We are publishing our annual Christmas reading list today. It aims to offer a thought-provoking break from the rigours of Christmas. All are available free and online. You can save these articles on your smartphone's or tablet's reading list. To print any use the print icons, where available, on the webpages to ensure the whole article comes out.
The eradication of smallpox, which killed an estimated 300m people in the 20th century, is one of the great achievements of the modern world. This article looks at the political and religious debates surrounding the development of inoculation. What emerges is that today’s “anti-vaxxers” are but the latest incarnation of a longstanding and unfounded set of fears – anti-vaccination societies existed in the US and UK almost 200 years ago. Countering such ideas, as this article makes clear, has led to huge improvements in human health.
Online retail has grown exponentially since the turn of the millennium and with it has come greater choice, convenience and affordability – but also fleets of delivery vans, oceans of packaging and strains on supply chains. This piece from The Guardian examines how online shopping has transformed logistics and ponders how goods might make their way to our houses in the future.
A business, particularly a start-up, bears more than a passing resemblance to a rock band. If talented founders, perhaps with oversized egos, cannot resolve disagreements, both bands and companies tend to fail. Bands, too, need to function as businesses to succeed – canny marketing strategies, multiple revenue streams and personnel management are key in modern music. This piece from The Economist’s 1843 magazine compares the strategy of bands from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones to see what lessons management might learn.
We have noted high levels of economic and financial uncertainty reported by chief financial officers in our “Deloitte CFO Survey” since the EU referendum in 2016. Now, new Bank of England research, based on anonymised data from the CFO Survey, sheds light on the corrosive effect of uncertainty on business investment. In this speech drawing on the research, Michael Saunders, a member of the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee, argues that whereas previous spikes in uncertainty have been temporary, the post-referendum elevation has been persistent, driving a marked decline in capital expenditure by businesses. The speech was widely seen as making a case for lower interest rates and contributed to a drop in market rate expectations.
There are numerous competing explanations for the collapse in the US crime rate in the 1990s. An ageing population, changing criminal justice policies, the banning of leaded petrol and the legalisation of abortion have all been posited. This article from The Atlantic magazine examines new research which suggests that mobile phones reduced the importance of territory for drug dealers, and so reduced conflict. It is a fascinating example of how economics can be used to explain social phenomena.
This article by environmental history professor Dagomar Degroot examines how humanity has tried to adapt to past periods of changing weather, like the Little Ice Age in the 13th-19th centuries. The author concludes that the challenges and risks from climate change are infinitely greater now – yet our “means of understanding and confronting them are greater too”. History, Professor Degroot argues, demonstrates that existential crises can spur competition and innovation.
The last item in our list is an interloper, a podcast of a discussion I had earlier this month with the business journalist James Ashton, former City editor of the Evening Standard and Independent newspapers. James and I debate the value of trying to predict the future and the role of journalists in sorting fake news from the real thing.
PS: The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published the latest results of its triennial PISA tests last week. The tests, which are taken by 600,000 15-year-olds in 79 countries and regions, provide the key standard for comparing educational outcomes across the world. Richer countries generally perform well but educational success is not only about GDP. Middle-income Estonia, for instance, outperformed a number of higher-income countries, including the UK. Overall the UK did pretty well, exceeding the OECD averages and improving its rankings relative to other countries in the three test areas of maths, science and reading.