Ok, here’s the truth: I had a little bit too much bourbon on New Years Eve, and spent most of January 1, 2020, on the couch recovering (if you’re reading this, I am truly sorry, mom). I only had a little bit too much, though, because I was having such a good time with so many good friends.
That sentiment adequately describes how I felt about 2019, too: I did a little bit too much, but I only did too much because I was having such a good time with so many good friends.
In 2019, Blue Sky Partners doubled its revenue, GoodPolitics expanded outside Austin, I joined the board at the LBJ Library’s LBJ Future Forum, served on the Texas Civil Rights Project’s ‘Bill of Rights’ event Committee, and was appointed by Austin’s City Council to be a member of both the Economic Prosperity and Ethics Review Commissions.
It was a year full of change and, with that change, some very steep learning curves.
For Blue Sky Partners, because of the number of client and outside demands on my time, I had to learn how to streamline my schedule, work in a more focused way, and delegate more effectively. This reading list reflects that.
For my City of Austin Commissions, first of all, I had to learn Robert’s Rules of Order before I even felt comfortable opening my mouth on the record at all. Once I got comfortable “making a motion,” I was very quickly up to my neck in heated conversations about approaches to Austin’s affordability crisis (specifically related to housing and transportation). By midsummer, after City Council passed changes to the sit, camp, lie ordinances, homelessness came to the forefront. At Economic Prosperity, we spent a lot of time talking about how to streamline city procurement practices and promote more innovative thinking via the city’s Office of Innovation. In my three or so meetings after being appointed to Ethics Review, I got acquainted with city statues related to campaign finance law and became very familiar with the Texas Open Meetings Act. While each commission is briefed well before we make a determination or recommendation to City Council (ask me about my binders full of policy sometime), I spent time reading as much about all of these issues from a statewide, nationwide, and global perspective as I could.
For GoodPolitics, as Liz and I continue to let this movement be shaped by the community we’re in and think about where we might try to steer it, I spent a lot of time thinking and reading about basic small-d democratic issues like voting rights and diplomacy, how technology and technology companies have both helped and hurt democratic systems of government around the world. I reread the Constitution and our Bill of Rights twice.
Finally, every year I pick a loose theme for my reading and try to read a few books on a historical subject, person, or topic I’d like to learn more about. Last year it was space—specifically the work that led to Apollo 11.
As a kid, I loved going to the airport with my dad to watch planes take off and land, and I w̵a̵s̵ am a huge Star Wars and sci-fi nerd. As I’ve gotten older, like most people, I constantly fight the cynicism that comes with seeing how things really work—how impartial and harsh the world really is, whether I’ve experienced that harshness, myself, or not.
But the space race and that period of American history have always fascinated me. How did America rebound from the Great Depression and World War II straight into the Cold War and continue to out-innovate the world? And how did we do it during a time of such social, technological, and political upheaval?
We went to the moon in 1969 and 1968 was a hell of a year.
Just as a reminder, in case you forgot, in 1968 a U.S. Navy ship was captured by North Korea, the Vietnam War continued to rage, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, there were riots and violence at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, Nixon won the White House, and Apollo 8 orbited the moon. At the same time, Random Access Memory (DRAM) was created, the first commercial satellite was shot into the sky (everybody was terrified), programming languages like BASIC were invented, LED lights became a thing, and you were finally able to dial somebody directly from a phone without having to talk to an operator. The world was changing fast and in response to that rapid change people were electing “strong” leaders like Nixon that promised “law and order” (spoiler: those very leaders promoting “law and order” turned out to not be following the law).
Despite all that, by 1969, the American people brought private industry and government together to do what NASA told John F. Kennedy it would take decades to do in 1962: they put a man on the moon before the decade was out.
It’s an aspirational story, it’s not perfect—no story is. But it’s a good one. I guess I just wanted to remind myself that, if the will exists, despite all its glaring imperfections, America has a history that shows it will do big things and make life better for people in the process, not because they’re easy, but because they’re hard.
So anyway, without further ado, here’s every book I read in 2019, with my favorites highlighted at the top and the full list down below with links to buy from the best local bookstore in the world, BookPeople.
Happy New Year, y’all.
The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap, by Mehrsa Baradaran
“When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, the black community owned a total of 0.5 percent of the total wealth in the United States. This number is not surprising; slaves were forbidden to own anything, and the few freed blacks living in the North had few opportunities to accumulate wealth. What is staggering is that more than 150 years later, that number has barely budged—blacks still own only about 1 percent of the wealth in the United States.”
American Moonshot: JFK and the Great Space Race, by Douglas Brinkley
The president mocked those timid citizens who wanted to stay still on Each a little longer, who didn’t aim for the moon, joining ranks with ‘those who resisted the horseless carriage and Christopher Columbus.’ Discoveries such as Newton’s law of universal gravitation were evoked, as were such inventions as the steam engine, electric lights, and the telephone. ‘This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers,’ Kennedy said. ‘Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward. So it’s not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait. But this City of Houston, this state of Texas, this country of the United States, were not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond
Exploitation. Now, there’s a word that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate. It is a word that speaks to the fact that poverty is not just a product of low incomes. It is also a product of extractive markets. Boosting poor people’s incomes by increasing the minimum wage or public benefits, say, is absolutely crucial. But not all of those extra dollars will stay in the pockets of the poor. Wage hikes are tempered if rents rise along with them, just as food stamps are worth less if groceries in the inner city cost more — and they do, as much as 40 percent more, by one estimate. Poverty is two-faced — a matter of income and expenses, input and output — and in a world of exploitation, it will not be effectively ameliorated if we ignore this plain fact.
Exit West (a novel), by Mohsin Hamid
The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists, and it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations, and cities pulling away from hinterlands, and it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart. Without borders nations appeared to be becoming somewhat illusory, and people were questioning what role they had to play.
Optically the government isn’t leading in innovation—even if it may quietly be investing in high-tech inventions, usually for war. For affluent urban millennials, the biggest consumer group, it’s also partly that nations are so globalized that believing in something as dorky as a common cause like their state is beyond them. They’re too busy taking selfies in Cuba, Instagrams of vegan cuisine, buying Lululemon, and growing moustaches. It could also be that they’re too postmodern and “meta” now to believe in something so traditional. This is the era where Hulu is producing high-concept “dramadies” set within fake reality dating shows, after all. We’re more fragmented than ever, too—which means buying into a common cause feels impossible. It could simply be because all we spend our money on is tech, through digital platforms, this sector is the only one with enough resources to do anything anymore.
SPRQ: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard
That raised an issue still familiar in modern electoral systems. Are Members of Parliament, for example, to be seen as delegates of the voters, bound to follow the will of their electorate? Or are they representatives, elected to exercise their own judgement in the changing circumstances of government? This was the first time, so far as we know, that this question had been explicitly raised in Rome, and it was no more easily answered then than it is now.
I know that war is the failure of diplomacy and the failure of leaders to make alternative decisions.
Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas, by Stephen Harrigan
The state has nation-sized measurements: 268,000 square miles in all, 827 road miles from its westernmost city, El Paso, to Beaumont, near the Louisiana border. But its insistent and imposing sense of itself has created a vast mythical mindscape as well. Because it looms large in the world’s imagination, and in fact is large, Texas has a history that is of consequence not just to itself, and not just to the nations it was once part of or the nation it briefly became. It sits at the core of the American experience, and its wars, its industries, its presidents, its catastrophes, its scientific discoveries have never stopped shaping the world.
It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work, by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson
A great work ethic isn’t about working whenever you’re called upon. It’s about doing what you say you’re going to do, putting in a fair day’s work, respecting the work, respecting the customer, respecting coworkers, not wasting time, not creating unnecessary work for other people, and not being a bottleneck. Work ethic is about being a fundamentally good person that others can count on and enjoy working with.
A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism, by Adam Gopnik
Liberalism isn’t a political theory applied to life. It’s what we know about life applied to a political theory. That good change happens step by step, stone by stone, and bird by bird, that we advance in life by invisible thoroughfares and, feeling our way along in their darkness, awaken to find ourselves changed and, sometimes, improved. That what we don’t know is larger than what we do know, but that what we do know is just deep enough to trust. This working connection between the life we live and the social practice we undertake is the real hidden strength of the liberal tradition.
Section 2: The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.
Rocket Men, by Robert Kurson
REMOTE: Office Not Required, by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson
The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy, by Michael Lewis
Shortest Way Home, by Pete Buttigieg
Brave New Work: Are You Ready to Reinvent Your Organization?, by Aaron Dignan
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson
Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike, by Phil Knight
All The Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy
The Mueller Report: Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, by Robert S. Mueller, Special Counsel’s Office, Dept. of Justice
The Underground Railroad: A Novel, by Colson Whitehead
The Selected Writings of Thomas Paine (Vintage, 1950s)