News & Opinion

Inside the Longlist: The Best Current Events & Public Affairs Books of 2017

December 06, 2017


The five books in our Current Events & Public Affairs category are all timely, topical explorations of the intersection between business and the wider world they're meant to serve.

We began the Current Events & Public Affairs category last year. We felt that, because what is happening in the wider world and public policy is so intimately related to what happens in our business, it behooved us to add books that explored those topics to our deliberations. Our business book awards, which we began in 2007 to recognize work we feel is crucial to our ongoing understanding of business, needed a category to examine the larger forces at work on the business world, and how business interests act as a force on the wider world. All of our categories have some overlap, and that seems to be getting more and more true all the time, but these are the five books specifically at the intersection of business, politics, and the public interest that we believe will stand as a testament to the times we’re living in.

(I curated this category myself this year, and have borrowed much of the language below from reviews I have written over the course of the year.)

The CEO Pay Machine: How it Trashes America and How to Stop it by Steven Clifford, Blue Rider Press

There is broad consensus that CEO pay in America long ago went beyond being too exorbitant and entered the realm of the absurd. Yet, very little has been done to curb the trend, and very few viable ideas have even been floated. In The CEO Pay Machine, you’ll learn how ever-rising CEO compensation harms the companies that offer it, has curbed economic growth, and even undermines our very democracy. Steven Clifford, a former CEO himself, will explain why, compared to economic elites, average voters have a low-to-nonexistent influence on public policies. To correct this, he suggests a tweak to regulation, that the “the SEC should adopt reforms proposed in the seventies to prevent market manipulation in corporate buybacks,” a tool CEOs can also easily use to increase their payday at the expense of shareholders and the health of the economy. He also suggests an idea borrowed from the sports world that I think is brilliant—a luxury tax on excess executive compensation. These remedies and others will give the companies that lead the charge a competitive advantage, help the economy as a whole, and may just save our ongoing experiment in self-governance.

The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World by Anne-Marie Slaughter, Yale University Press

The president of the United States announced moments ago that the US has formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, upending decades of careful US diplomacy and putting the United States at odds policy-wise with the rest of the world. I am not interested in critiquing the president’s moves or motives at the moment. What I am interested in is a pragmatic and progressive worldview, and ideas that will help bring about lasting peace and stability. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s new book, The Chessboard and the Web, offers just that. It arises out of a viewpoint that considers both the “chessboard” of traditional strategy and the “web” of interconnected networks and interests in the world. To (perhaps over)simplify, you can think of the chessboard as the nation states in attendance at the United Nations General Assembly, and the an example of a “the web” would be the select network of powerful people invited to place like Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum. As Slaughter notes, “That map looks very different from the United Nations roster.” But it is just as influential. Slaughter’s view of the world is not an “either/or” interpretation, but a “both/and” understanding. She believes we need to be able to “see in stereo,” to understand moves on the chessboard as well as movements in the web. Reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s The Chessboard and the Web, I found myself worried that the current administration is working with a skeleton staff, and that a network of career diplomats and dedicated civil servants were dismissed upon the 45th president’s arrival in office—the exact time they may be needed most.

Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist by Kate Raworth, Chelsea Green Publishing

We live in a world that is, in many ways, presupposed. We stand on the shoulders of giants, yes, but we also inherit their ways of thinking, and sometimes it’s necessary to discard the cumulative accepted wisdom of that history and start anew. Kate Raworth believes that the economic view of the world that predominates today, and our addiction to economic growth, is one such area. We are currently so addicted to growth that it is our only goal, the constant economic “fix” we’re chasing. Economists and politicians would have us believe that our other goals will be addressed if and when we achieve such growth, even as history has shown that high-growth has led to increased inequality and more environmental damage in the past. Wall Street dogma dictates that you’re only a successful company if you’re a growing company, but of course, nothing in nature grows forever. That’s not to say growth cannot occur, simply that we need to put other goals first. We need to become growth-agnostic. We need to develop sustainable organizations, models, systems. And it is not a radical idea. Economists from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill have stated that there would be a limit to growth. Whether we’ve reached that point or not, perhaps it is time to put the goal of economics sustainability above that of economic growth. Raworth offers a new economic model to do so.

A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug: The Working Woman's Guide to Overthrowing the Patriarchy by Sarah Lacy, Harper Business

Sarah Lacy has made her career covering the digital economy, which instead of living up to its promise of a more level playing field, better business practices, and a more robust democracy, has led to increased income inequality, corporate hegemony (and, in Silicon Valley, the place that spawned the revolution, corporate homogeneity), and questions about whether these technologies have, in fact, played a role in undermining our democratic elections and institutions. It is the homogeneity, the fact that tech companies are so blindingly white and overwhelmingly male, that may be at the heart of some of the other problems, and the cause Sarah Lacy takes up in her new book, A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug: The Working Woman's Guide to Overthrowing the Patriarchy.  It is an almost eerily timely book that, at its core, is how she believes becoming a mother has made her better at her work, and how working has made her a better mother. Once you read her story, you’ll never think it could possibly be otherwise. If anything, with the stories of rampant sexual harassment and abuse in the headlines on a daily basis, it seems that if there is a problem in the business world, a bug in the system, it is male reproductive organs.

World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech by Franklin Foer, Penguin Press

The Merry Prankster and tech utopian Stewart Brand once proclaimed that “Information wants to be free.” It has largely become so—or at least become very cheap—thanks to Google, Facebook, and Amazon. And yet, “By collapsing the value of knowledge,” Franklin Foer asserts, “they have diminished the quality of it.” He believes that these digital firms are fundamentally altering our information diet in a way that is analogous to how the industrial food industry changed our actual diet in the last century; making it much more cheap and easy to consume, but far less less healthy in the process—the intellectual equivalent of junk food. “The tech companies are destroying something precious,” Foer asserts, “which is the possibility of contemplation.” Like Clifford’s examination of CEO pay, Foer worries that this trend undermines our ability to self-govern, that the big tech firms “have eroded the integrity of institutions—media, publishing—that supply the intellectual material that provokes thought and guides democracy.” He admonishes the media to start reversing the trend, to stop devaluing the information they provide, believing that when enough people value intellectual health on both an individual and societal level to pay for it, we can start turning things around. Just as we turned back to traditional ways of growing, preparing, and enjoying our food in the slow-food movement, he counsels we turn back to a more tactile, hands on form of consuming information, to turn back to paper and a slow information diet for the good of our collective intelligence.

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