FP's Global Thinkers authored some of the most thought-provoking and top-selling books of 2012. From the biology behind market booms and busts to the psychology of political partisanship, add these titles to your reading (or holiday shopping) list.
1. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson
The MIT economist and Harvard University political scientist examine why, over centuries, some states have flourished while others have floundered.
"Why did Western European nations and their colonial offshoots filled with European settlers start growing in the nineteenth century, scarcely looking back? What explains the persistent ranking of inequality within the Americas? Why have sub-Saharan African and Middle Eastern nations failed to achieve the type of economic growth seen in Western Europe, while much of East Asia has experienced breakneck rates of economic growth? One might think that the fact that world inequality is so huge and consequential and has such sharply drawn patterns would mean that it would have a well-accepted explanation. Not so. Most hypotheses that social scientists have proposed for the origins of poverty and prosperity just don't work and fail to convincingly explain the lay of the land. ... Countries differ in their economic success because of their different institutions, the rules influencing how the economy works, and the incentives that motivate people."
2. There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, by Chinua Achebe
Famed for his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, Achebe here recalls his life during Nigeria's 1967-1970 civil war, when he took the side of the Biafran separatists.
"Africa's postcolonial disposition is the result of a people who have lost the habit of ruling themselves. We have also had difficulty running the new systems foisted upon us at the dawn of independence by our ‘colonial masters.' Because the West has had a long but uneven engagement with the continent, it is imperative that it understand what happened to Africa. ... Most members of my generation, who were born before Nigeria's independence, remember a time when things were very different. Nigeria was once a land of great hope and progress, a nation with immense resources at its disposal -- natural resources, yes, but even more so, human resources. But the Biafran war changed the course of Nigeria. In my view it was a cataclysmic experience that changed the history of Africa."
3. The Crisis of Zionism, by Peter Beinart
Beinart, whom Haaretz calls "U.S. Jewry's enfant terrible," critiques Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the American Jewish establishment's deep-seated support of it.
"[Y]ounger American Jews have never known Israel as a full democracy. For
forty-four years, twice a college student's life span, they have seen Israel
control territory in which millions of Palestinians lack citizenship. And since
the 1980s, they have seen Israel fight wars not against Arab armies but against
terrorists nestled amid a stateless and thus largely defenseless Palestinian
population. Thus, they are more conscious than their parents of the degree to
which Israeli behavior violates democratic ideals, and less willing to grant
Israel an exemption because it stands on the brink of destruction. The more the
American Jewish establishment forces today's realities onto the procrustean bed
of 1939 or 1967, the more young liberal-minded American Jews turn away."
A Cambridge University neuroscientist and former Deutsche Bank trader examines the biological processes underlying the risk-taking that moves markets.
"[Re]cent advances in neuroscience and physiology have shown that when we take risks, including financial risk, we do a lot more than just think about it. We prepare for it physically. Our bodies, expecting action, switch on an emergency network of physiological circuitry, and the resulting surge in electrical and chemical activity feeds back on the brain, affecting the way it thinks. In this way body and brain twine as a single entity, united in the face of challenge. Normally this fusion of body and brain provides us with the fast reactions and gut feelings we need for successful risk taking. But under some circumstances the chemical surges can overwhelm us; and when this happens to traders and investors they come to suffer an irrational exuberance or pessimism that can destabilize the financial markets and wreak havoc on the wider economy."
5. The Crisis of the European Union, by Jürgen Habermas
Germany's most famous living philosopher considers what the fallout from the European Union's financial crisis means for its political future.
"The political elites continue to shy away from the daunting prospect of a revision of [the Lisbon Treaty]. Presumably this hesitation is not just a matter of opportunistic power interests and a lack of decisive leadership. The economically generated apprehensions are inspiring a more acute popular awareness of the problems besetting Europe and are lending them greater existential significance than ever before. The political elites should embrace this unusual boost in public prominence of the issues as an opportunity and also regard it as a reflection of the extraordinary nature of the current situation. But the politicians have also long since become a functional elite. They are no longer prepared for a situation in which the established boundaries have shifted, one which cannot be mastered by the established administrative mechanisms and opinion polls but instead calls for a new mode of politics capable of transforming mentalities."
6. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt
New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains why humans are so compelled to separate themselves into political and religious tribes.
"As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists. Darwin's ideas about group selection fell out of favor in the 1960s, but recent discoveries are putting his ideas back into play, and the implications are profound. We're not always selfish hypocrites. We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns. Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war, and genocide. Once you see our righteous minds as primate minds with a hivish overlay, you get a holw new perspective on morality, politics, and religion."
7. The World America Made, by Robert Kagan
In a book that earned
the praise of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, Brookings Institution senior
fellow Kagan takes on the American declinists.
"The most important features of today's world -- the great spread of democracy, the prosperity, the prolonged great-power pace -- have depended directly and indirectly on power and influence exercised by the United States. No other power could have or would have influenced the world the way Americans have because no other nation shares, or has ever shared, their peculiar combination of qualities. Some of the most important qualities are obvious. America's unique geographical circumstances, its capitalist economic system, its democratic form of government, and its enormous military power have together shaped a particular kind of international order that would have looked very different had another nation with different characteristics wielded a similar amount of influence. Less easy to grasp, but just as important to understanding the nature of the American world order, is the complex character of the American people."