The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen

This tiny book packs a huge wallop. Cowan argues the low hanging fruit has been picked and America already ate it. Valuable ideas are harder and harder to come by. Those getting rich are doing it through financial innovation that doesn’t improve the lives of very many people. Besides the internet we live about the same as people did 50 years ago.

GDP grows but that phony number includes government that as it grows larger becomes less productive. The marginal value of government is falling. Since no market values government expenditures, GDP figures have no basis in reality as far as our standard of living.

Cowan highlights a couple areas dominated by government. Money gushes into healthcare spending in the U.S. to no good effect. The same goes for education. Reading and math skills have gone nowhere since the mid-70’s while IQ scores gradually increase. High school graduation rates peaked in the 1960s.

Cowan says government is about as big as it can get. No matter what politicians may want, there is no low-hanging fruit or new technologies to fund more things that government might want to do. Facebook and Twitter just can’t produce the jobs and revenue to fund a new New Deal.

Commie Cowboys by Ryan W. McMaken

The American western movie genre conjures up images of the portrayal of great individualists taming the west with nothing but their guile and six-shooters. Ryan McMaken’s short book Commie Cowboys will change the way you view the next John Ford or Howard Hawks classic you stumble on to while channel surfing.

Upon close inspection movie westerns actually portray the law and government as taming the savage frontier that in real life was not so savage. The sheriff or the calvary always save the day.

Capitalism is often shown in a negative light as invariably the fictional businessmen seeks to amass great tracts of land and local businesses while squeezing out competitors, unfairly hiking prices for customers, and treating their help with cruelty. Through the lens of Hollywood, the west was won not through commerce and peaceful relations, but force and violence. Western movie lovers will not put this book down.

How Many Friends Does One Person Need? by Robin Dunbar

Understanding the world in the information age is difficult. A better grasp is gained consulting an anthropologist who doubles as an evolutionary psychologist. Robin Dunbar is both, while being best known for Dunbar’s number.

Forget Facebook friends, Dunbar believes that 150 people to, trust, have an affinity for, and know personally, is all we can manage. Why?  Because he writes, “our minds lack the capacity to make it any larger.” A chapter in the book is devoted to this.

Dunbar’s writing is engaging and just plain fun. We all want to learn about–us. The book is essentially the stringing together of a series of articles that appeared in the New Scientist magazine and the Scotsman newspaper.

Nature is cruel and natural selection’s kindest gift to us is the human brain, allowing us to adapt to circumstances and rise above brute nature. But carrying these brains around is as Dunbar writes, “expensive” because while our noggin is only two percent of our body weight it takes twenty percent of our energy. The old saying goes, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”  Forget the crown, from pauper to prince, everyone’s head is heavy.

It’s a grim world and we should all be looking for a good laugh. Dunbar explains why laughter is indeed the best medicine. Dunbar makes evolutionary psychology fun.

To Sell is Human by Daniel H. Pink

Salespeople rank just above congressmen at the bottom of most reviled professions. To Sell Is Human makes the case that many will not want to hear; we’re all in sales. Daniel Pink will convince you that not only are salesmen and saleswomen not so bad, but that you are one of them. And, that you can learn to do it better. The author hooks the reader right away, beginning chapter one with a story about the last Fuller Brush Man toting his bag of wares up and down the hills of San Francisco, cheerfully pitching anyone who will listen.

Pink explains it’s not a door-to-door world anymore but studies show that all of us spend 40 percent of our time on non-sales selling–persuading influencing, and convincing others. This activity is viewed as critical to career advancement and success. Ignore your sales chops at your peril. In the information age the rules for sales and careers have changed. Pink’s quick read gives you a leg up.