Book review: ‘50 Economics Classics’ by Tom Butler-Bowden

A summary of enduring ideas in bite-sized chunks will help any engineer hold their own in a discussion of the money side of business.

Unless you studied economics at university, as an engineering manager it is unlikely you will be familiar the current and historical trends and concepts required to run the fiscal end of a modern business with total confidence. If you’ve not read Peter Drucker on innovation, Niall Ferguson on money, JK Galbraith on the role of government in financial markets, Gary Becker on human capital or, even for that matter, Karl Marx on capital, you might find yourself cut adrift in meetings with your CFO, who certainly will have.

The problem with these weighty tomes (admittedly, some are easier to read than others) is that the level of detail involved means you will inevitably spend a disproportionate amount of time digging for the good stuff. But, help is at hand in the form of Tom Butler-Bowden’s extremely useful ‘50 Economics Classics’ (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, £12.99, ISBN 9781857886733), which summarises the best of the must-reads, leaving you, after a mere 350 pages, much more in control of your budding economic prowess.

This might make it sound like a self-help book that somehow makes things easier for dummies, or presents you with the tools to bluff your way along. But it’s not. In presentation, it has the hallmarks of a comprehensive reading list, usefully cross-referenced and with succinct abstracts that get you to the heart of the matter, without having to plough through too much soft tissue.

Each of the six-page chapters is delivered in a format starting with important quotations from the text, moving on to encapsulating the book’s argument in a line or two, telling you what other books will help you to broaden your understanding of the topic, condensing the whole book into a few pages and finishing with detailed biographical notes on the author. Not sure what ‘freakonomics’ is? No problem; in 15 minutes you’ll have sufficient grasp of the central issues to be confident in explaining to your CFO that while “we want a world based on morality, we have a world based on incentives”. Elsewhere, you will come to understand that economic growth is the result of investment rather than speculating, cities are the drivers of wealth and (going back to the 18th century) the world’s finite resources can’t cope with an increasing population.

But why, in an age of an explosion of academic research online and a flourishing economics blogosphere, do we need a book about books at all? The answer is simple and compelling – the book will always retain a superior stamp of authority, where ideas stand the test of time by remaining in print. To round up the best of the best is a manifestly good idea, and to have these works presented in a consistently detailed and accurate way makes ‘50 Economics Classics’ something of a modern classic in its own right.

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