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Best economics books of 2016

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WASHINGTON — OK, I should have headlined it, "My favorite economics books of 2016." There surely are many good books that I missed. Still, the four below share certain appealing characteristics. They tell us stuff we don't know, which alters our view of the world. They are all deeply researched and reported. They're clearly written. For your dedicated economics wonk or history buff, any of them would make a fine holiday gift. (With the exception of the Herbert Hoover book, I have written about all of them previously.)

Here they are:

  • "The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War," by Robert J. Gordon, Princeton University Press, 762 pages.

Gordon, a highly respected economist at Northwestern University, has produced what will endure as a masterpiece. It traces how new technologies have transformed everyday living. Think indoor plumbing, electricity, cars, air travel, computers and pharmaceuticals. An example: air conditioning. Without it, "we wouldn't have Las Vegas, or Miami, Houston or Los Angeles," gushed Consumer Reports in 1986. But Gordon's technological journey makes him pessimistic about the future. He thinks the easy gains have occurred and won't soon be repeated. He is skeptical about the value of the internet.

  • "An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy," by Marc Levinson, Basic Books, 336 pages.
  • Levinson, an economist and ex-journalist (Newsweek, The Economist), has the virtues of both — an eye for detail and an understanding of the broader picture. He reaches a conclusion similar to Gordon's but by a different route. His hypothesis is simple: The first 25 years after World War II, characterized by rapid economic growth around the world, was a unique event, driven by reconstruction from the war and pent-up demand. Economists felt they could control growth, raising living standards without severe business cycles. Their frantic efforts to fulfill this promise destabilized economies around the world. "The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan," by Sebastian Mallaby, Penguin Press, 800 pages.
  • Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from 1987 to 2006, was a consequential public figure who merits a comprehensive biography. Mallaby, a skilled financial writer and journalist (The Economist, The Washington Post), provides just that. Mallaby punctures many Greenspan cliches. Greenspan was more pragmatist than ideologue, says Mallaby; otherwise, he could not have survived so long in Washington. He also understood financial markets better than most other economists and Fed officials. Still, Mallaby faults Greenspan for not raising interest rates sooner early in the new century — a step, Mallaby argues, that could have softened or averted the 2008-09 financial crisis. "Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency," by Charles Rappleye, Simon & Schuster, 576 pages.

We all "know" that Hoover's ineptness and indifference deepened the Great Depression. But what if what we know isn't true? It isn't, argues Rappleye, a popular historian who understands (and demystifies) economics and also writes well. This is no whitewash. Rappleye says that, in public, Hoover was dour and distant. With poor political skills, he alienated many in Congress. He was often falsely optimistic. But there was another Hoover who fought the Depression by shoring up wages, sponsoring public works and supporting a collapsing banking system. That these measures failed was not for lack of trying. It was a true tragedy. These books are worth the time — even if you're not an economics wonk.

Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.