Thursday, June 14, 2012

Booklist: Public Policy

Man, I am a sucker for booklists--my own, or anyone else's.  Maybe the digital substitute for browsing in bookstores.  I'm a paid-up subscriber to The Browser, mainly for my daily fix of Fivebooks.  So when Mark Kleiman put up this bleg this morning, it was like dancicng a woolly bugger past a trout:
The current graduating class of UCLA Master of Public Policy students – a spectacular bunch, in case any reader is looking to hire smart, serious people – has asked the faculty for a “third-year curriculum”: a reading list of books, articles, and (I would add) blogs that will allow them to continue to learn and grow professionally as they hit the workplace.
Hoo boy.  It was easy to run through whole catalogs of stuff you'd want young wonks to read, from Thucydides through to James Q. Wilson.  But wait, it's a trick question.  This is the graduating class we are talking about--so isn't it reasonable to assume they have already read everything about everything?  

Uh oh.  My first thought thereafter was to try to come up with recherché classics that might have eluded even massively learned young people such as themselves. Burkhardt on Constantine, for example, or Clarendon on the English Civil War. Or the Adams-Jefferson letters. Or Erasmus' Education of a Christian Prince.

Yeh, right. That is the kind of stuff you read in school, not while you are at the bottom of the employment ladder, under the Sysiphian mountain of student debt.  So I tried a different tack: new stuff, directly addressed to the kind of problems they might face in the world, sufficiently instructive to be worth their while and sufficiently current to be accessible.  I decided to narrow in particularly in "execution,"--and in particular, the point of how difficult or elusive may be the goal of actually getting something done, no  matter how worthy the project.  Recall the Hollywood canard that it is just as hard to produce a bad movie as a good one.  Anyway, in this frame, here is my list:

One, Michael Hiltzik, Colossus, on the building of the Hoover Dam.

Two, Earl Swift, the Big Roads on the highway system.

Three, Steve Coll, Private Empire, on Exxon, worth it for the Valdez Chapter alone, but lots more good stuff on the desperate and unending search for energy. Link.

Four, John Gertner, The Idea Factory, about Bell Labs. The feel-good book of the year. Never quite delivers on its promise to explain why it all worked, but still fascinating and thought provoking. Link.   

Five, Arthur Herman, Freedom’s Forge, on industrial mobilization for WWII. Not as good as it should be, too much AEI claptrap about the evils of commies and unions and commie/unions. But some good stuff under the slime. Link.

And maybe the best, although the chances are [the students] have already read it:

Siddartha Muckerjee, The Emperor of All Maladies, on the History of the (War Against) Cancer. A bit sprawling, almost too many stories to tell. Modern part starts about 1983, when scientists get serious about monkeying around with genes. Link.
 That  for starters.  There are thousand others.  What are the obvious omissions?

1 comment:

Jimbo said...

Hmm, your suggestions are all excellent or seem to be; I've read some but not others. I ave worked for a long time reconciling the environment with economic development in developing countries (mostly Asia and Africa). The fundamental literature here for our globalized world is mostly grey but there are some fundamental texts (Tragedy of the Commons, etc.). Are you actually planning to post this somewhere?