Five books to get you thinking this Christmas


If you have a house full of kids, there’s one word you probably hear a lot at Christmas: “mine”. You’ll hear it in the context of new toys unboxing the same day; old toys are protected from rowdy cousins; cracker trinkets caught when they fall to the ground; and, of course, in contested board games.

You will also hear adult versions of it: “This is my kitchen and we will make cabbage my way”, etc. There’s a lot of ambiguity here and a lot of potential for conflict too: if you bought the kitchen with an early inheritance from your mom and it’s also in the kitchen, does it have a say?

Gray areas of the property

With my best wishes for a harmonious holiday to all of you, my first book suggestion for your Christmas gift list is Mine: How the Hidden Rules of Property Control Our Lives by Michael Heller and James Salzman. We tend to think of ownership as something truly binary: something is either mine or yours. But it is not; instead, in many cases it’s more of a ‘storytelling battle’. For example, who owns the little space in which an airplane seat reclines?

Who owns your data? Who owns a book you bought for your Kindle if Amazon can deactivate it at any time? If you own land, but other people have a right of way over it or, like most of the United States, for food, do you really own it? And if you want to get clean water from the land, where the owners are not the end users of that water, how do you make them feel like they own it, so they keep it clean?

There is a toolkit for the answers (six ways to make something your own), say Heller and Salzman, but the key point is that companies design their own ownership rules – and correct design is the key to success.

The ugly flaws of capitalism

Peter Barnes, author of our next book, Ours: the case of universal property, believes that much of today’s conception is wrong – and therefore limits our potential: it has form in the property debate game – one of his previous books is called Who owns the sky.

Barnes argues that capitalism has two ugly flaws: it deepens existing inequalities and it is “destroyer of nature.” The need to repair capitalism is, he says, “unquestionable”. The solution is to recognize that the majority of the wealth of developed societies has little to do with our current efforts: rather it is a function of the ecosystems that exist naturally and the social assets built by previous generations – the state. law, our banking systems and so on.

Things would be better if all of these assets existed as universal property – held not privately and not by the state, but in some sort of trust that charges everyone who benefits from the labor of past generations (and nature. ) and pays out to the population as a whole equally.

So a financial transaction tax would be paid to the trust for example – as a rough structure, think of the Alaska Permanent Fund which divides Alaska’s oil wealth among all of its residents.

I’m not sure I totally believed his depressing diagnosis. Our current system has reduced the share of the world’s population living in absolute poverty from 44% 60 years ago to less than 10% today.

And why is the increase in inequality so large, if overall poverty levels are declining rapidly at the same time? Sometimes it’s the absolutes that count. Yet the idea that too many individuals find ways to profit from what is truly collective wealth is compelling. This is why I am in favor of a property value tax, for example, and I suspect that it is gaining ground. You need to know the arguments.

Why “stakeholders” should not prevail over shareholders

The same goes for those featured in Vivek Ramaswamy Woke Inc: Inside the Social Justice Scam. (Listen to me and Vivek talk about it in more detail on the MoneyWeek podcast here.) The world is currently full of calls for individual ownership to be diluted in some way – and the idea that businesses should bring shareholders off the top of their stakeholder priority lists is a major part of this.

Ramaswamy has none of these. It’s a concept, he says, that allows big business to get into politics, something they don’t really care about; that covers hypocrisy too much; and (essentially) that interferes with democracy.

“We shouldn’t let interested businesses and politicians divide us through cheap identities and cheap social causes,” he says. Maybe companies should leave politics to politicians and focus on what should be their real purpose: making things, selling them, doing both well, making money back to their real owners – the shareholders.

The fall of the empire

Then you should read the fabulous book by George Maher Pugnare: Economic Success and Failure, A History of the Roman Empire written from a financial perspective. (You can hear me speaking to George on the MoneyWeek podcast here.) The design of the property was as crucial 2,000 years ago as it is now.

Roman economic growth was based on two vital (and new) elements: outright property (no universal property here) and a stable and globally recognized monetary system. For most of the empire’s history, the money you owned could be trusted to maintain its purchasing power.

When inflation set in at the end of the second century, as soldiers’ salaries soared and the penny fell, economic stability collapsed along with the currency. The banking system seems to have completely failed in AD260, says Maher.

And that was it. One to give to all those you would like to be less jaded than them about the resilience of our institutions and to worry more than them about inflation. A central banker maybe.

Imaginary islands

Finally for fun, a reminder of how easily mistakes can get stuck in our thinking – The unknown islands by Malachie Tallack. It’s a rundown of all the islands that have appeared on maps over the centuries – but then turned out not to exist.

Think of Thule, apparently discovered somewhere north of Shetland by the Greek explorer Pytheas and in which Pliny strongly believes (who told his readers that in Thule there was “no night at the summer solstice” ). It does not exist, nor does Bermeja, an island that appeared on maps of the Yucatán Peninsula for hundreds of years – and was finally abolished in 1997.

This is a travel book. But not one that will bother you as much as others. Since none of the islands actually exist, no one can own them, and whether or not to lock, you can’t go. You might find it quite relaxing. I did.

• This article first appeared in the Financial Times


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