Reading list for beginners - Public Policy, Development, Growth

My purpose of writing this post is to reiterate 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. 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 blog post.

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. Maybe 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 a 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 blog post a day with commentary on contemporary issues and list of interesting readings for that day. 
So, clearly, lack of time can't be an excuse.

2) Curiosity to learn and being critical (in a positive way) not to blindly believe. Without curiosity, one can't sustain reading. Without question, 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 from across the spectrum, again for three reasons.
  • Great innovations and ideas are often at the intersection of different fields. In this context, I would strongly recommend www.edge.org, 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 an 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) Political Philosophy and Sociology

Philosophy and political science are important because our conceptions of society, morality, justice, fairness and ethics decide many decisions of ours and by default policymaking. In policy debates, sometimes the difference in an argument can be merely attributed to a 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.

Often, we tend to view individuals as the subjects of policies but it's not the case often. Sociological factors also have an important effect because the problems are embedded in a context. Thus it is important to be able to analyze policies through a sociological lens.
  1. Prof Sandel's lecture series called 'Justice'. OR Prof. Sandel's book "Justice"
  2. Western Political thoughts - From Socrates to the Age of Ideology: Brian R. Nelson
  3. Political Theory: An Introduction - Andrew HeywoodFountain Head - Ayn Rand
  4. Capitalism and Freedom - Milton Friedman
  5. The Wealth of Nations - Adam Smith
  6. The Communist Manifesto
  7. What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets - Michael Sandel
  8. The idea of justice - Amartya Sen
  9. The Burden of Democracy - Pratap Bhanu Mehta
  10. Any good introductory textbook on Sociology
  11. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values - Sam Harris

2)  Progression of societies and humankind

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 - Yuval 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 the 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 process 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 Endangers Our Future  - Joseph Stiglitz
  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 lifetime - 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 Stiglitz
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 make 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 on the political dynamics of policymaking.
  1. Public Policymaking in India - RV Vaidyanatha Ayyar
  2. Biography of Margaret Thatcher
  3. Team of Rivals, The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln - Doris Kearns Goodwin
  4. Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
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 a 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 in-depth 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, the policy is all about interpretation. While interpreting evidence, we are prone to our own biases and prejudices. It is common for people to fall into logical fallacies. For instance, basing all our judgment based on a single incident that we might have experienced in the past etc. Being aware of such fallacies and taking caution to prevent them is necessary to be objective.

After you get numbers, you need some knowledge and techniques to be able to analyze them. The book list below is in 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) India specific reforms

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

10) 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 of importance or priority.

Readable:  All the posts in the blogs and sites below are readable, in terms of the number.
  1. World Bank Development blog
  2. World Bank Impact Evaluation blog
  3. Chris Blattman's blog
  4. Gulzar Natarajan's blog
  5. Ajay Shah's blog
  6. Ideas for India
  7. The Takshashila Institution dispatch
  8. Center for Global Development's blog and newsletter
  9. JPAL, IFMR and IPA newsletters
  10. Project Syndicate
  11. VoxDev
  12. Shameless plug - Subscribe to this blog. :D
Not to mention, reading daily newspapers is a must.

11) Transition to specialising in a policy area Hopefully by this time you have figured out specific interests - education, health etc. Now, it is time to study 'professors' and 'thinkers'. 

Identify some top people in the area of your interest and read their famous papers. In the first read, you will understand the gist. In the second read, you will understand the context. In the third read, you will appreciate the nuances. In the fourth read, you will understand the data and analysis procedures. In the fifth read, you link different things and question. In the sixth read, you will come up with your own questions and pursue your own path of exploration.

Following latest research: You can follow the latest research papers in the area of your interest to be updated about the latest developments. You don't need to read all the papers. You can just read abstracts and continue to read the full paper or article only if it looks interesting. I am mainly interested in development economics, so I subscribe to newsletters of NBER and American Economic Association journals. I also get updates on latest research through VoxDev, Ideas for India, and World Bank blogs.

12) Practising the craft

Reading alone isn't enough to get a handle on analyzing policies. Policy analysis is not just about reading 10 articles, summarizing arguments on either side of the debate. To add value to the debate, one needs to come up with a unique insight. It doesn't come easily.

To practice the craft of policy, I strongly recommend to start a blog of your own and keep writing, even if you think that the opinion is naive. Writing helps you crystallize your thoughts. It also often brings clarity to your thoughts. In the initial stages, having an awesome idea or analysis is not the important aspect, having any idea or any analysis is the important thing. With time, the ideas and analysis become mature. If you are too embarrassed to put opinions out in public, at least maintain a private blog.

Writing is also important because it helps you practice writing! Writing is a highly underrated skill. All the reading and analysis is not useful if you can't communicate properly. The only way to improve it is to write more. Often, people complain that they want to write but they don't have anything to write. Commenting on the public policy issues is a good way to get that content. With all the above reading, I am sure you will be beaming with ideas.

13) Coming up with research topics for aspiring research students:
  1. Figure out the policy dilemmas of policymakers 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 find evidence for each of your arguments in the note. All the assertions in the note for which you can't find evidence are your topics for research.
14) Online courses in public policy: For people trying to get a sense of basic framework of public policy analysis, the following courses are useful.


  1. iPolicy course by Centre for Civil Society, Delhi: 3-4 day residential course. Good for beginners.
  2. The Takshashila Institution's Graduate Certificate in Public Policy course: 3-month online mode course
  3. MITx Data, Economics and Development policy  Micromasters
  4. PDIA course by Harvard's Centre for International Development.

15) Other: Want to read more? - Complete Arvind Subramanian's reading list.

Thinking that this is all so much to read, need a shortcut? Sorry. There's no shortcut to knowledge and scholarship except for reading. Hard work is inevitable.

After reading the above, if you are looking to work in the policy sector to bring about a change, here is a framework that I developed to think through such a decision (click here). Hope it helps.

All the best!

4 comments:

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

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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

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  4. This is supremely helpful !

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