The Value of Everything, Necessary Evil and Unsafe Thinking: What you should be reading (and avoiding) this month

 
Francesca Washtell
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Daily Life in London
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From economics to creativity at work and to the intersection of human rights and finance, here are the new books that should be on your radar:

Economics: The Value of Everything by Mariana Mazzucato (four stars)

The economy functions through price: I will pay whatever something is worth to me at that point in time for a price which suits the seller in the market. All is well.

Not quite, says Mariana Mazzucato, a University College London professor whose star rose with the publication of The Entrepreneurial State, in which she traced the contribution of the public sector to private sector innovation.

Our fixation on prices has led us to neglect the idea of value, allowing rent-seekers to dominate our collective economic narrative.

The idea of rent, of value extraction, has diminished in economic discourse, Mazzucato argues, starting with a not-quite-revisionist synopsis of the value theories of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx.

Losing sight of the distinction between value and price has allowed value extractors, from venture capital firms, the banking sector, big pharma and even tech darlings like Google and Airbnb, to take an inordinate share of the spoils of the modern economy, she argues.

Finance and financialisation in particular have led to massive increases in GDP, but the intermediation services they offer have become less efficient since the financial crisis, taking up more of the economy.

Part of Mazzucato’s answer to the question of how to reorient the economy away from the perceived rent extractors is a more forthright state, which is confident enough to countenance loss-making investments in innovation and expect profitable returns – although at points the book seems less cure than thorough diagnosis.

The book is a timely reminder that common sense usually stems from the interests of one group over another and a warning that how we look at the economy will determine what we see. If knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing is the hallmark of the cynic, Mazzucato asks us to realise that determining value demands some scepticism of those who claim to create it.

Jasper Jolly @jjpjolly

The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy | Mariana Mazzucato | Allen Lane | £20

Finance: Necessary Evil by David Kinley

“So it’s gonna be forever/Or it’s gonna go down in flames”, pop star Taylor Swift croons on her 2014 hit “Blank Space”. And it’s not hard to imagine that David Kinley, author of Necessary Evil: How to Fix Finance By Saving Human Rights, and Professor and Chair of Human Rights Law and the University of Sydney, might agree Swift’s lyrics and themes are an apt description of the “blank space” he and colleagues have described as separating finance and human rights.

For too long, David Kinley argues, both financial and human rights sectors have regarded each other in opposition. Neither has a firm grasp on what the other might bring to the table and it has resulted in two systems which are missing opportunities to effect change. And a relationship it is, albeit a dysfunctional one, Kinley details in chapters with titles like “Living Together”, “Cheating” and “Counseling and Reconciliation.”

That is, there’s a wedge of understanding and engagement that’s kept finance and human rights from fulfilling their relationship potential. As with any relationship, what’s crucial to a solution, Kinley argues, is an attitudinal shift between both parties; that there must be a grey area of respect to emerge between the black and the white of finance and activism, so they may work together while retaining their individual identities.

Perhaps predictably, it’s in the latter where Kinley reveals a especially troubling point of friction, arguing we must allow for the ““unavoidable flexibility” of what human rights laws can accomplish from country to country, though it is usually the very people who populate his case studies: women, children, the uneducated and the LGBT community (the latter is notably absent from the book) whose rights become most malleable when subject to interpretation.

As with any relationship, what’s crucial to a solution, Kinley argues, is an attitudinal shift between both parties; that there must be a grey area of respect to emerge between the black and the white of finance and activism, so they may work together while retaining their individual identities.

Lauren Young @thatlaurenyoung

Necessary Evil: How to Fix Finance by Saving Human Rights | David Kinley | Oxford University Press | £18.99

Business and management: Unsafe Thinking by Jonah Sachs

It is easy to get stuck in a rut at work, according to Jonah Sachs. In fact, it happened to him. Sachs, who founded ethical advertising company Free Range Studios, fell into the habit of trusting “tried and true" business strategies, relying on predictable models that he could replicate again and again and doing what felt comfortable. This, he argues, is safe thinking, and it almost destroyed his business.

In his book Unsafe Thinking: How to Be Creative and Bold When You Need It Most, the businessman set out to define “unsafe” thinking – which he said is an ability to meet challenges with a willingness to depart from standard approaches – and create a road map that safe thinkers can follow to lead them through the wilderness of creativity. With examples ranging from Gandhi overcoming his anxiety to the Google exec who took risks to make Gmail what it is today, Sachs outlines how one can implement his ideas in any business setting with practical questions and steps. Sachs’ advice succeeds in getting the mind whirring with fresh ideas as he aims to prove that anyone can be a boundary-breaking creative.

Courtney Goldsmith @courtneynoelg

Unsafe Thinking: How to be Creative and Bold When You Need It Most | Jonah Sachs | Random House Business | £14.99

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