Reading Groups

About the Program

The Political Economy Project (PEP) grew out of the practice of faculty members such as Professors Meir Kohn and Douglas Irwin hosting informal reading groups to discuss important books together.

Texts or topics that could not easily be fit into the framework of formal coursework could instead be made the occasion for a kind of continuing education, in an intimate small-group setting that allows for more careful exploration and closer interaction than is sometimes possible in the classroom.


Starting in the Spring of 2020, the PEP began facilitating author interviews by any interested students in the Book Group program. The first student-author interview grew out of Prof. Henry Clark's Spring discussion of Alan Kahan's Mind vs. Money: The War Between Intellectuals and Capitalism (Routledge, 2010). 

Nishi Jain ('21), one of the participants in the group, conducted the interview with Professor Kahan in late Spring. Lightly edited for length and clarity, the interview follows:

What was your inspiration to write Mind vs. Money?

I got the first idea from hearing friends and colleagues talk about history. Not just American history, but other kinds of history as well. The word "bourgeois" or "bourgeoisie" often came up in their talk. There was always a pejorative connotation to when somebody talks about the bourgeois or the middle class or what have you. And I realized this was just symptomatic of the profession. And it wasn't just historians, by any means. It wasn't just my colleagues, even the ones who did not regard themselves as at all on the Left. Nevertheless, they spoke about the bourgeoisie as these, you know, inferior beings who lived over there and were concerned with things that were beneath the rest of us. Given that, I started reading and the more I learned, the less I became satisfied with existing accounts. And so then I tried to perform an overarching class-based kind of analysis, answering questions such as, "how does this fit into a democratic society in which people naturally have to make money because they don't have the guarantees of hereditary status?" And the intrigue and confusion behind that perspective was the origin of Mind vs. Money.

Can you describe the class struggle between capitalists and intellectuals? 

This class struggle between intellectuals and bourgeoisie begins somewhere close to the late 18th century, where both groups allied against the traditional aristocracy, but then fell out shortly thereafter. Since then, they have been fighting for power (very similar to the Marxist argument), using whatever tools they have available; in the one case, money, and in the other case, the moral and intellectual force. And that would be fine if they would both acknowledge that they're interested in the same thing, but the intellectuals typically are the ones who refuse to acknowledge that they actually have the same goal because the inherent nature of the goal goes against the moral and intellectual force that they align themselves with. 

Another word for this is competition. This can be fruitful, but it can also be catastrophic. And too often, it's been catastrophic rather than fruitful. 

Is this kind of class-based analysis common? 

Well, you talk about class analysis and it comes in lots of flavors. If you start out in 19th-century history as I do, everybody in the 19th century is constantly talking about class, specifically the big three: aristocracy, middle class, and poor. I consider class more a variation on this in that there are sometimes hundreds of different classes. Given this kind of outlook, you open yourself up to many different possible analyses. Strictly looking at political affiliation, you can consider not only those that are on the Left, but also those who started out left but moved right, or those with original Marxist roots. Nevertheless, if you keep on talking about class, then you have all kinds of people writing about contemporary American class in both sociology and political science, who will talk about class and use various kinds of theories of class. 

So, the concept of class itself is not original nor is a class-based analysis, but the class-based analysis of intellectuals specifically is fairly disappointing. Which is why I had to create a lot of what I thought about that myself, while drawing on many of the sources that are already out there. 

To what degree do you think there is class consciousness among intellectuals? 

There certainly is a good amount of awareness of other intellectuals, but I am not sure I would go so far as to say there is class consciousness. And it's not so much that we set ourselves apart from other intellectuals, but rather that we don't realize that there are so many of us that we, in and of ourselves, constitute a class. For instance, in general a recent statistic showed that we were more and more likely to marry each other. And you can visibly see that, because American academics have a high rate of intermarriage these days, far more than they did 30, 40, 50 years ago. And in some ways, I wish we in fact had more of a class consciousness. I do say at some point in the book: I think both society and intellectuals as a group would be happier if intellectuals could say we had a society to belong to. One of the suggestions I make in the book is that intellectuals can do a better job of recognizing themselves more honestly as a group with a particular role to play—rather than denying it, rather than being embarrassed about it, rather than wishing they were somebody else. 

How has technology changed your findings? 

Think of the sort of counterculture imperatives that are attached to Silicon Valley: the fact that all these very entrepreneurial people consider bourgeois to be a bad word is because it involves wearing suits and not just black jeans and T shirts. So somehow, even in the process of making money, and thinking there's nothing wrong with making money, there is something wrong with being bourgeois. And I think to a certain extent, the sort of Silicon Valley ethos to disrupt / break things—well, that's what intellectuals have been thinking was their job for a couple centuries, right? So, they should like that in theory and be sympathetic towards it. But then there is the alternate perspective that intellectuals traditionally align themselves with, more so than the former, and that's that you're breaking the mom and pop stores and replacing them with powerful firms like Amazon and the like. So, you go from a couple of guys in a small garage to these incredibly wealthy and powerful companies that intellectuals then begin to criticize. So fundamentally, intellectuals believe that if you're really aiming at making money as opposed to just having this great idea, then there's something wrong with you from the intellectual perspective, and you're pursuing an inferior goal. 

What other books do you recommend to those who have read Mind vs. Money? 

There's a really interesting essay by George Stigler called The Intellectual and the Marketplace, and both Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution by Tocqueville would be great reads. You can never read enough Tocqueville! 

Do you consider yourself a member of the intelligentsia? 

Absolutely, and in writing this book, I should add, I don't want to claim moral superiority. I share all the prejudices of my caste. I just know their prejudices.

Past Reading Groups

Prof. Meir Kohn


The Proper Role of Government in the Economy--

Clifford Winston, Government failure versus market failure (2006) and Frederic Bastiat, The Law (1850)

What is the proper role of government in the economy? How successful has the government been in 'correcting market failures'? What has been the government's impact on invention and on technological progress through its creation of intellectual property rights? What, in general, is it reasonable to expect of government intervention?


James Bartholemew, The Welfare State We're In (2004)

Charles A. Murray, In pursuit of happiness and good government 1988).

Is it necessary for the state to care for the poor, to provide education and health care for all, and to perform all the other functions that make up the welfare state? If the state doesn't do these things, who will? How well does the state do these things? What is the effect of the welfare state on the well-being and happiness of its beneficiaries? 


James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State (1998)

Is it possible for wise leaders, advised by the best technical experts, to engineer improvements in human society? In Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott looks at the outcome of some major schemes to improve the human condition and asks why they have failed.


Mancur Olson, Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships (2000)


William Lewis, The Power of Productivity 

This book, written by a founder of the McKinsey Global Institute, addreses the most fundamental question in economics: Why are some nations rich and other poor? It does not do so in the aggregative manner of the conventional approach to economic development and growth. Rather it tries to understand how actual economies work by studying a number of them in detail--relying on the data and experience of McKinsey consultants working with actual companies in the countries concerned.


Jane Jacobs, The Economy of Cities 

Why are some nations rich and others poor? How did the rich nations become rich? The modern literature on economic growth and development fails to provide satisfactory answers to these questions. Indeed, that literature offers less insight than Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, written in 1776. The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs is very much in the spirit of Smith, and it is arguably one of the most important books on economics of the twentieth century. Jane Jacobs was not an academic or a trained economist. However, despite this--or because of it--she was a highly original thinker!


The Proper Role of Government in the Economy (selections from Winston, Government Failure vs. Market Failure, Boldrin and Levine, Against Intellectual Monopoly, and Bastiat, The Law)

What is the proper role of government in the economy? How successful has the government been in 'correcting market failures'? What has been the government's impact on invention and on technological progress through its creation of intellectual property rights? What, in general, is it reasonable to expect of government intervention?


The Welfare State (selections from Bartholomew, The Welfare State We're In, and Murray, The Pursuit of Happiness: And Good Government)

Is it necessary for the state to care for the poor, to provide education and health care for all, and to perform all the other functions that make up the welfare state? If the state doesn't do these things, who will? How well does the welfare state do these things? What is the effect of the welfare state on the well-being and happiness of its beneficiaries?


James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State

Is it possible for wise leaders, advised by the best technical experts, to engineer improvements in human society? In Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott looks at the outcome of some major schemes to improve the human condition and asks why they have failed.


Prof. Douglas Irwin


David Friedman, Law's Order

What does economics have to do with law? Suppose legislators propose that armed robbers receive life imprisonment. Editorial pages applaud them for getting tough on crime. Constitutional lawyers raise the issue of cruel and unusual punishment. Legal philosophers ponder questions of justness. An economist, on the other hand, observes that making the punishment for armed robbery the same as that for murder encourages muggers to kill their victims. This is the cut-to-the-chase quality that makes economics not only applicable to the interpretation of law, but beneficial to its crafting. Drawing on numerous commonsense examples, in addition to his extensive knowledge of Chicago-school economics, David D. Friedman offers a spirited defense of the economic view of law. 


Prof. Henry Clark


Philip K. Howard, The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government (2014)

"Our regulatory state is failing us." So wrote economist and blogger Tyler Cowen—early and often—during the Spring pandemic of 2020. But is this true? Are the problems we face in dealing with our 20 million or so local, state and Federal employees anything more than the usual annoyances one would expect from any large, impersonal bureaucratic organization? Philip K. Howard thinks so. Ever since his best-selling book The Death of Common Sense appeared in 1995, Howard--lawyer, civic activist, and founder of Common Good—has been sounding the alarm about the dysfunctionalities of the contemporary administrative state. 


Alan S. Kahan, Mind vs Money: The War Between Intellectuals and Capitalism (2010)

Are intellectuals—journalists, writers, artists, and academics—a "permanently alienated elite in capitalist societies"? Do they have a more negative view of the economic system under which we live than most ordinary people do? Do they provide legitimacy and leadership to anti-modern movements that those movements would not otherwise enjoy? To Alan S. Kahan, respected intellectual historian of liberalism, the answer to all of these questions is Yes. And in Mind vs. Money, he tells their story and outlines their contours.


Eric Kaufmann, Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities (2019)

In this ambitious book (described by reviewers as "brilliant," "definitive," "extraordinary," "magisterial," "required reading," "the must-read book of the year"), Eric Kaufmann addresses the complex connections among between race, immigration, globalization and democracy. What is the relationship between immigration and national identity? How has the issue of immigration provoked the rise of populism and the recent "crisis of democracy"?  Finally, what about political economy? What role did economic globalization have in changing notions of national identity, and what role if any might markets have in addressing its manifest problems?


Hans Rosling, Factfulness: Ten Reasons Why We're Wrong About the World, and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (2019)

Are activists today mostly misguided in their priorities? Are they guilty of unscientific or evidence-free emotionalism in the way they choose their various causes? Have they mainly misidentified the things that deserve public attention? Hans Rosling, one of the great "activists" of the past half century (before his untimely death in 2018), came to believe the answer to these questions was Yes. Moreover, he further concluded that the more exposure people had to higher education, the more misguided their approach to activism became.


Harry Frankfurt, On Inequality (and other selections)

Everyone "knows" that income inequality is a large, growing, and urgent problem. It erodes our sense of solidarity and social justice, weakens our economic opportunities, even harms our mental and physical health. Its inexorable rise, we are told, has been proven many times over, most notably by economist Thomas Piketty. Inequality helped fuel the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and is poised to dominate the election of 2020. Everyone knows that inequality is a leading problem of our time.

But what if what "everyone knows" is mistaken? What if income equality is "not a fundamental component of human well-being"? (Pinker 2018, 98) What if the current passion over inequality, on both Right and Left, is misguided or even counterproductive? In the last five years or so, an interdisciplinary array of researchers and thinkers have been coming to just that conclusion. Their arguments form the topic of this reading group.


Paul Hollander, From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship

What is it that attracts so many intellectuals---i.e., journalists, writers, artists, and academics---to dictatorship? Is it the same thing that attracts ordinary people? Is the appeal of left-wing dictatorship different from the appeal of right-wing dictatorship? Is the role of intellectuals in facilitating dictatorship a real problem, or are they too marginal a group to matter very much? Are we living in a time when the appeal of dictatorship is again on the rise throughout the world? Such are among the big questions addressed by this reading group.


Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion

Moral Foundations Theory, developed by Jonathan Haidt among others, raises provocative questions for our thinking about political economy in all of its dimensions---including: How much of our economic and political thinking is actually moral in nature? Where do our political and economic ideas come from? And why does it seem to be getting harder for people of different economic and political ideas to understand or sympathize with each other? The present reading group provides an opportunity to explore some of those and related questions. 


John Tomasi, Free-Market Fairness

Can libertarians care about social justice? In Free Market Fairness, John Tomasi argues that they can and should. Drawing simultaneously on moral insights from defenders of economic liberty such as F. A. Hayek and advocates of social justice such as John Rawls, Tomasi presents a new theory of liberal justice. This theory, free market fairness, is committed to both limited government and the material betterment of the poor. Unlike traditional libertarians, Tomasi argues that property rights are best defended not in terms of self-ownership or economic efficiency but as requirements of democratic legitimacy. At the same time, he encourages egalitarians concerned about social justice to listen more sympathetically to the claims ordinary citizens make about the importance of private economic liberty in their daily lives. Tomasi argues that free market fairness, with its twin commitment to economic liberty and a fair distribution of goods and opportunities, is a morally superior account of liberal justice. Indeed, according to Tomasi, free market fairness is social justice, American style.