THE late Hans Rosling is best known for his Ted talks (here is one on the wonders of the washing machine). Sadly he died last year. But before he did so, he worked with his son and daughter-in-law to write “Factfulness: Ten Reasons Why We’re Wrong About the World—And Why Things Are Better Than You Think.” It is a wonderful book, full of humour and humility, and it paints an optimistic picture of progress.

Take his 13-question test and you will probably be surprised. For example, has the proportion of people in the world living in extreme poverty over the last 20 years almost doubled, stayed the same, or almost halved? Over the last 100 years, has the number of deaths per year from natural disasters more than doubled, stayed the same or more than halved? In both cases, the answer is the most optimistic one; the latter statistic is particularly remarkable given the increase in the size of the population over the past century. 

Perhaps because the news media focuses on bad news, and because political unrest in the rich world has grown so much, it is easy to miss the very good story that has been happening in Asia and elsewhere over the past 30 years. In part, this is down to the escape from baleful ideology. To quote Stephen Radelet’s “The Great Surge”: 

In 1976, Mao single-handedly and dramatically changed the direction of global poverty with one simple act: he died.

Mr Rosling had little truck with those who would deny the benefits of industrialisation (including washing machines) to those living in poor countries. But his great gift was to deliver his data with clarity and simplicity; “Factfulness” is as far from a dry economics textbook as you can imagine. That made me turn my mind, for another farewell blog, to other books on finance and economics that were both readable and insightful. What follows is an eclectic list, in alphabetic order by author surname.

Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. The best explanation of the “institutional” school of economics. Why “inclusive institutions” promote growth and extractive ones don’t.

Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed. This is the story of the Great Depression as told through the lives of the central bankers who tried and failed to deal with the crisis. As one, Montagu Norman, reflected in retirement, “nothing that I did had...any effect at all except that we collected money from a lot of poor devils and gave it over to the four winds.”

The Great Convergence by Richard Baldwin. An essential book for understanding how modern trade works via global supply chains. An antidote to the protectionist nonsense being peddled by some politicians today.

A Splendid Exchange by William Bernstein. If the Baldwin book doesn’t convince you of the importance of trade, this account of its historical role should. It is no coincidence that the greater prosperity of mankind, as noted by Mr Roslin, has occurred in an era of greater trading links.

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. An alternative to the Acemoglu/Robinson thesis. Economic history owes a lot to geographic endowment; for example, Africa lacked large mammals that could be domesticated. 

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Is it about economics, finance or psychology? That doesn’t matter. It is a fascinating account of the flawed way we think and why this can lead to costly mistakes.

Other People’s Money by John Kay. The best analytic look at the financial crisis by an academic and Financial Times columnist. It skewers the finance sector’s pretensions. “A country can be prosperous only if it has a well-functioning financial system, but that does not imply that the larger the financial system a country has, the more prosperous it is likely to be.”

While America Aged by Roger Lowenstein. It is hard to get people interested in pensions but this book, by the author of “When Genius Failed”, is the best effort I have seen. It shows how executives and politicians were happy to make promises that would take decades to redeem but were unwilling to fund them properly.

Too Big To Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin. Suffers slightly from the “at 8.22, his BMW drove up the 600 foot gravel drive” school of journalism. But still a compelling and dramatic read on how the titans of Wall Street and Washington coped with the 2008 crisis.

Where are the Customers’ Yachts? by Fred Schwed, Jr. A cynical look at Wall Street, published back in 1940. The message is still relevant today when one of the easiest ways to get rich is to manage other people's money. 

Irrational Exuberance by Robert Shiller. He may have been early but Professor Shiller forecast both the end of the dotcom bubble and the housing crash. The book should be read by anyone who thinks valuations don’t matter.

Americana by Bhu Srinivasan. This book combines lovely writing with a wonderful structure. Four hundred years of American economic history as told through a succession of chapters on subjects like slavery and retailing.

An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage. Yes, it is written by a colleague but it is an entertaining tour of history via the food we eat and the agricultural techniques we used. Since agriculture dominated the economy until the 19th century, this is essential economic history

Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The first, and best, of Mr Taleb’s books. A reflection on the misunderstood role of probability in finance and in life.  

Readers may already own some of the above, but probably not all of them. They will keep you occupied on those sunny summer evenings and long plane rides.