by Gary Alexander
December 19, 2023
This marks the sixth edition of my year-end column of “10 best books,” which began as a Christmas list of books for my college-age grandchildren in 2018. I gave them the write-up and enough money to buy the books. Who knows where the money went, but I decided to turn books into an annual event here.
As I wrote in 2018: “One of the keys to becoming a successful investor is to realize that the strongest long-term trends will always transcend the ebb and flow of daily market gyrations and scary headlines. The media will forever focus on the worst-case scenario, but the one thing I would counsel investors to remember is that seven billion people are working every day to make their life better, and that will always be a bullish force. … As you can see from these titles, I’m partial to books that cover a large historical canvas with a point of view that ties these great ideas together. I’ll profile them briefly here…”
Not much has changed since 2018, despite COVID and Trump versus Biden. If I gave you 10 books on trading, investing and economics alone, that would result in a narrow worldview. We live in a complex world. I read an average of 120 books a year – 10 a month – on a wide variety of subjects since 1965 or so, and this wide-ranging view of the changing world has delivered valuable investment insights for me.
Here are my 10 best books published during the last eight months, in publication order:
Book #1 is a tie: “Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers and Silents – and What They Mean for America’s Future,” by Jean M. Twenge (published April 25; 560 pages) and “Generation Why: How Boomers Can Lead and Learn from Millennial and Gen Z” by Karl Moore (May 1, 216 p). Both are PhDs. Dr. Moore is a kindred spirit (on an alumni Forum). I actually prefer his book as more of a practical business leader’s guide to working with Gen-Z employees, students (or your own kin), but Dr. Twenge’s book is deeper and more academic in the trail of tears left by all of our generations, beginning with us Silents (born (1925-45), then the Boomers (1946-64), Gen X (1965-79), Millennials (1980-94), Gen Z (1995-2012) and the newborn “Polars” (born 2013-29). I think Twenge over-stresses the dominance of technology in Gen Z’s hands (and thumbs), whereas Dr. Moore has taught thousands of them, taken hundreds of them on global tours, and interviewed over 750 C-Suite executives on dealing with those under 40, so life is more than tech addiction. It’s about how to find meaning in life. Moore covers managing and working with younger people, bridging the gap between the old and young.
#2: “Best Things First: The 12 Most Efficient Solutions for the World’s Poorest and our Global SDG Promises,” by Bjorn Lomborg (May 8, 314p), where SDG means Sustainable Development Goals. Too many climate zealots take a closed-minded view, projecting current trends into a mathematical model – a method that has seldom worked in the past. Trends reverse, even with the climate, in ways scientists and others cannot see in advance. Lomborg argues that there’s no sense in impoverishing mankind based on unproven theories, ignoring economic trade-offs. Lomborg takes a welcome multi-disciplinary approach, saying that there are “at least 12 more efficient solutions for the world’s poorest people” than the UN’s SDG consensus. For instance, he argues that for about $35 billion a year—barely half of what the U.S. spends each year on humanitarian aid—these 12 policies could save 4.2 million lives and generate an extra $1.1 trillion in value every year, while the trillions spent on alternative energy save almost no lives.
#3: “Why Congress” by Philip A. Wallach (May 30, 336p) – note: There’s no question mark, no subtitle – but this book deserves both. The current political rancor and disrespect of Congress didn’t begin recently. I’d say it began in the 1790s, but Wallach targets the 1970s, when reformers delegated king-like powers to subcommittees, based on seniority, encouraging divisions. Barton Swaim and Yuval Levin, two other fine political writers, call this the “best political book of the year” (Swaim) and “the book that taught me the most this year” (Levin). Levin adds that “it should be mandatory reading for every friend of the American republic.” My view: We should not blindly assume our system is the best. It’s broken. This fine, thoughtful, non-partisan book is heavy on solutions, rather than rehashing all-too-obvious problems.
#4: “Broken Money: Why Our Financial System is Failing Us and How We Can Make It Better,” by Lyn Alden (August 20, 538p) covers the macro-history of money and banking with a focus on the failure of nearly all forms of paper money (and banking) and the eternal lure of gold. For instance, she writes, “The pound sterling of the UK is the world’s oldest continuously used currency that is still in use today. In Anglo-Saxon England during the eighth century, the pound sterling was defined as a pound of silver… Today a pound sterling is worth less than two grams of silver” (page 102). She also spoke of various failed currencies at the New Orleans Investment Conference in November, where I heard her speak.
#5: “Social Justice Fallacies” by Tom Sowell (September 19, 224 pages). Mostly, I’m delighted that this 93-year-old economic giant has retracted his announced retirement (I knew he would) to pen yet another tour de force on the failure of another aspect of the reigning zeitgeist – on his Stanford campus and beyond. One of my fellow economic writers penned a scathing review of Sowell recently, saying he is a flawed economist. I answered that he is more than an economist – he is a gifted demographer, geographer, race and ethnic analyst, behavioral analyst, and money and credit theorist: He is a basic Renaissance Man. He won’t waste pages on econometric models when he can drop gems of wisdom into each paragraph.
#6: “The Cancelling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Ricki Schlott (October 17, 464 p): The McCarthy lasted about five years, but our cancel culture has already lasted almost twice that long, and it has destroyed about twice as many careers as McCarthy did, while spreading the same kind of witless fear and self-censorship, according to co-authors Greg Lukianoff (co-author with Jonathan Haidt of 2018’s “Coddling of the American Mind”) and Ricki Schlott, a recent college graduate who tried to turn the tide of censorship on her campus, to no avail. It strikes me as odd that our major media often hark back to McCarthy’s in movies, plays and TV shows while playing a leading role in doing the same today.
Three Visionary Geeks (and Mercurial Bosses)
Here are three gentlemen that likely sport genius-level IQ – but I wouldn’t want to work for any of them
#7: “Elon Musk,” by Walter Isaacson (September 12, 688p) is the pick of this trio, especially for Musk’s creativity and market power, but he grew up under an abusive father in South Africa, and that emerges in how he treats key workers, according to this inside view from ace biographer Isaacson (who also profiled Steve Jobs and Kissinger, among others). We’ll alwamanding 24/7 sweat and creativity, while breaking rules as a matter of course. We’ll never know why he bought Twitter (X), but we have lots of time to marvel at the rest of this dynamo’s life, since he’s only 52 and shows no sign of slowing down.
#8: “Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon,” by Michael Lewis (October 3, 288p) is a rollicking good profile of Sam Bankman-Fried, a similarly high-IQ creative kid who never really grew up, only in this case he is no Elon Musk: He never invented anything of value, even though he fooled the intelligentsia and glitterati of academia, Hollywood and Washington DC into thinking he was the Albert Einstein (or is it Isaac Newton?) of crypto-currency commerce and banking. In the end, he was nothing but another Ponzi-scheme-Madoff financial rip-off artist, funneling deposits to his girlfriend’s accounts to speculate on stocks and lose billions for some of those very famous names who revered him. Michael Lewis always delivers the goods – with telling anecdotes and colorful stories transcribed on the spot.
#9: “The Greatest Capitalist Who Ever Lived: Tom Watson Jr. and the Epic Story of How IBM Created the Digital Age,” by Ralph Watson McElvenny and Marc Wortman (October 24, 592) is a mis-titled book, perhaps out of family loyalty, since it is co-authored by a member of the founding family of IBM. The book bares the flaws and failures of Thomas Watson, Sr. and Jr., and their dysfunctional family. As for “greatest capitalist,” sorry, he’s not in the Top 10, in my book: IBM relied too heavily on government aid, so it can hardly be the “greatest capitalist” story. Watson himself didn’t even want to enter the family business at first; he preferred flying and sailing. I can think of at least half dozen better capitalists off the top of my head, like John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, James J. Hill, Bill Boeing, Henry Ford, Alfred Sloan of GM, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who later brought IBM to its knees, but this is still a gem of a read about one tortured man, his family and the big risks he took to dominate a complex industry.
The Book of the Year: Milton Friedman’s Long-Awaited Intellectual Biography
I’ve saved the best for last. It’s about time somebody treated Uncle Miltie with some deserved respect:
#10: “Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative” by Jennifer Burns (November 14, 592p) covers the top economist of the 20th century, in my view. I first read his views in Newsweek in the 1960s and 1970s but my first big exposure to his work in detail was in his 10-part “Free to Choose” TV series in 1980, which everyone should rent or see on tape, or read (below). Thomas Sowell was also a star in that series.
I had the honor to interview Friedman three times (once along with his economist wife Rose) from the 1980s to early 2000s in conjunction with the New Orleans Investment conference. He was always witty as well as wise against any trick questions. (Woe be to anyone who thought otherwise.) This is a biography of his thoughts, my favorite kind of bio. I’m learning a lot about his youth and early years. I’m not through yet, as I’m savoring every page, but it has already earned top marks of the 10 books profiled here.
In closing, here’s a link to one of my three interviews with Dr. Friedman, this one from the late 1998 New Orleans Investment Conference. Friedman speaks for the first 32 minutes, then I interviewed him for the last 25 minutes. I’m sharing it here because I think it is worth seeing how sharp his mind was at age 86.