The Best Books on Politics and Policy for 2009

The problem with picking the most important political books of 2009 is that 2009 was an uncommonly full year. Events outpaced ideas, and did so with ease. As such, the most important books weren’t necessarily those published this year, but those that did the most to help us understand this year.

The financial crisis is, of course, the defining event of the annum, and so we’ll start there. The best book for understanding not only the products that led to Wall Street’s implosion, but just as importantly, the culture that led up to it, remains Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker. The fact that Lewis was present at the birth of the mortgage-backed securities market only served to further underscore his tale’s relevance. Thomas Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities would also be a good choice, as, come to think of it, would Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.

Towards the end of the year, contemporaneous accounts of the crisis began to pour forth. David Wessel’s In Fed We Trust is among the best of these, not least because he situates himself in the anteroom of the key player: not the banks, nor the Congress, nor the Treasury Department, but the Federal Reserve. Wessel’s book is key to understanding both what happened, but also what it exposed about the failsafe financial autocracy underlying our democratic system.

You can go a bit wrong, however, focusing too much on this crisis and too little on the nature of crises in general. The next crash, after all, won’t be caused by the same products or mistakes as this crash. But it will be caused by the same psychology, the same predictable quirks of human beings. For a good analysis of that piece of the crash, read John Cassidy’s How Markets Fail. For a look at crashes through history, read This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly by Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff. And for a thoroughly depressing look at the underlying fiscal imbalances that led to this crisis and aren’t being fixed, pick up Martin Wolfe’s Fixing Global Finance.

And that doesn’t even get to issues like health-care reform (try Sick by Jonathan Cohn, or The Healing of America by T.R. Reid, or Overtreated by Shannon Brownlee, or Health Care Will Not Reform Itself by George Halvorson) and the increasingly apparent dysfunction plaguing the political system (The Broken Branch by Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann). Frankly, it’s all a bit depressing. So if you’re looking for something a tad more uplifting, check out The Audacity to Win by David Plouffe, the manager of Obama’s unlikely 2008 campaign. It’s a good reminder that the presence of serious obstacles does not mean that success is out of reach.