The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives by Lisa Servon

Book— In a move reminiscent of Barbara Ehrenreich’s famous undercover excursion into the world of the working poor (Nickel and Dimed), professor of urban planning Lisa Servon worked as a check casher at RiteCheck, a payday lender, and a hotline operator for those having difficulty paying back payday loans to investigate what these services offer to vulnerable Americans. What she found is that America’s banks are ill-serving America’s poor and middle class. With practices such as debt resequencing, where the largest debit transactions on a checking account are non-chronologically processed first to maximize overdraft fees, and long check-clearing times that make it hard for people living paycheck to paycheck to count on their money being accessible, it’s no wonder that alternative financial services are springing up to fill the void. Contrary to popular wisdom, though, not all of these new services are predatory (or at least are no more predatory than banks). In fact, many customers prefer them because their fees are upfront and immediate rather than opaque. Servon’s account paints a more nuanced picture than the banking=smart, check cashing=short-sighted framework that I certainly subscribed to before reading this book.

If you enjoy The Unbanking of America, I recommend Evicted, which examines the detrimental effects that unstable housing has on the poor. For more information on the specific topics covered by Servon, I recommend this Freakonomics podcast on the topic or payday lenders. (For other great podcast recommendations, come to our Discover Podcasts program on Wednesday, November 1 at 7 PM.)

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil

Book–From college admittance to the actuarial models that determine what you pay for health insurance, decisions of who gets what in our society are increasingly made by algorithms rather than individuals. Former Wall Street quantitative analyst Cathy O’Neil exposes that, while many algorithms claim impartiality, they in fact end up entrenching systemic inequality. For example, many employers are increasingly using applicants’ credit scores as a factor in choosing employees, with the rationale that reliability with paying debt is correlated with reliability generally. Long term unemployed and lower income people are likely to have lower credit scores due to the higher credit utilization rates that typically accompany a shortage of funds, and this practice unfairly bars them from the very employment that would lift them out of their circumstances. O’Neil has plenty of other incisive examples of opaque, badly designed algorithms wreaking havoc on people’s lives from birth to death, but her thesis is that unless an algorithm is transparent, fair, and carefully considered, it tends to reinforce the status quo and penalize marginalized groups disproportionately.

Despite having the word “math” in the title, which tends to scare people off, Weapons of Math Destruction is written in an accessible, plainspoken style that doesn’t require you to be particularly mathematically-minded to follow along. O’Neil’s writing has a gift for making complicated topics simple and will appeal to fans of Malcolm Gladwell.

Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate by Spencer Raskoff and Stan Humphries

61UkBBTtC-L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Book— CEO Raskoff and Chief Analytics Officer Humphries have combined statistics gleaned from their popular real estate site Zillow with an eye for storytelling to create Zillow Talk, an entertaining, anecdote-filled journey through the land of house-buying and selling. With fewer people choosing to buy over rent after the housing crisis, the real estate market looks very different: as the authors put it, homeownership has been “decoupled” from the American dream. However, there are still many great reasons to buy a home, and the authors give us some tips for home buying and listing. For instance, like in department stores where prices always end in “.99,” calling a house price, say $199,900 instead of $200,000 has the same psychological effect of leading you to believe the price is significantly cheaper. Using the vast quantity of data that Zillow has generated, the authors have noticed such patterns among such minor factors as street names, walkability, and listing time significantly affecting the price a home eventually sells for.

Zillow Talk is a fun read even if you never plan to buy a house. It will appeal to fans of the Freakonomics books, which also tease out interesting facts from raw statistics and economics to tell a story.

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

quicksilBook – A vagabond, a natural philosopher, a mathematician, and a harem girl meet in London, in the late Baroque period (as early as 1661), and the result is one of the most epic, sprawling series of historical fiction you will ever read. Stephenson is better known for his cyberpunk novels like Snow Crash, but Quicksilver has more in common with his other work than you might first imagine. He started writing it during the composition of his award-winning Cryptonomicon, which is also a thriller about politics, money, and computers. (Yes, computers: Gottfried Liebnitz was trying to invent a computer as early as 1671.)

Stephenson has become rather famous for big books, but his three-volume Baroque Cycle is definitely his biggest. Although it’s hard to keep track of any given plot thread over the course of more than 2,700 pages, the well-drawn cast of characters from all walks of life will keep you engaged anyway. Fans of Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy and Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy will enjoy the grand sweep of history and wealth of historical detail, and fans of Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon owe it to themselves to give this series a try.