Best Books of 2015

Happy New Year! In honor of the start of 2016, I offer my favorite CHESS-related books of 2015. These books were picked because they not only cross disciplinary boundaries, but because they use history to tell us something important about the world we inhabit today. What are some of the best books that you’ve read in the past year?

Peter Brown, The Ransom of the Soul (Harvard University Press)
“What happens to the soul after we die?” is a question that doesn’t seem as though it would have much bearing on economics and institution building. But in Peter Brown’s The Ransom of the Soul we discover a distant world in which anxiety about sin and its consequences for the afterlife contributed enormously to institutional growth of early medieval Catholicism. Through much debate over the course of the sixth and seventh centuries, the biblical declaration that “The ransom of the soul of a man is his wealth” came to mean that wealthy Christians could avoid the torments of Hell through their financial contributions on Earth. Sin was both inevitable and a debt to be repaid. The Church promised the rich salvation through both almsgiving and prayer. As late antiquity became the early middle ages, giving to the Church and its institutions increasingly took the place of giving to the poor as a means of assuring salvation. The wealthy’s desire to secure their place in heaven–their anxiety for what eternity held in store–led them to donate generously to monasteries, which in becoming “antechambers to the afterlife,” transformed the Medieval landscape. Brown’s book not only reveals us how Christianity changed between antiquity and the Middle ages, it shows just how the dynamic the relationship between theology, institution building, and economics can be.

Christine Desan, Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism (Oxford University Press)
Pretty much anyone who has ever taken an economics class has learned that money originated out of people bartering goods and services with one another. That’s to say we tend to assume that money and the markets it creates is a natural response to basic economic needs, one that predates government. In her path-breaking history of money, Harvard historian and legal scholar Christine Desan turns this story on its head. Tracing the history of money from antiquity to the nineteenth century, she shows how money was created by sovereigns to mobilize society’s resources, especially for war. Governments issued tokens for services and goods that people used to pay taxes and other fees. These tokens then circulated throughout the economy. This system, whose essence persisted throughout the Middle Ages, failed, however, to provide nearly enough liquidity to meet economic needs. This changed, Desan argues, in the late 17th century when England began to allow private investors to create their own forms of money, touching off a revolution that vastly increased the amount of money in circulation. It was this monetary revolution, Desan argues, that encouraged the growth of capitalism in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Far from being a neutral and timeless institution, money was a contested and evolving project, one in which the tension between money as a store of value and money as a means of exchange created both winners and losers. As governments continue to debate the prudence of expansionary monetary policy, Desan’s book serves as an important reminder that money itself has always been intertwined with power.

Gary Gerstle, Liberty and Coercion: The Paradox of American Government (Princeton University Press)
Historians, politicians, and the public all seem to agree that Americans, especially when compared with their counterparts abroad, are libertarians at heart. Cambridge historian Gary Gerstle offers a provocative rejoinder to this assumption in his new history of the American state. Reconstructing politics and development of the American state since the Revolution, Gerstle argues that for much American history government was marked by a tension between extensive use of police power, especially at the local level, and a strong desire to limit government’s reach, especially at the national level. Gerstle shows just how far the states went to regulate morality, behavior, and racial segregation during the nineteenth century, even as Americans expressed antagonism toward the central state. This tension between nearly unlimited state government and a sharply limited national government only really began to change after World War II when the national government increased its power over American economic and social life while at the same time curtailing the power of the states. In recent years, historians have been drawing increasing attention to the role of the state in American history and showing us that America has never really been a land of small government. Gerstle’s synthesis, which shines important light on the enduring importance of money in shaping political outcomes, offers a new way of thinking about the past and future of American politics, especially as we head into an election year.

Robert J. Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton University Press)
Economic history has a reputation for dullness and minutiae. This could not be less true of Robert J. Goron’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth. Gordon recounts the long, revolutionary transformation in the American standard of living between 1870 and 1970. His is the story of how and why a world without running water and washing machines became a world of jet planes and color TV. Gordon draws attention to the fact that economic growth doesn’t happen evenly across centuries–it accelerates and slows down depending on a variety of different conditions. What are the long-term sources of productivity and can we expect that new inventions will increase productivity in the future? Gordon shows how the Great Depression, New Deal, and World War II–along with rising rates of education and literacy–contributed to the great increase in productivity, real wages, and consumption during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Since 1970, however, growth has slowed as education, demography, and indebtedness have worked against productivity. Even worse, the great productivity-enhancing inventions of the past 150 years, from electricity to frozen food, cannot be repeated. Whether Gordon is right to be pessimistic about the future prospects for American growth, both his history and his proposals for countering the headwinds facing the economy are especially relevant in an era of stagnant wages and growing inequality. If you’re looking for a sequel to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, look no further.

Istvan Hont, Politics in Commercial Society: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith (Harvard University Press)
We usually think of Adam Smith as a great theorist of laissez-faire economics and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a romantic critic of modernity. In Istvan Hont’s posthumously-published Carlyle Lectures, he argues that these thinkers were both more similar than we might expect and that their insights can help us understand the political and economic challenges of the twenty-first century. By revealing that Smith and Rousseau both thought about the relationship between the human desire for recognition, self-regulation, and morality, Hont makes a strong case that both Smith and Rousseau were both trying to solve a very similar intellectual problem: what kind of politics are appropriate for a commercial society? As Hont shows us, Smith recognized that we don’t live in a world of balanced economic growth—war, politics, institutions, and history have all conspired to create economies in which some sectors are stronger than others and in which real economic relations look nothing like those offered in introductory economics textbooks. The challenge for political leaders and economists is to find ways to muddle productively through those imbalances. Hont’s Rousseau offers a darker picture of the relationship between economic growth, greed, and inequality, one that seems to oscillate between extreme democracy, revolutionary crisis, and dictatorship. As we continue to grapple with aftermath of the financial crisis and the struggles of the European Union, Hont’s exploration of eighteenth-century political thought offers provocative suggestions for how we address the problems of our own commercial societies.

Noel Malcolm, Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World (Allen Lane / Oxford University Press)
Albanian history would seem an unlikely source for a work that changes the way we think about nationalism and empire. But in Noel Malcolm’s Agents of Empire, an account of relations between Venice and the Ottoman Empire during the 16th century, we discover a world that challenges many of our assumptions about relations between Christendom and Islamic world. He uses the story of the Bruni and Brutti families of Ulcinj, an Adriatic port that was part of the Venetian Empire until the Ottomans conquered it in 1573, to tell an engaging story about how early modern empires worked. He follows their exploits for over a century and uses them as a prism for understanding political and military developments throughout the Mediterranean, from North Africa to the Balkans. In so doing, he shows how despite clashes between East and West, the reality on the ground was not one of ineluctable strife, but of improvisation, negotiation, and exchange. Christians lived happily under the Ottomans and personal or local loyalties often trumped imperial identities. That’s not, however, to say that the world described by Malcolm was a peaceful one. On the contrary, it was racked by dangerous conflict and political instability, and it was defined by war and poverty, piracy and disease. Many of these themes will be familiar to students of early modern empire, but Agents of Empire in nonetheless a great example of how it is possible to write engaging microhistory–chock full of fascinating historical details–while also shedding light on larger political and religious issues. Ultimately, it offers a powerful rejoinder to those scholars and commentators who assume that national, religious, and ethnic conflict is inevitable or insurmountable.

Josiah Ober, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (Princeton University Press)
Classical Greece has a long reputation as the fountainhead of European culture and civilization. But in Josiah Ober’s new The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece’s we learn how Greece’s exceptional cultural achievements were connected to its economic accomplishments. Greeks, Ober tells us, enjoyed unusual prosperity, urbanization, and equality for the pre-modern world. So why were Greeks so prosperous? Ober argues that its city states existed in a world of economic and institutional competition, which encouraged innovation while the diversity of resources throughout the region encouraged specialization and exchange. High levels of equality encouraged both military morale while institutions such as written law codes and citizen-centered governing institutions encouraged good government and robust militaries. Strong institutions, institutions that prioritized the well-being of citizens, promoted Greece’s economic, cultural and geopolitical success. Even after the Greeks succumbed to Macedon in the fourth century BC, the cultural and economic strength of their city states meant that they succeeded in maintaining considerable independence–at least until they were conquered by the Roman Empire. This is a great book for anyone interested in classical history, the relationship between institutions and economic growth, and the reason why some societies enjoy particular moments of efflorescence.

Sidney Tarrow, War, States & Contention (Cornell University Press)
In a year that saw continued war and civil unrest in Ukraine and Syria, the relationship between social movements, Sidney Tarrow’s War, States, & Contention offers a useful historical perspective on the growth of state power and its connection to both war and social movements. Examining the ways in which draft riots, worker strikes, ethnic conflicts, civil rights movements, antiwar protests, and nationalist campaigns have affected state building and war making in France, the United States, and Italy since the French Revolution, he argues that social movements both encourage and constrain states’ power. Although such movements have often challenged state’s when they go to war, they have also—especially in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—met with more limited success in the face of those states’ ability to contain contentious politics. Ultimately, Tarrow offers a fascinating discussion the relationship, at different historical moments, between civil rights, contentious politics, war making, and hierarchical and/or infrastructural power. In observing that citizens more often than not support states when they go to war, Tarrow adds a useful wrinkle to Charles Tilly’s dictum that war makes states.


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