Summer reading list - The Monday Briefing


You may not have been able to get to your preferred holiday haunt this year, but we hope that our summer reading list will offer a distraction wherever you spend your summer break. The eight articles are available free online, although some websites restrict the number of articles that can be accessed without charge each month.

The pandemic has pushed millions of us to work from home, the benefits of which are well documented. This Guardian article by Gillian Tett argues that there are subtle but important advantages to working in an office. The office environment facilitates informal, unplanned interactions that can help to pass and develop ideas, which is difficult to replicate digitally.

Last summer, deliveries of packets of mystery seeds from China sparked panic among people in the Western world, especially in the US. 27 US states issued warnings, advising residents to report any packets received, and the agriculture commissioner for Texas urged people to treat them as if they were “radioactive”. After a few weeks of media coverage, the story died. But who had sent these seeds? And for what gain? This article in The Atlantic by Chris Heath describes his investigation into this and its astounding finding – that most people seemed to have ordered the seeds themselves!

This New York Times article vividly illustrates the impact of climate change on Californian vineyards. Winemakers are confronted with wildfires, droughts and extreme heat. Even if wildfires don’t directly strike the vineyards, the smoke from faraway fires penetrates the grape skins, altering their taste (known as ‘smoke taint’). Winemakers are resorting to unusual methods to maintain production, from spraying grapes with sunscreen to irrigating with treated wastewater to compensate for dry reservoirs.

This article from Bank Underground, the staff blog of the Bank of England, explains how Britain paid for its efforts during the first world war. Britain was forced into a ‘Battle for Capital’ simultaneous with its military campaign. Using new information from hundreds of war loan ledgers, the authors explore how the war impacted the nation’s finances, society and the economy.

Lisa Napoli writes for the Smithsonian magazine on the fascinating origins of McDonald’s. It started with two brothers trying their luck in the film industry but discovering greater success in running a food stand by an airfield. They eventually opened McDonald’s Barbeque restaurant in San Bernardino, California as a classic drive-in joint typical of the 1940s. It was successful, but the brothers retooled their restaurant to prepare burgers, fries and shakes as efficiently as possible, betting that they could distinguish themselves from the competition with lower costs. The shorter menu and lack of drive-in was initially unpopular, but the speed and price eventually won customers over.

Public-health agencies, experts and policymakers have been at the forefront of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been successes and setbacks. In this article Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina academic, examines what she sees as five recurring policy mistakes. Tufekci argues that there should be less “scolding and shaming” and rules, and greater emphasis on raising understanding of how the virus spreads to help people make informed decisions.

The history of finance is littered with innovations, bubbles, manias and panics. In recent years we have seen innovations such as cryptocurrencies, retail-trading apps and meme stocks. This piece from The New Yorker magazine considers how some of these new developments and others such as special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) fit into this long history. The exuberance around some of these novelties is examined through a profile of one of their greatest proponents. [NB: This piece contains strong language.]

It’s hard to find real precedents for the shutdown seen in much of the West in the last 18 months. Confining large numbers of people to their homes seems genuinely unprecedented in modern times. War does, however, offer lessons on how populations that have saved to fund the war and have faced rationing behave when normality resumes. This piece from Barron’s magazine considers what history has to tell us about what consumers will do as economies reopen in the wake of the pandemic. I was astonished to learn that while US consumers had to do without some items as a result of rationing, notably cars and household appliances, overall consumer spending rose by 50% between 1940 and 1944 – with spending on restaurant dining and clothing especially strong. No wonder US troops arriving in wartime Britain thought the locals so poor.

For the latest charts and data on health and economics, visit our COVID-19 Economics Monitor: