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Pure Decent Books About How the World Works – May 2016

1. Debt: The First 5,000 Years, By David Graeber.

Great book because it gets us out of our very modern and restricted understanding of how money and debt work. Perhaps, most interestingly, it debunks the idea that financial crises are a modern phenomenon – rather, they have existed for millennia. The book also suggests that money didn’t come about as a result of barter. The title sounds like an economics or finance book but is really more of a history or anthropology book.

Caveats: Definitely written in a pretty non-sequitur style, with webs of ideas rather than a linear train of thought. Sometimes this is frustrating, but more often entertaining – such as when recounting ancient trade customs involving elaborate sequences of feasting, trading and copulation. On a more serous note, the book does draw attention to the tight relationship between money, debt, enslavement and brutality throughout history, arguing that this is often overlooked in modern financial discourse.

2. Thinking Fast and Slow, By Daniel Kahneman

Clearly I’m one of many recommending this book, which sheds light on how we humans aren’t always logical when it comes to decision making. This book exposes the biases to which we humans are vulnerable and offers us a language to describe these biases. The book is incredibly non-anecdotal, very concise and well written.

Caveats: The first few chapters drag quite a bit, you’ve got to persevere until when the gold comes from chapters four and onwards.

3. Anti-fragility, By Nassim Taleb

Taleb, in this book, provides observations and advice on how we should handle uncertainties in this world, protect ourselves from risks and even leverage uncertainty to our advantage. Anti-fragility is about things that get stronger with uncertainty, volatility or in environments with fluctuating stresses. A good example is the human body, which strengthens when subjected to moderate exertion. Optionality – the possession of multiple choices – is also anti-fragile because it’s good to have options when the future is uncertain. The way I say it, it sounds trivial, but this book is deep. You may not agree with Taleb and you’ll certainly find him to be eccentric (which, in my opinion, adds to the entertainment factor). However, the way Taleb sees the world so differently really opens your eyes and makes you question how much of what we accept in politics, in finance, in business, in education and beyond, is shallow group-think.

Caveat: Taleb’s book is like an incredible piece of abstract art; it is beautiful but there is no continuous narrative and with every answer provided, there are at least two new questions.

P.S. I’d highly recommend this book above Black Swan, another book by Taleb, which emphasises how our world is shaped by rare and unpredictable, but highly impactful events. Anti-fragility has more concepts and teaches much more and is probably a bit better written.

4. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, By Michael Sandel

While the world is seeing more and more markets emerge, not just online, but also in healthcare and education, this book takes a look at what that means in ethical terms. One simple conclusion emerges that the more markets there are, the more power is gained by those who have what it takes to engage in those markets (often money). This book argues that there are often complex and important questions that arise when markets are created and designed, but we often prefer to ignore that we are in fact taken ethics based decisions.

Caveats: Probably would be good to read this in book in tandem with “Justice” by Sandel. Also, heavy enough subject matter, but a very good read because it talks about markets in a way that is not seen in broad discourse.


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