A short list of the books that have had the most influence on how I think about the world.
Lessons on how to get better at making predictions
Why are we putting elites in charge of programs to improve the state of the world? Why are the people who created the problem the same people brought on to try to solve it? Why don’t the people who are beneficiaries of the help have a seat at the table? Why don’t we think they may have the best insight in how to solve their problems? We end up trying to solve the problem with the tools that caused it.
For example, framing an issue as poverty vs inequality gets much different responses among the elite. Poverty can be addressed via charity - you can donate to a charity to help people in poverty even though you got rich off a business model that contributes to inequality. Inequality is about the nature of the system and makes you question how your money was earned. If you truly cared about inequality you wouldn’t be donating to charities, you would be treating your lowest wage employees better and supporting politicians with policies to fight inequality.
The book breaks down bullshit jobs into five categories - flunkies (jobs to make someone else look or feel important), goons (exist only because other people employ them and largely have a negative impact on society), duct tapers (solve a problem that should not exist in the first place), box tickers (allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something it probably isn’t doing) and taskmasters (two types, Type 1 are unnecessary superiors, the opposite of flunkies, Type 2 create bullshit tasks for others). It is more of a qualitative and anecdotal look at useless jobs with lots of personal stories from readers about their bullshit jobs. The psychological effects of a job we think is useless are damaging. People want to contribute something meaningful to society, and this could be why meaningful jobs tend to be low paying jobs.
This is an older book but reading it now makes it seem prescient, and much of it still applies today. It argues that big-box retailers are a product of public policy, not simply consumer choice. Convincing evidence that chain retailers help the local economy doesn’t really exist yet we continue to give them massive subsidies and tax breaks to come to our communities. These companies don’t contribute to the local community and are far more likely to exploit employees and break labor laws.
“It may table a few years for the fallout from a new superstore to fully materialize, but ultimately the number of jobs created is offset by at least an equal number of job losses at other stores. The reason is fairly simple: retail development does not represent real growth. It does not generate new economic activity. Opening a Target superstore will not increase the amount of milk people drink or how many rolls of paper towels they use in a year. … Building new stores does not expand the pie it only reapportions it. Corporate retailers know this, of course. Although city officials often assume that chains pick locations based on data that show an area has unmet demand, in fact they more often choose sites because they believe they can steal market share from nearby businesses.”
A history of how the auto and oil industry used their influence to make society more car dependent. Did you know that they have been promising self-driving cars within the next 20 years since the 1960s? If you think fully self-driving cars will be a net positive for society or are coming any time soon, this book may cause you to re-evaluate your views.
If pedestrians are killed at a higher rate in poor neighborhoods, if fires kill people in poor, non-white neighborhoods at a much higher rate then rich neighborhoods, is it really appropriate to call them accidents? It should be an indication that the conditions or design is unsafe and should be changed. But calling them accidents and placing the blame on the nut behind the wheel, the accident prone worker or the distracted pedestrian, we avoid having the conversations that would allow us to make the changes that could prevent them from happening. The idea that if you make the world safer for drunk people, you make it safer for everyone really stuck with me.
“Accidents are not a design problem - we know how to design the built environment to prevent death and injury in accidents. And accidents are not a regulatory problem - we know the regulations that will reduce the accidental death toll. Rather, accidents are a political and social problem. To prevent them, we only need the will to redesign our systems, the courage to confront our worst inclinations, and the strength to rein in the powerful who allow accidents to happen.”