The best of the lot is surely Charles Barnard, The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown. It's hard to imagine a more helpful account of what has gone haywire in the financial system over the past few years, including an accessible under-the-hood account of some of the more momentous banking innovations. I look forward to stealing from this guy a lot, or at any rate paraphrasing a lot of what he has to say, and perhaps the worse for the paraphrase.
I'd say almost as much for Paul Krugman, The Return of Depression Economics. Krugman is kind of a cult villain in moonbat land, but even those who don't like his politics or his combatative style will have to admit he is (a) state-of-the art technician in macro theory; and (b) a top-notch explainer of abstruse concepts. You can see why Princeton students would want to pay 30 (40? 50?) thou a year to sit at his feet and listen (to what the rest of us can get for 20 bucks, or free). The book is hampered by the fact that it was first written ad an account of the Asian meltdown of the late 90s, then reengineered, rather hastily I must say, for the current uproar. There is a connection, of course, and history is part of the point here. But if he'd written from scratch, he wouldn't be quite so top-heavy with the collapse of the bhat. Also, I can't imagine how the publisher let him get away with that title. While it does, in a sense, accurately represent the contents, I suspect that the kind of reader he's looking for will simply not recognize that this book is for him (her).
Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money, I wrote about earlier. I got snide with him for getting confused about bankruptcy but then I conceded that the book was, overall, quite an excellent general over view of a long and complicated history. Still true, although after reading Morris and Krugman, you're reminded of just how broad-brush his presentation is--and must be, considering how broad the task he has set for himself. I oonfess that after having read the book, I couldn't bear to watch the PBS special: the sonorous anecdotes and the jump-cut video was new when I first saw Alistair Cooke's America nearly 40 years ago, but by now the formula is getting kind of stale.
Raghuram G. Rajan and Luigi Zingales Saving Capitalism from Capitalists, is a somewhat more complicated matter. As I say, I'm not quite finished with it, but I think I get the drift: if this were a Victorian political tract, it would be entitled Incumbency: An Account of the Evil Thereof, with Proposals for a Remedy. Their point is intelligible enough: crony capitalism is not capitalism; incumbents dig in and protect themselves against (further) competition. Freeing us from the dead hand of incumbency can make life better for all, and in particular, can give opportunities to the otherwise dispossessed. This is an important, if often overlooked, home truth. I'd say it is fairly generally accepted among economists* --perhaps particularly by economists writing about development, like Dani Rodrik or William Baumol. Indeed, it probably helps to explain the disconnect between self-conceived "liberal" economists (Krugman is a sufficient example) and the voting public on issues like free trade.
RZ hew consistently to their theme and they offer a collation of helpful instances of the evils of incumbency. They make passing reference to their recipe for reform: secure property rights; transparency (which would include mandated disclosure and quality accounting standards). They are also insistent on a point that is a hobbyhorse of mine: a market is a cultural artifact--markets don't just fall from the sky they can be tweaked and formed for good or evil, and we can't expect good results just by leaving them alone.
So far, so good. But unless they are planning a boffo final chapter, they don't seem as systematic as I would like. They cover a lot of ground at a brisk pace. I complained earlier that they really stewed the pooch on the details of bankruptcy and I while I haven't spotted that kind of slipup elsewhere, I must say it does make me wonder about how good they really are at other issues I know less about. So, well worth the effort, and I do expect to finish it, perhaps this afternoon. But to be used with caution.
Oh, and one other that I almost forgot: Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik, The World that Trade Made. Perhaps the reason I forgot it is that it is not a book so much as a collection of anecdotes--a kind of readers' digest of snippets from the economic history of the (post-Medieval) modern era. Apparently these were written piecemeal for some sort of trade journal. There are no footnotes (although they do add a helpful bibliography). But the stories, one by one, are well told and mostly instructive. Amazon reviewers say that this would be a great prep book for the AP history exam. All I can say is that history must be a lot more interesting than it was when I went to high school.
Takeaway point: there really is an awful lot of good, intelligent, nontechnical writing out there. I'd love to kick back and just read a dozen more (isn't that what being a professor is supposed to be about?). But as the philosopher says, stuff happens. I know that 14 weeks from now, I will look back on a semester of either success or failure and wonder--what the heck happened to all my time?
*Maybe it is the definition of an economist. Cf. Adam Smith:
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is im-possible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and jus-tice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.