Dean Baker is an American macroeconomist and co-founder, with Mark Weisbrot, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, D.C. Dean Baker is credited as being one of the first economists to have discovered the 2007–2008 United States housing bubble. He is frequently cited in economics reporting in major media outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, CNBC, and National Public Radio. Dean Baker writes a weekly column for the Guardian Unlimited (UK), the Huffington Post, TruthOut, and his blog, Beat the Press, features commentary on economic reporting. His analyses have appeared in many major publications, including the Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post, the London Financial Times, and the New York Daily News. He received his Ph.D in economics from the University of Michigan. Dean Baker has written several books, his latest being Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer. He has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank, the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress, and the OECD’s Trade Union Advisory Council. Please enjoy my interview with Dean Baker.
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
The short answer is that I am an economist. The longer answer is that I work for a think tank that I co-founded, that questions the conventional wisdom in debates on economic policy.
I am taking way too long to read Making It: Why Manufacturing Still Matters by Louis Uchitelle.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was very young I wanted to be an astronomer. When I was somewhat older I mostly envisioned myself being a civil rights lawyer.
What do you think your school-aged self would think of the present day you?
That’s a scary question. Apart from thinking that I am really old, I hope my school-age self would appreciate the ways that I have tried to have an impact on the world. I don’t know if he would be forgiving for not being more successful.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be and why?
Probably Globalization and Its Discontents by Joe Stiglitz. This is a good overview of what can go right when economic policy is carried through well, as has been the case in China over the last four decades and also the risks of poorly executed policy, as in the I.M.F designed bailout from the East Asian financial crisis. Economic policy can have enormous consequences for good or evil, and it is really important to remember this, especially if you’re going to be an economist.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
I am reading short pieces such as news articles, magazine pieces, and academic papers all the time. Books tend to be more of luxury when I have some time set aside. If it is an economics book that I feel I have to read, I tend to do it quickly and just make the time.
Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far? How did it impact it?
It was probably The Political Economy of Growth by Paul Baran. Baran was a left Keynesian who was very sympathetic to the Soviet Union when he wrote the book (1956). While the sympathy for the Soviet Union was largely misplaced, this was my introduction to Keynesian economics. I read this one summer while I was in college before I had taken any economics classes. Ever since then I have always viewed the economy from a Keynesian perspective in which shortfalls in demand are frequently the limiting factor on growth.
Which three books would you recommend for a complete novice who wants to learn about economics?
I’d recommend Globalization and Its Discontents by Joe Stiglitz, Monopoly Capital by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, and The State of Working America by Lawrence Mishel, Josh Bivens, Elise Gould, and Heidi Shierholz. The first two are great for how people conceptualize the economy. The third will provide them with the data they need to understand what is going on in the economy.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
My mother gave me Boss by Mike Royko when I was a little kid. This was Royko’s biography of Richard J. Daley. It was a great introduction to politics.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
I have often recommended The Return of Depression Economics by Paul Krugman. It gives a good basic explanation of the nature of the economics profession and the key issues in macroeconomics.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
In terms of the time I spend reading, I much prefer fiction. I tend to read non-fiction quickly because I want the information. I read fiction slowly because I enjoy the process. I don’t want to get done with a good book in an hour, would it make sense to speed-listen to Mozart?
What’s the greatest book on economics ever written?
I’d have to say The General Theory by John Maynard Keynes. This put forward the argument for how an economy could be below its full employment level of output and quite possibly for a long period of time. It really transformed the profession. Liberals, conservatives, and radical economists have all had to struggle with its insights for the last 80 years. Out of intellectual honesty, I should also mention Essays in the Theory of Economic Fluctuations by Michel Kalecki. Kalecki was writing very much along the same lines as Keynes at the same time but never got the same recognition.
Do you think reading is important?
I can’t imagine knowing much about the world without reading. I love travelling or just walking down the streets seeing new places, but you cover an awful lot more ground reading.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
I would say Adults in the Room by Yanis Varoufakis. It is his account of dealing with the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the I.M.F. as Greece’s finance minister in the middle of their financial crisis.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
I only read real books, I don’t have a digital reader.
Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. This book makes an argument similar to the one that I have made in much of my writing; in the last four decades, the government has structured the market to redistribute income upward. It makes this argument slightly differently than I do, but it is well-written and easily understood by a lay audience.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
The Limits of Power by Gabriel Kolko. This book chronicles the rise of the Cold War. While I understand that many of the arguments in the book have been disputed in later histories, it taught me to be much more sceptical of the U.S. government and the rationales given for its actions around the world.
If you could only teach the youth of today one thing about economics, what would it be and why?
I would teach them that markets are constructed through policy choices. Some people are able to get very rich, while others barely scrape by because we have constructed our markets in the way we have. If Bill Gates didn’t have government granted patent and copyright monopolies on Microsoft’s software he would not be one of the richest people in the world. If we subjected financial transactions to the same sort of sales tax people pay when they buy shoes or books, Wall Street would be half its size and the people working there would be much less rich. And, if we had macroeconomic policies that focused on maintaining full employment, even the least skilled workers would find their labor in demand. We may want tax and transfer policies to reduce inequality, but the best route is not to rig the deck to generate so much inequality to begin with.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I intend to read a lot more fiction. My wife and I are moving to Utah this summer where I will be working considerably less. I will have time to read all the great books I have sitting on my shelves.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Dobermans Rule: Dealing with the Mad Dogs of Economic Policy and Very Sweet Canines.