Name a book that changed your life

Earlier this evening Umair Haque tweeted:


My response was:

If anyone ever asks me a question like this I always respond with Stewart’s book, even though I can hardly remember what it says anymore.

Having tweeted, it all went a bit Proustian. Memories of the book, when and where I read it, came flooding back. And I considered whether I could really say it changed my life.

In the first term of my first year as an undergraduate introductory microeconomics was compulsory. I absolutely hated it. I couldn’t stand the dry, asocial, mechanistic nature of micro at the time. The toy worlds of stylised facts, the two person economies, the differential calculus didn’t do a thing for me. It seemed to me that if this was economics then it had absolutely nothing of any interest to say about the world. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the maths. I’d switched to social science for my degree because I’d decided I didn’t want to continue to pursue the maths/physics route that I’d been tracing out until that point. But I couldn’t wait to chuck in economics and do something else.

Keynes and afterAfter Christmas we switched focus to macroeconomics. One of the first tasks was to deal with the prescribed preliminary reading, which included Keynes and after. I can clearly remember ploughing through the book pretty much in one sitting, rooted to my chair in my room in halls. I can remember the sense that here I’d found economists doing something useful. Addressing the big questions of the day. Making the world a better place. But Keynes and after is more than just a canter through some of Keynes’ key ideas. It conveys a sense of his iconoclasm. Of someone fighting against the system and the received wisdom.

This is the sort of stuff that people who start studying economics are often searching for, but they often don’t find.

But Keynes and after also conveys a sense of a rather more interesting and rounded person than the world of micro ever did. With Keynes it wasn’t just fixed exchange rate regimes and fiscal policy, but also the arts, literature, ballet. Half a century after its heyday the Bloomsbury set came across as rather exotic, not to say outré, to an impressionable young chap from the provinces.

You could be a relatively normal, sociable person, and an economist. This was a revelation.

So instead of chucking it in, I decided I should stick with economics throughout my first degree. And I’ve stuck with it for a much longer journey subsequently. So Michael Stewart changed my life.

I suppose one irony in all this is that I have subsequently never really made use of mainstream macro, although I continue to dabble for my own entertainment. But I’ve been teaching undergraduate and postgraduate units loosely based around micro for the last decade and a half. However, my units are all about economics and policy – indeed probably more policy than economics. And they are intentionally pluralist and critical. All that I owe to Keynes.

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  1. Not economic nor even academic but it was The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac when I was 18.5 yrs old. I had been working in the Isle of Skye in a small family hotel as I felt I had to travel and escape what was a pretty miserable home life. When there, my sister was living in Germany when they won the world cup in 1990? She called and sounded excited. She was my twin. I returned home after a summer-winter season, had saved up cash and went to work in a print factory. I was then unemployed, no or few qualifications, and the recession had set in. Ostensibly, I was one of Thatchers lost generation. Yts, youth opp schemes and a secondary education marred by teacher strikes and train strikes (I couldn’t go to school as we got to school by train only and there was nobody to teach us anyway). Hence , on returning from Skye, I pulled my savings out of under my matress and went into the British Airways office at Union St in Glasgow and bought a one way ticket to Munich leaving the following day. I was escaping poverty. When in Munich, I earned a great wage washing dishes and working at the rock cconcerts selling merchandise. After kipping on a pals floor for 2 months with my sister, I eventually found an old house and rented it illegally from the garage owner next door. It wasn’t his but the landowners. There I lived with a Czech guy who had fled before the Prague Spring, a German who had a terrible lisp and an English bloke who dealt drugs for a living. The story about the Czech guy was astounding. His dad was a pilot and because ge had fled to the West, his family lost everything. It was then I was handed this book. It challenged everything I had been led to believe and that Nature, moutains, buddishm and compassion and peace were qualities all humans should strive for and protect. The solace and peace of getting to the top of a mountain when reached signified in me, that hope is something we should never lose and we can achieve things whilst being kind and compassionate to our fellow beings. It made me realise what I was escaping from in Scotland was a system that had failed me and disillusioned me. At last I had found peace with myself that I could achieve anything I wanted if I was determined enough. And I did. I now have a Phd and work in social and urban policy. My purpose in life is to make a difference to others lives and to serve others less fortunate. It’s no coincidence that I teach social sciences to Open university students. The second chancers. I was given a second chance. And thats why I feel this book changed my whole outlook and path in life I have taken.