Andy Haldane's top business books of the year

The Bank of England's Andy Haldane picks four titles that have inspired him this year.

by Andy Haldane
Last Updated: 09 Jul 2013
1. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas S Kuhn

Thomas S Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was first published in 1962 but has been reprinted this year to mark its 50th anniversary. Sad to say, I have only just got around to reading it.

The reason for doing so now is that it is the classic treatment of the anatomy of change - what Kuhn called a 'paradigm shift'. In the light of the financial crisis, I read Kuhn's book for clues as to whether economics and finance might be on the verge of its own paradigm shift. By the end, I had convinced myself it was.

The anomalies, the puzzles and, ultimately, the crisis in thinking in modern economics and finance are the classic hallmarks of a paradigm in its death throes. In a funny sort of way, that cheered me up.


2. Debt: The first 5,000 years, by David Graeber

David Graeber's book Debt had the opposite effect. Graeber casts his anthropological eye over that oldest of financial contracts, debt. He takes us on a fascinating journey, a historical immorality tale.

The immorality in question is the grip that creditors have had over debtors in times of stress. For 5,000 years, the burden of debt repayment has been far from equally shared, with the creditors holding the moral, legal, financial and often physical whip-hand when debtors fall on tough times.

Graeber argues that this is wrong, economically as well as socially. In those situations, a sharing of the burden - a debt jubilee - would benefit both parties. Alas, jubilees have not been the historical norm. And it is questionable whether they can become the norm in future. You need look no further than southern Europe today to see Graeber's history repeating itself, not as farce but as Greek tragedy.


3. The Checklist Manifesto: How to get things right, by Atul Gewande

The Checklist Manifesto, written by surgeon Atul Gawande, lightened my mood. This is a small book with a big message.

The world is littered with problems that are almost always complex, outcomes that are ever-more uncertain, information that is increasingly ambiguous. Decision-making in this fog is perilous. Gawande offers a stunningly simple remedy - a checklist that can serve as part compass, part memory-jogger, part safety net.

The results speak for themselves. In perhaps his best example, the lives saved in an increasing number of countries by simply introducing surgical checklists is astonishing. Yet it is Gawande's general message that will have lasting resonance: the greater the complexity, the uncertainty, the ambiguity of the modern world, the stronger the case for simple lists, principles or commandments to avoid cock-up, catastrophe and other avoidable failures.


4. Why success always starts with failure, by Tim Harford


Which brings me neatly to Tim Harford's book Adapt. In many ways, this book complements Gawande's. Harford makes two big points. The first, echoing Checklist, is that you do not fight complexity with complexity, however tempting. Doing so simply compounds an already complex world, increasing the chances of failure. Architects of complex policy frameworks, in their well-meaning quest for reduced uncertainty, should take note.

Second, Harford argues that (to paraphrase) not only is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, but that losing in love first time around increases your chances of succeeding next.

Harford demonstrates that this is not just a lesson for the lovelorn but applies to every field of human endeavour, from the battlefield of war to the battlefield of business. Here again, policymakers take note: when the fog is dense, trial and error may be the least risky option, however counter-cultural that may sound.

Of these four books, only one was written by an economist - and even Harford (like many of us economists at the moment) has gone 'undercover'. If we learn some of the lessons from science, history, anthropology, medicine and the like, economists might just execute their own paradigm shift.

Andy Haldane is executive director for financial stability at the Bank of England.



1. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Thomas S Kuhn
University of Chicago Press

2. Debt: The first 5,000 years
David Graeber
Melville House Publishing

3. The Checklist Manifesto: How to get things right
Atul Gewande
Profile Books

4. Adapt: Why success always starts with failure
Tim Harford
Little, Brown

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