Below you’ll find a list of useful books, documentaries, movies, lectures, and reports on issues pertaining to public policy. I don’t recommend anything I’m not familiar with, so these are all things I have personally found helpful. I hope you’ll find some of them helpful too.
A Short History of Nearly Everything
Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything might seem like an odd choice for a public policy website. But when you consider the important role played by science in our public policy debates and the incredible job Bryson does bringing the world of science to life in this book, then it starts to make a bit more sense. For anyone, like me, who found science instruction in high school uninspiring, Bryson’s book is the perfect way to get reacquainted with that incredible sense of wonderment we’re all born with but somehow manage to lose along the way. Less a collection of facts and more a compelling narrative about discovery, A Short History makes great reading both for students and life-long learners.
This American Life
Ira Glass has a well-deserved cult following. Whether it’s David Sedaris sharing his misadventures as a Christmas elf or Mike Birbiglia jumping out of a La Quinta Inn window in Walla Walla, Washington, This American Life delivers moving and entertaining stories every week. They’re worth checking out just for their commitment to the radio monologue as a form of entertainment. But they also do in-depth journalism on public issues in a way few other outlets do or can. Their two-part series on Harper High School in Chicago shed new light on gun violence and street gangs, while their co-production with Planet Money on disability payments asked important and uncomfortable questions. Peruse their archives and you won’t be disappointed.
Through historical accident, the Texas board of education enjoys disproportionate influence over how science, history, and other subjects are taught throughout the country. The reason is that, while other big states adopt textbooks by school district, Texas adopts standards and textbooks at the state level. This gives publishers a reason to pay special attention to what Texas does in education. The Revisionaries takes a look at the last time the education standards came up for review. A case study on the intersection of science, religion, and the separation of church and state.
America’s Constitution: A Biography
Akhil Reed Amar’s America’s Constitution: A Biography reads like a Talmud for the nation’s founding document. In about 500 pages, Amar touches on every word of the Constitution, often pausing to bring new insight to even the most familiar and disarming phrases. His analysis reminds readers of the radical elements in a document that, in so many ways, has seen its principles adopted throughout the world. It also re-contextualizes the Constitution, giving it history where some have too often only seen the hand of Providence and bringing to attention the tensions just beneath the surface. You can read the Constitution in half an inning, but if you want to understand what makes it unique, you’d be well-advised to spend a little longer on Amar’s invaluable book.
Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788
Pauline Maier’s Ratification raises interesting questions about authorship. In debates over Constitutional interpretation, arguments in favor of original intent are often countered with the observation that the Framers hardly agreed on everything. The Constitution is a compromise bill with many provisions which the Framers would have each read differently. Maier’s book raises a further problem: maybe, in a sense, the Framers weren’t the authors at all. In almost six-hundred pages, Maier recounts in beautiful detail a period of America’s history so often passed over in a few brief sentences. The process of ratification, she shows, was not the passive affair we might imagine; rather, the state conventions struggled deeply with the principles of self-government and they brought new ideas to bear on the Founding. After all, it was their assent that gave life to the inert parchment that came out of Philadelphia in May of 1787. At the very least, her book reminds us of the uncertain setting out of which the United States grew.
The Living Constitution
In The Living Constitution, David Strauss makes an argument for a common-law interpretation of the Constitution. Rather than the narrow box of original intent, or the free-for-all originalists seem to fear, Strauss argues that judicial interpretation allows the Constitution to evolve over time, but only in ways that are constrained by case law and well-established principles of legal interpretation. What’s more, Strauss argues this approach to the Constitution is more in keeping with America’s Constitutional history and avoids the logical pitfalls of originalism. An elegant defense of an easily-maligned idea, The Living Constitution is brief, concise, and highly readable.
The Idea of America: The Birth of the United States
The Idea of America is a book about the origins of the American Revolution and the ideas which animated not just the birth a nation, but the founding of this peculiar country. It’s also a book about American Exceptionalism, but not in the usual way. Rather, Gordon S. Wood tackles the question directly: how is America unique? Wood’s book is about an idea brought about by a process larger than any of the people who participated in it; oftentimes they didn’t even see the full implications of what they were doing: “The American leaders may have begun their Revolution trying to recover an idealized and vanished Roman republic, but they soon realized that they had unleashed forces that were carrying them and their society much further than they had anticipated.” Those forces continue to carry us today.
The Report of the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment
Torture. That’s the conclusion reached by the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment regarding the actions of the US government in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. With more than a decade between us and the horrible events of that day, the country continues to grapple with the implications of our own response. This unblinking report offers an opportunity to reflect on the choices we’ve made as well as an opportunity to consider the consequences of those choices.
Planet Money Makes A T-Shirt
Think of a pencil. Simple, elegant – easily customizable with little more than a pocket knife. In a 1958 essay, Leonard Reed used the humble pencil to explore the intricacies of modern manufacturing. In that spirit, Pietra Rivoli took a look at the global strands that weave together a t-shirt in her book The Travels of a T-Shirt In the Global Economy. Now the theme is getting the Planet Money treatment: they set out to actually make their own t-shirt and follow the process from the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta to places that might surprise you. As usual, Planet Money blends insightful ground-level stories with the sort of macro-economic analysis that provides context.
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