Reading list for beginners - Public Policy, Development, Growth

Someone asked me longtime back to suggest reading list for beginners in public policy/development. I had quickly put together a reading list. In a recent interview of Arvind Subramanian with Karthik Muralidharan, towards the end, Arvind says that younger generation should read a lot. This prompted me to update my old reading list for beginners and post it publicly. Arvind Subramanian already has put out a comprehensive reading list on development and growth. My list won't even come closer.

My purpose of writing this post is to re-iterate the importance of reading and provide a context and broad framework for beginners, who are interested in the field of development. I am neither an expert in this field nor do I have any formal training. In fact, the administration at my undergraduate college, refused to allow me to take up economics courses, because they thought I am unfit :D. I set out on this journey of exploration alone and hence I feel I can appreciate the constraints of a beginner without formal training. Hence, this blogpost. :)

Three words of advice before we move onto the reading list. 

1) Importance of reading. Reading broadens one's horizons and so on. I can't emphasize this more and I believe most people agree with this. A consistent feature that I have been noticing about great writers, thinkers and leaders is that they are voracious readers. 
  • Benjamin Franklin, the great polymath was a voracious reader. He had no formal education. He ran away from home as a child, did various jobs to sustain himself, and in between all these he self taught himself a wide variety of subjects. May be reading his autobiography is a good place to start with, to get inspired.
  • Shashi Tharoor once had taken a new year resolution to read 365 books in an year. He completed his target by Christmas.
One of the common excuses of people is that they don't find time to read.
  • Arvind Subramanian, the current Chief Economic Adviser to Govt. of India with his tight schedules, read 150 books last year, as mentioned in one of the newspapers that profiled him. His goodreads profile says that he read 200 books in 2012.
  • Gulzar Natarajan, an IAS officer, currently the director of PMO, religiously writes a blogpost a day with commentary on contemporary issues and list of interesting readings for that day. 
So, clearly, lack of time can't be any excuse.

2) Curiosity to learn and being critical (in a positive way) not to blindly believe. Without curiosity, one can't sustain reading. Without questioning, one falls into false traps.

3) Never pigeonhole yourself. Don't ever think - I am interested in xyz theme, hence I will read only about this. It is always good to read about aspects across spectrum, again for three reasons.
  • Great innovations and ideas are often at the intersection of different fields. In this context, I would strongly recommend, the most amazing website ever made. Go through the website to know the beauty.
  • One can appreciate complex issues only if they have a comprehensive perspective, which requires understanding of a variety of issues.
  • Reading across fields will make you realize the insignificance of the knowledge that you have, which will make you humble.

****** Reading list for beginners ******

If I were to categorize the readings, I would do them as follows. This needn't be an ideal categorization. The categories are loosely defined (not as per strict definitions) and there can be overlaps too. In all sections, the idea of the list is to cover all diverse perspectives. You can read the books in the same order as mentioned.

1) Philosophy

Why philosophy? Because our conceptions of society, morality, justice, fairness and ethics decide many decisions of ours and by default policy making. In policy debates, some times the difference in argument can be merely attributed to different set of value systems. Thus it is important to understand the moral and philosophical positioning of people. This is also an opportunity to question and understand one's own set of values and beliefs.
  1. Western Political thoughts - From Socrates to the Age of Ideology: Brian R. Nelson
  2. Prof Sandel's lecture series called 'Justice'.
  3. Lying - Sam Harris
  4. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values - Sam Harris
  5. Fountain Head - Ayn Rand
  6. Capitalism and Freedom - Milton Friedman
  7. Wealth of Nations - Adam Smith
  8. Economics in one lesson - Henry Hazlitt
  9. What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets - Michael Sandel
  10. The idea of justice - Amartya Sen
  11. The Burden of Democracy - Pratap Bhanu Mehta
The above book list has a good mix of economics and relevant aspects of political science too. In addition, you can read the books suggested by Prof Sandel in the lecture series, as part of the course. You would get to read Mills, Rawls etc.

2)  Progression of societies and human kind

If all humans started from similar stage long back in time, why is that there is such a wide variation in today's societies? How did our political systems emerge? Why nations fail? Why is that some communities progressed while others didn't? Is technology going to radically transform our living?

To understand issues like these, read the following books. I tried to cover all the important ideas in this field.
  1. Guns, Germs and Steel - Jared Diamond. 
  2. Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind - Yual Noah Harari
  3. The Origins of Political Order - Francis Fukuyama
  4. Political order and political decay - Francis Fukuyama
  5. The Rise and decline of nations - Mancur Olson
  6. Why Nations Fail - Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (also read Jared Diamond's review of this book).
  7. Debraj Ray's talk on link between growth and conflict
  8. The Atlas of Economic Complexity - Ricardo Hausmann and others. If the book is lengthy, you can listen to his talk to get a brief idea about the concept.
  9. The Age of Sustainable Development - Jeffery Sachs
  10. The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business - Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen
  11. Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology - Kentaro Toyama
3) Poverty 

Here comes the big question, poverty. Before reading this book list, I would strongly advise you to spend some time and make your hypothesis on a) Why are some people poor? b) How did they become poor? c) Why aren't they coming out of poverty? d) What should be done? These needn't be backed by any data, just own instincts. Once you have your theory ready, read these books and refine your theory accordingly, as you find new evidence. I believe, this initial thought is very helpful because it will help you appreciate these books better.
  1. Poverty and Famines - Amartya Sen
  2. The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endagers Our Future  - Joseph Stilgitz
  3. One Illness Away: Why People Become Poor and How They Escape Poverty - Anirudh Krishna
  4. The End of Poverty, How can we make it happen in our life time - Jeffrey Sachs
  5. The White Man's Burden - William Easterly
  6. Poor Economics - Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo
  7. Scarcity, Why Having Too Little Means So Much - Sendhil Mullainathan
  8. Let their people come, Breaking the Gridlock on International Labor Mobility - Lant Pritchett
  9. In Defense of Globalization - Jagdish Bhagwati
  10. Globalization and its Discontents - Joseph Stilgitz
4) Human behaviour

It is important to understand human behaviour to be able to make sense of some of our problems and to devise solutions for the same. The following book list addresses questions like - Do humans always take rational decisions? What are the biases and prejudices that humans are prone to? When does collective wisdom turn out to be true? Why don't humans act collectively sometimes? When do humans coordinate?
  1. Nudge - Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein 
  2. Thinking, Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman
  3. The Wisdom of Crowds - James Surowiecki
  4. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and Theory of Groups - Mancur Olson
  5. The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell
5) Political economy/Policy Advocacy

If you have read the above and feel you have understood many things and are full of ideas to change the world, it is time to read the following books. Most often, the major constraint to formulate good policies is the politics. Every action of government will create beneficiaries and losers. There are vested interests all around. A policy has to get through all these filters to become a reality. 

These books will provide a good perspective of the political dynamics of policy making.
  1. Public Policy making in India - RV Vaidyanatha Ayyar
  2. Biography of Margaret Thatcher
  3. Team of Rivals, The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln - Doris Kearns Goodwin
6) Law

In case of India, I would strongly recommend
  1. Constituent Assembly Debates. It is an amazing treasure of knowledge. This is the transcript of discussions that happened while drafting Indian Constitution. One way to read this is - go to Indian Kanoon website -- > search for a particular article of the constitution --> the corresponding page gives list of Constituent Assembly debates where this particular article was discussed (cited). For example, this page corresponds to Article 1 of Indian Constitution. On the top of the page, you have links to Constituent Assembly debates where this was cited. One gets an indepth perspective of the context and spirit of the article after reading these.
  2. Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy blog
  3. Working a Democratic Constitution - Granville Austin
7) History

I believe an understanding of history essential. But unfortunately, I couldn't read much. All my readings are from Wiki. I just read up whenever I come across something new. Apart from that, I didn't do any in-depth study. Hence, I can't help much.

8) Making sense of numbers

At the end of the day, it is all about interpretation. While interpreting evidence, we are prone to our own biases and prejudices. After you get numbers, you need some knowledge and techniques to be able to analyze them. The book list below is about both these aspects.
  1. How to Lie with Statistics - Darrel Huff
  2. The Art of Thinking Clearly - Rolf Dobelli
  3. The Black Swan, The Impact of The Highly Probable - Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  4. Mastering Metrics - Joshua D. Angrist and Jorn-Steffen Pischke
  5. Mostly Harmless Econometrics - Joshua D. Angrist and Jorn-Steffen Pischke
9) Policy analysis and debates

Welcome to the war field. You can pickup the famous or most debated policies and study them using all the knowledge gained from above readings. Don't stick just to news paper opeds about them. Do refer academic about them. In case of development, J-PAL and IPA are good sources to start with.

10) India specific reforms

To understand the problems of India, complexities and solutions, read Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan's (LokSatta) works. Click here. These documents are 'the' place to go for those interested in India specific reforms. It's a comprehensive list covering wide spectrum.

Transition - What next? 
  1. Hopefully by this time you have figured out specific interests - education, health etc. Now, it is time to study 'professors' and 'thinkers'. Read their original papers. In first read, you will understand the gyst. In second read, you will understand the context. In third read, you will appreciate the nuances. In fourth read, you will understand the data and analysis procedures. In fifth read, you link different things and question. In sixth read, you will come up with your own questions and pursue your own path of exploration.
  2. Complete Arvind Subramanian's reading list 
For yet-to-become-research students

Prof. Muralidharan asks Arvind Subramanian in the I4I interview about ideas for research, for students. He also asked similar question to his Mr. Anjani Singh in an old I4I interview. I feel there are two approaches here. 
  1. Figure out the dilemmas of policy makers and try to build an evidence regarding that. 
  2. In the topic of your interest, try to write a comprehensive document on what you understand about that field, problems and your proposed solutions. Just put down all your thoughts on the paper, no need to back them up with data. After the document is ready, try to see if you can evidence for your arguments in the note. All the assertions in the note for which you can't find evidence are your topics for research.
Daily updates

Another important aspect of reading is to be updated with the latest research, news and debates. Blogs and twitter are the best tools for this purpose. I am listing down the blogs and sites that I religiously follow. You can consider subscribing to these. The list below is not in order or importance or priority.

Readable:  All the posts in the blogs and sites below are readable, in terms of the number.
  1. Twitter list of economists For those unfamiliar with twitter, this is a list of economists in twitter, that I had created to follow their tweets. This will show the tweets of all people in the list at one place. So, once in a day, I open this list, read all the tweets of economists on that day and the links posted by them. It's a good way to keep you updated. You don't need to create a list for yourself. You can also subscribe to the list.
  2. World Bank Development blog
  3. World Bank Impact Evaluation blog
  4. Chris Blattman's blog
  5. Gulzar Natarajan's blog
  6. Ajay Shah's blog
  7. Ideas for India
  8. The Takshashila Institution dispatch
  9. Center for Global Development's blog and news letter
  10. Development Drums
  11. Roaving Bandit
  12. Matt Andrew's blog - Governance reform in International Development
  13. JPAL, IFMR and IPA news letters
  14. Project Syndicate
  15. Haas School, UC Berkeley's blog on energy.
Shameless plug - Subscribe to this blog. :D

Not to mention, reading daily newspapers is a must.

Pick and choose: It is not possible to read all the posts in the following sites. One can just read abstracts and continue to read the full paper or article depending on personal preferences.
  1. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER): I turned on the notifications for NBER facebook page. I get notification whenever they post a new paper. They post the abstract along with the link to the paper. I read the abstracts of all papers. If something is interesting, I read the paper.
  2. - Subscribe to their news letters. Same filtering procedure as above - read abstract first. Proceed to paper if the abstract is interesting.
Any courses available?

I highly recommend all those interested in public policy to pursue The Takshashila Institution's Graduate Certificate in Public Policy course.


  1. This was inspiring! Really helpful, thank you!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Interesting List Kartik, would also suggest Freaknomics by Levitt and Dubner would also be a good read