Have you been in a bookstore recently? The front tables are full of stories of stories of personal transformations of one sort or another: columnist David Brooks (his own and others), Michelle Obama, Tara Westover (the daughter of survivalists who left home for university), television personality Chelsea Handler, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Economists, too, write books about identity and transformation. Here are three good ones.
I picked up Spending Time: The Most Valuable Resource (Oxford, 2019), by Daniel Hamermesh, with considerable interest. I put it down thinking that it was the best book about self-management I had seen since Charles Duhigg’s Habit (2012). The ways we choose to spend our time are fundamentally interesting. Hamermesh provides a wise and thorough audit of the budget.
The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging (Princeton, 2019), by Rachel McCleary and Robert Barro: a tour of the history of world religions contemplated as economic clubs, conferring benefits and exacting costs on members. Religious identity can be understood as a market, the authors say; conversion or continuance as a choice like any other. The effects on conduct of belief is the important thing. A wide-ranging survey of the social science literature is leavened by occasional glimpses of the authors, a Methodist philosopher and a Jewish economists, traveling the world together as students of religion.
An Economist Walks into a Brothel: and Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk(Portfolio/Penguin, 2019), by Allison Schrager. A financial economist and journalist for Quartz, Schrager examines a series of off-beat occupations through the prism of what has been learned about the analysis of risk, foursquare in the tradition of Freakonomics (2006) and The Undercover Economist (2006).
I find I read very little these days that’s not narrative – biography, history, current affairs, or fiction. It is an occupational hazard, I suppose. Happy to think that there is plenty of good writing about self-improvement available to those who haven’t given up!
David Warsh, a Somerville, Mass.-based economic historian and a veteran columnist, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this column first appeared.