‘behavioral’ economics approach, and my feeling that mathematical models of rationality were compelling
  • Identification for prediction and decision, by Charles Manski: Everything today is about causal identification. When thinking about causal inference, the names that come to mind are people like Donald Rubin, Guido Imbens, or Josh Angrist. Even in econometrics, Manski is mostly known for his work in discrete choice. However, I find Manski’s work on identification the closest one to my taste. I understand why his ideas are less attractive for researchers. The Mostly Harmless  gospel is optimistic: it shows in an accessible fashion the thousands of things that can be achieved with all sorts of research designs. Instead, Manski emphasized that every single piece of identification implies more or less strong assumptions are not testable, and often you can at most achieve set identification. I find Manski’s pessimism compelling, and a necessary cure.
  • Statistical rethinking, Richard McElreath: One of the greatest achievements for me of the last year and a half has been the incorporation of the bayesian set of tools into my work routine. I owe much of that to this book. I want to write a review some day. It deals with things at a very practical (i.e. not mathematical) level, but introduces pretty advanced ideas about inference, information theory, computation (with plenty of examples), and hierarchical models. It is probably the best book on statistics I have ever read and with no doubt the one with which I have learned the most.
  • Advanced R, Hadley Wickham: I wanted to include at least one book on programming, as I spend most of my time now doing this. I also think programming is a basic skill for any researcher. Social scientists owe a lot to Hadley, and any of his other books could be in this list (his ggplot2 book is wonderful too). But I preferred this one, because the book is actually about computing and the R language. The book is wonderfully written and, unlike other programming books, it can actually be read (not just consulted as a cookbook). You will learn a lot from reading, at least several of the chapter.

Papers:

  • General Conditions for Global Intransitivities in Formal Voting Models, McKelvey: I have included McKelvey’s paper as a representative of the social choice / Rochester school literature. This strand of ideas -about cycling, instability, manipulability and the normative side in the form of social choice- is, in my view, at the very basis of the rational study of institutions. When I say at the basis, I mean it at the foundational, motivational sense: without the results from voting and social theory, the design of political institutions makes little sense.
  • Tirole  ‘The internal organization of government’: everyone should read some Tirole, at some point of her life. This piece if particularly relevant for political scientists, as it is about how governments and bureaucracies work. It provides the idea from first principles. I think the title is self-explanatory.
  • Claudia Goldin’s two review pieces about the economic history of American women (I and III wanted to include an ‘easier’ read and some economic history. Claudia Goldin is one of my intellectual heros. More importantly, if I had to name just one thing that dramatically changed in the XXth century in western societies, probably I would mention: the status of women. Besides being important on its own, its the engine of family structure (intrinsically linked to inequality), and represents a historical break with everything known before. Claudia Goldin shows how the main force behind that was technology. It is a great companion to Elster’s chapter on marxist theory of history.
  • Heckman’s the Scientific model of Causality: This paper is a comprehensive review of the theory of causal identification performed by one of the best econometricians of the last century. Heckmans represents the structural approach to econometrics, that suggests that theory and inference should be closely linked. My main problem with the Causal Inference approach that dominates is precisely that: there is little understanding of what the parameters, the ATE, actually mean. There is, moreover, little feeling of a need to go beyond the estimation of ‘causal effects’. My favorite quote from that paper goes something like that ‘Causality is in the model. Ambiguity in the description of the model leads to ambiguity in the conclusions’
  • Manski’s ‘Reflection problem’ paper: maybe this is cheating, since this paper is explained in the book I mentioned above. It is Manski’s most quoted paper, and a brilliant piece of work, showing how social interactions face enormous identification problems.
  • Practical Bayesian model evaluation using leave-one-out cross-validation and WAIC: I read this paper after reading the Rethinking book mentioned above. It introduces a systematic way of thinking about model selection implementing its most sensitive modality: out of sample prediction. It is easy, and there is an R package that implements it.
  • Elections as a conflict processing mechanism, by Przeworski, Rivero, Xi: I wanted to include at least one piece by Przeworski on democracy, and this one is probably the most recent one. Even if, as a political economist working on ‘pacified’ (stable democratic) societies I should not be particularly interested in the topic, I find Przeworski’s ideas about democracy foundational to the way I think. Just as it is important to know how other societies work, it is important to understand that the institutional equilibrium under which the current set of policies work is one of the many potential ones, and thus it is constrained by its sustainability conditions.
  • Social Assets, Mailath Postlewaite: a beautiful theoretical paper. It shows how traits (education, blue blood) may acquire and sustain value in equilibrium because of their ‘exchange’ value in the marriage market. I have put it here, not only because Georges and Andy are among the most brilliant minds I have seen in action, but the paper shows the versatility of formal modeling to represent situations that used to be only seen as the domain of sociologists.
  • Self-confirming equilibrium, Levine and Fudenberg: beliefs are hard to model. This paper is beautiful and, shows that there is hope in formal theory accommodating many ideas from social theories (ideologies, cognitive traps, etc). This paper was presented by Lupia and Zarinova in this PA
  • Whither political economy? by Antonio Merlo: I was not sure of whether this could be included in the ‘papers’ section, given that it is basically a manuscript of course notes, but this is my blog and my rules, so let it be. It covers a wide array of formal models of political economy in a very intuitive way. I particularly like the exposition of the theory of coalitions and careers (to which Merlo has been an original contributor).

 

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Ten books and ten papers for political economists

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