what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Monday, March 26, 2018

Naked Economists spill the beans

Despite my 4 years of economic studies (and some years actually teaching it to others!), I make no claim to understand the nature of the global plague that has befallen us in the past few decades. I start to read the books which promise to clear my confusion but find that my eyes soon glaze over….
I toiled during my studies in the early 1960s to make sense of its focus on marginal calculations and “indifference curves” but can remember only the following lessons from my four years engrossed in economics books
- the strictness of the various preconditions which governed the idea of (perfect) competition – making it a highly improbable occurrence;
- the questionable nature of the of notion of “profit-maximisation”;
- the belief (thanks to the writings of James Burnham and Tony Crosland) that management (not ownership) was the all- important factor
- trust (thanks to Keynes whose work was dinned into me) in the ability of government to deal with such things as “exuberant expectations”  
- the realization (through the report of the 1959 Radcliffe Commission) that cash was but a small part of money supply. Financial economics was in its infancy then.

For someone with my education and political motivation and experience, however, my continued financial illiteracy is almost criminal but not, I feel, in any way unusual. Most of us seem to lack the patience to buckle down and take the time and discipline it needs to understand the operation of the system of financial capitalism which now has us all in its thrall.
We leave it to the "experts" and have thereby surrendered what is left to us of citizenship and political power. Like many people, I’ve clicked, skimmed and saved – but rarely gone back to read thoroughly. The folders in which they have collected have had various names – such as “urgent reading” or “what is to be done” – but rarely accessed. Occasionally I remember one and blog about it.

The version of Dispatches to the next generation – the small version I posted a few days ago offered 4 recommended books which gave what I considered an alternative account of modern economics –. But I realised that I had omitted not only the best written one (Keen) but an old favourite (Douthwaite); one that is causing a quite a stir (Raworth); as well as the one I would probably rate the best for the interested citizen needing an up-to-date and easy to follow explanation of what is wrong with most economics textbooks (Weeks). 
So my more considered recommendations are -
- For the Common Good; Herman Daly and John Cobb (1989). The book which inspired a different approach to economics – written by a theologian (Cobb) and Herman Daley who for 6 years was the principal economist of the World Bank. But, by virtue of being a train blazer, not the easiest of reads
- Short Circuit – strengthening local economies in an unstable world” - Ronald Douthwaite (1996). Very practical – but also inspirational….22 years on, it hasn’t really been bettered. Full text available at the link
- Debunking Economics – the naked emperor dethroned; Steve Keen (2001 and 2011) Written before the crash. it might be called the first alternative textbook (except it’s much greater fun to read!). Can be read in full.
- Economics for Everyone  – a short guide to the economics of capitalism”; Jim Stanford (2006) is a very user-friendly book and has an excellent “further reading” list which was probably the best there was at that time….Once upon a time it was freely available on the internet but now I can find only excerpts…..
- Zombie Economics - how dead ideas still walk among us; by John Quiggin (2010) is a great read – with a self-explanatory title. He is an Australian author currently completing a book called Economics in Two Lessons
23 Things they didn’t tell you about capitalism; Ha Joon-Chang (2010) superbly-written demolition job on the myths perpetrated on us by economists
- Austerity – the history of a dangerous ides; Mark Blyth (2013) written by a political scientist/political economist, it shows how old theories still affect the contemporary world profoundly   
- Economics of the 1% - how mainstream economics serves the rich, obscures reality and distorts policy; John F Weeks (2014) One of the best introductions to the subject - which can't be faulted for being over-diplomatic! 
Credo – economic beliefs in a world of crisis; Brian Davey (2015) An alternative approach to economics which situates it in its cultural and historical context. It may be long (at 500 pages) but is definitely worth persevering with....
- Vampire Capitalism – fractured societies and alternative futures; Paul Kennedy (2017) A sociologist’s treatment which earns high points by stating in the very first sentence that it has “stood on the shoulders of so many giants that he is dizzy” and then proves the point by having an extensive bibliography with lots of hyperlinks…
- Doughnut economics – 7 ways to think like a 21st century economist; Kate Raworth (2017). This Oxford economist has made quite an impact with this book

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Priceless Guide to the writing about the Global Crisis

The last post tried not only to identify what it was that had so impressed me about the “Defending Politics” book but also to generalise possible lessons for the hundreds of thousands of writers whose titles and marketing blurbs shout at us from the bookshops and internet.  
I have always loved Oscar Wilde’s aphorism – “I always pass on good advice; it’s the only thing to do with it”. But, on this rare occasion, I actually took on board the advice – in an effort to try to reduce the 200 plus pages of a draft I’ve had for some years - Dispatches to the (post-capitalist?) future generation - to more manageable proportions.
It’s a book which takes the form of a series of posts which were more like letters to my children (and their generation) who were very much in my mind as drafted them. Perhaps that’s why this “giving of account” (with all the religious overtones that term carries!) has been so difficult to complete in a satisfactory way…….
I’m quite proud of the shortened version which has emerged this week - Dispatches to the next generation – the small version. Just 70-odd pages (excluding the annexes) - about 20 pages of them an annotated reading list of “key” books about the global economic crisis which give a brief sense of more than 100 books published in the second half of the 20th century worth further study
I’m experimenting with the following marketing blurb - 

The author does not pretend to be an economist – although he lectured in that capacity in the late 1960s and early 70s before he saw the error of his ways.
Nor is it easy to pin a political label on him – although he did spend 22 years of his life as a Labour councillor with responsibilities for devising and managing unique strategies for opening up the policy process and for social enterprise in Europe’s largest local authority (The political compass test, however, placed him in the libertarian left quadrant).
The subsequent 25 years he spent as an adviser on institutional development to governments in central Europe and Central Asia.
So he knows the enemy!

I‘ve always kept notes on the books which impressed me…and the arrival of electronic files and hyperlinks have made the task of collecting and retrieving these lists a positive pleasure. I still find it amazing that my blog can find and present within seconds ruminations about a book I read almost a decade ago. 
Academics are good at throwing bibliographical references at us. Indeed they overwhelm us with them – whether in footnotes, brackets or end-pages. It’s almost a virility test with them. I get very frustrated with this – since all these lists do is to flaunt their superiority – they don’t actually tell us anything interesting about each book.
The Annexes include a little section on some of the great books of the past century and also a favourite of mine – “Just Words – a Sceptic’s Glossary”

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Books on Big Issues - Prefaces and marketing blurbs

I did a rare thing yesterday – I went back to the "Defending Politics" book I had just finished and reread it from beginning to end, this time more carefully marking the key sections with a pencil.
I had started my last post by saying that it was a “model of the sort of writing we need in these times” - and then went on to create a table which explored different aspects of the 8 basic arguments the book presented
I would now like to try to identify what it was that so impressed me – and to use that hopefully to make a wider point about the craft of publishing our thoughts

What I liked about “Defending Politics”
- The book was short (180 pages) – almost an extended essay. You felt the guy had a thesis – and knew how to hone it down to its essentials
- The text was broken up – every third or fourth page or so had a heading or an indented section which signalled a movement in the argument. My eyes glaze over when I see a chapter of 30 pages of densely-written text - with no graphics, tables or pictures to relieve the pressue….
- each chapter gave an early hint of the basic argument it would present. This was clearly someone who had reread his text with a reader’s eye; asked himself what it was saying; and then ensured that the words actually expressed his intended meaning!
- there were lots of book references – but not of the normal sort in footnotes; or end bibliographies (which often leave me with the feeling of one up-manship!). These were, rather, short lists in the body of the text – generally exemplifying different sides of an argument.  

I readily admit to being a policy geek - and have therefore too readily exposed myself to turgid academic prose. But my patience started to wear thin some years ago with books on important topics which were simply unreadable. Life is simply too short to waste time on writers who feel they have to use clumsy sentence structure and/or pad their material with verbosity. 

A year or so ago I revealed some litmus tests I used whether to buy/read a book on any of the "Big Issues of the Day" – as well as my ten tricks for fast reading and comprehension – which are worth repeating –

How to get the most out of a non-fiction book
- Read a lot (from an early age!)
- Read widely (outside your discipline)
- Read quickly (skim)
- If the author doesn’t write in clear and simple language, move on to another book asap. Life’s too short……Bad writing is a good indicator of a confused mind

For each book
- before doing anything else - read the reviews (surf)
- identify the questions these suggest – you should never read a book without knowing what you want to get out of it!
- Mark (with a pencil) passages you both like and don’t like – with underlines, question-marks, ticks, comments and expletives
- Write brief notes to remind you of the main themes and arguments (this will help you remember better; and also helps build up an archive)
- see whether the author explicitly recognises and properly discusses other schools of thought than the one (s)he is pushing
- Check the bibliography at the end – to see if there are any obvious names missing (I grant you that this requires some familiarity with the subject)

This, of course, puts the onus on readers - but the real problem rests with authors and publishers...It is they who swamp our minds with thousands of titles and excessive verbosity. Greater self-discipline is needed..I suggest that, when they come to draft their Prefaces and marketing blurbs, they consider the following -  
- tell us what’s distinctive about your book; ie why you feel you need to add to what is already a huge literature on the subject
- “position” your book – at best this will require you to offer a typology of the different schools of thought on the issue
- convince us that you have not only read the “relevant literature” but that you have done so with a reasonably open mind; At best, offer an annotated list of key reading - with your preferences. This will give us a sense of your stance and fairness
- give a “potted version” of each chapter. Most think-tank reports have executive summaries. I don’t know why more authors don’t adopt the same approach. Amazon, some publishers and Google offer free access to excerpts – but the selections are fairly random.
- use more tables….and graphics

Monday, March 12, 2018

Why we need healthy scepticism - not corrosive cynicism

I have just finished a short book which I consider a model for the sort of writing which these troubled times of ours very much needs. Matt Flinders may be an academic – but he came up the hard way and, unlike most academics, he’s interested in communicating with the wider public. His Defending Politics – why democracy matters in the 21st century marks the 50th anniversary of a book which impressed me a lot when I first read it in my university days - In Defence of Politics by Bernard Crick (1962).
Indeed the argument in Crick’s book that politics was an important and honourable activity probably played a role in my becoming in 1968 a local politician - and occupying a senior, reforming position in the West of Scotland for more than 20 years
Of course the election in 1964 of a Labour Government – after 13 years of Conservative rule – was another important influence. As was my interest in regional development and politics - and the writings of Labour and leftist intellectuals such as Tony Crosland and John Mackintosh. The latter was a tutor of mine whom I met subsequently in parliament to discuss his take on local government reorganisation and devolution – Crosland the author of the definitive The Future of Socialism (1956) whom I had been honoured to host when he visited local party HQ in my home town…..

Fifty years ago, graduates like me didn’t need inviting to get involved in politics – we had role models and change was in the air….The older generation patently needed replacing, we thought, and we were the ones to do it.
How different things are fifty years on! Cynicism has been at full blast for at least the past decade – with politicians dismissed as self-serving and useless……

Flinders’ book is a counterblast to all this, suggesting that the language of “rights” and “consumer choice” conceals deeper forces which have undermined our understanding of the necessarily incremental and collective “give and take” of the political process.   
He identifies 8 key factors which have made an impact in the past half century…..listed in the left-hand column. The rest of the table is my attempt to summarise his analysis – always a useful discipline!! I liked the book a lot – not least because it is short and yet is clearly based on a good grasp of extensive literature. But the last column indicates the inevitable weakness that comes from such a brave attempt to cover such extensive ground… 

The Basic argument of "Defending Politics"
Changes in Context
Line of argument
“Decline of deference”
Greater education, sense of security and of rights
Politicians and those concerned with politics need to show courage and realisml
“Growth of overload”
State overwhelmed by public expectations
Unrealistic expectations
“Move from government to “governance”
Privatisation, contracting out has led to more complex organisational structure
Inertia, impasse
Need to assert importance of “the commons” ie collective endeavour
“Growth of globalisation”
Not just economic but legal and informational
Blame can easily be shifted to impersonal forces
“Impact of technology”
Move away from door-to-door and personal; aggression on social media
Easy to find scapegoats
Need for cool voices
“Accountability explosion”
Range of agencies monitoring state bodies for performance
Blame culture
More realism
“Ideological blur”
Parties concentrate around the floating voter; journalists focus on trivia
Voters feel voiceless; opening for extremists

“Flight from reality”
Academics talking to one another rather than the public; media focus on trivia
Opening for extremists

What I particularly liked were the summaries each chapter gave of the argument to be conducted and the way he gathered 5-6 books together at various points to illustrate the various points he was making….He is particularly angry about the role journalism has played in the past couple of decades in the demonisation of politics. The recent collapse of Newsweek magazine is just the latest sign of the collapse of editorial standards - and the perversity of the business model based on reader clicks..... 
Flinders rehearsed the basic argument of the book in his inaugural Professorial lecture in  2010 – which you will find here on Alastair Campbell’s blog

Flinders' book indeed was one of the first of what seemed to be for a moment a veritable flood of books challenging the very relevance of political studies in at least the anglo-saxon world
Bridging the Relevance Gap; Matthew Wood (2014)
The relevance of political science; Stoker, Pierre and Peters (2015)

And Gerry Stoker’s Why Politics Matters – making democracy work; (2004; 2016) had anticipated the updating of Crick’s 1962 book…- as did Why We Hate Politics; Colin Hay (2007)

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Brexit - and the reassertion of the “Nation-State”?

Readers may sometimes wonder why I so rarely discuss Brexit here – last time was a year ago!
That I know when to defer to my betters is only half of the answer since most of my posts are a combination of a personal slant and hyperlinks to recommended articles or books by those I admire…Another bit of the answer is that one of the central purposes of this blog has been (and remains) the celebration of writing that can pass the test of time. And, since noticing last year the extent of my non-English readership (see page 10 of Common Endeavour – the 2017 posts), I try a bit harder to act as an interpreter of good English-language writing on important topics to such an audience. 
But I am bored with the fixation of so much journalism on the pantomime antics of wicked witch Donald Trump – but equally offended by the barren, wooden language used by so many academics….  

Am I saying that there are no journalists or academics who have written anything about Brexit which is worth sharing with my audience? Not quite - although my list of such endeavours is a rather little one, with Chris Grey’s The Brexit Blog having pride of place. Perhaps the reason for my silence is that I can’t quite believe that my country seems so intent on destroying itself – from a combination of public and media prejudice; and an incestuous political elite…..
Brexit is the prime but by no means only example of a state apparently trying to assert itself against the forces of……what exactly?
- Globalisation? That can hardly be the case when about the only thing the Brits seemed to like about the European Union was the single market of which indeed they were, with Jacques Delors, one of the main architects; and when the current government clearly wants to push for maximum free trade.
- Supranationalism? The Federalist ambitions of the EU’s founders – so clearly evident in the recent statements of Martin Schulz – have always been viewed with a mixture of bafflement and hostility by Brits and UK governments. But the Brits had successfully negotiated a semi-detached status with the EU and a clear agreement that it would not be bound by any further “closer union” treaties….   

No! The two things which have stuck in British craws have been (1) the overriding of parliamentary power by a combination of European judges and Commission regulations (played up by a consistently hostile British media); and (ii), in recent years, a feeling that the country no longer belonged to them – that foreign immigration had gone too far.

So what exactly is being asserted? At one time we might have said “parliamentary sovereignty” but the reluctance of the British government to allow Parliament any meaningful vote has blown that illusion apart. And this important article by Bogdanor reminds us, in any case, that it only governments can actually negotiate....
Nor is it the power of the British State that’s being asserted – indeed that never appears to have been so weak, with citizens rejecting the recommendations of all its political parties during the referendum campaign; and the present government seemingly intent on open conflict with the forces of international capital.

Rather it seems more a sense of English identity that was being asserted on June 23 2016 – I say “English” simply because Scottish and (Northern) Irish citizens resoundingly voted to remain in the EU. The referendum result, however, brought home very powerfully the stark existence of two very different Englands – that of the cosmopolitan (multinational) cities and “left-behinds” in smaller towns. A contrast which is being emphasised in all accounts of Trump America – whose “America First” doctrine indeed is a powerful example of the new nationalism which seems now rampant.  

But the incompetence on display from those who lead Brexit has stunned everyone. It was bad enough that (i) no one had actually done any serious thinking about withdrawal and (ii) the new Prime Minister chose to divide the political responsibility for the withdrawal “strategy” between 3 Ministers (and departments) – one being the pantomime figure who, weeks before the referendum, was actually so torn about the issue that he actually drafted 2 completely different articles – one of which argued for staying in the EU
Not that this stopped him from being the highest profile figure on the campaign trail.
But the confusion was compounded after the PM was tempted into a General Election in June 2017 (by an apparent 20% lead in the polls) and emerged a sadly depleted figure leading a minority government dependent on a small North Irish party of hard-right bigots.

Inexplicably for many, the public mood does not seem to have changed significantly in the 21 months since the referendum. Indeed, some months ago, commentators were suggesting that the mood in England was nothing short of a return to the early 1940s when the country stood alone and when Dunkirk was celebrated not as the defeat it was but as a glorious victory. It’s not insignificant that the blockbuster films “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour” have pulled such large audiences in the country these past few months. An important article this week (in London Review of Books) mines the same vein in  arguing –
This is the sort of nostalgia which Peter Ammon, the outgoing German ambassador in London, identified recently when he complained that Britain was investing in a vision of national isolation that Churchill had played up (and vastly exaggerated) in his wartime rhetoric.
Do they even believe the myth, or is it an expedient way of bashing opponents while pursuing some ulterior goal? Historical re-enactment may be fine for the Daily Mail and the grassroots, but it doesn’t seem a strong enough motivation to support a professional political career. We need to know not just what kind of past the Brexiteers imagine, but what kind of future they are after.
One disconcerting possibility is that figures such as Fox and Rees-Mogg might be willing to believe the dismal economic forecasts, but look on them as an attraction.This isn’t as implausible as it may sound. Since the 1960s, conservatism has been defined partly by a greater willingness to inflict harm, especially in the English-speaking world. The logic is that the augmentation of the postwar welfare state by the moral pluralism of the 1960s produced an acute problem of ‘moral hazard’, whereby benign policies ended up being taken for granted and abused. Once people believe things can be had for free and take pleasure in abundance, there is a risk of idleness and hedonism…..  
As the theory behind Thatcherism had it, government services shrink everybody’s incentives to produce, compete and invest. They reduce the motivation for businesses to deliver services, and ordinary people’s desire to work. Toughness, even pain, performs an important moral and psychological function in pushing people to come up with solutions. This style of thinking drove Thatcher through the vicious recession of the early 1980s.
 The fear of ‘moral hazard’ produces a punitive approach to debtors, be they households, firms or national governments, the assumption being that anything short of harshness will produce a downward spiral of generosity, forgiveness and free-riding, eventually making the market economy unviable. Osborne liked to claim (against all the evidence coming from the bond markets) that if Britain kept borrowing, lenders would lose trust in the moral rectitude of the government and interest rates would rise. Gratification must be resisted. Pain works. Only pain forces people to adapt and innovate.

An article from the inimitable Ian Jack drew my attention today to a small book by an historian which argues that countries such as the UK and the US are suffering what he calls cultural dementia

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The state of the State??

I realise that the last few posts have tested the patience of my readers. But the last one (however tortuous its construction) was actually quite important in its conclusion that the 5-6 academic disciplines we have come to rely on to make sense of the world have made a pig’s breakfast of the job when it comes to the issue of the role of the State in the contemporary world

Libertarian and anarchistic readers, I grant you, are not interested in questions such as the shape, strength, role or future of the State – they just want to get it off their backs.
But most of us still look to government for various types of protection – if not for things such as health and the education of our children.
And this is a blog of someone who, a bit like Candide, has been trying to understand the role of government (and the shape and meaning of the State) for some 50 years – as a thoroughly practical question – admittedly well-versed in what was initially the small body literature on “public administration” which, after the 1990s,  became a tsunami about “public management”.
But trying to have a conversation about this not so much with academics as with real people – whether officials, political colleagues or, latterly, beneficiaries in eastern European countries…..

It’s in that open and inquiring spirit that I draft this post for those who actually want to explore the question “How can the State realistically perform better for the average citizen?”

28 years ago, after all, “the State” imploded in central Europe – and the key question people were actually asking in those countries then was the shape it needed to take for its new function under capitalism….. Noone had been prepared for this moment – what little discussion had taken place about reshaping core institutions of the state in the 70s and 80s were academic and had actually been the other way around – about how the transition from capitalism to socialism would be managed! Not that this deterred tens of thousands of advisers from descending on central European capitals in the early 90s and dispensing their advice (full disclosure - I was one of them!)

We basically could be divided into two groups – the “missionaries” whose mission was to sell the snake-oil of privatisation and the idea of “the minimal state”; and the “mercenaries” who focused rather on the mechanics of building up the new institutions required of a “liberal democracy” (see my paper Missionaries and mercenaries).
More to the point, in 1999 I wrote a book which was effectively a calling card for the officials with whom I would be working in Central Asian until 2007 - In Transit – notes on good governance (1999) I find it stands up pretty well to the test of time….….

Twenty years later, it’s not unreasonable to ask how that debate panned out – not just in central Europe -a full 10 of these years have been years of austerity for people in Western Europe whose governments engaged in major cutbacks of state programmes and activities; have increasingly divested themselves of responsibilities (in favour of the private sector) – and/or automated their activities in various forms of E-government….

Let’s take 1997 as a starting point – this was the year when the World Bank published The State in a Changing World - a more measured discussion of what the state was good for than had been possible under the full-scale Washington Consensus of the previous decade…..
- That report looked at the contrast between the scope of state activities and their effectiveness (or results). It argued that states needed to concentrate on those activities which only they can carry out – it called this the “capabilities” approach…….
- That, of course, is a very technical approach. It says nothing about intentions – ie the extent to which those “in charge” are seriously interested in the pursuit of “the public good”….
- But lots of analysts will tell us that such a pursuit is doomed to failure – Rabbie Burns put it well when he wrote “The best-laid plans o’ men gang aft a-glay” - best translated as “life is one long F***Up” !!

One of my favourite writers - AO Hirschmann – actually devoted a book (”The Rhetoric of Reaction”) to examining three arguments conservative writers use for dismissing the hopes of social reformers:
- the perversity thesis holds that any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy.
- The futility thesis argues that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to “make a dent.”
- the jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.

And indeed…..we ignore these arguments at our peril….Social reformers all too often allow their hopes to masquerade as serious arguments….
Most of us (at least of my generation) would like to return to the days, if not of trains running on time, of what we saw as trustworthy (if not totally reliable) state services….We have become aware of the illusion and downright perversity of the talk of “choice”.

Sadly, however, Pandora’s box can’t be closed or – as a friend and colleague used to put it “We are where we are”……
- IT, social media and surveillance are hard (and ever more developing) realities…..
- Public debt has soared simply because governments considered that banks were too big to fail and “socialised” their losses
- demographic and economic (let alone technological) trends put even more strain on public budgets 

Of course, each country has been and remains very different in public expectations of the State.
- The public in Northern European countries still trust the State and its various custodians and public servants – although the “third sector” has always been important in countries such as Germany (eg health insurance).
- Southern European countries such as Italy are completely different – with family and informal networks being the dominant influence. Spain still has a residue of an anarchist streak – particularly in the Basque and Catalonia regions – and therefore a strong cooperative sector.
- Central and Eastern European countries suffer from the worst of all worlds – with public services such as education and health chronically underfunded and the private sector taking up the slack for all but the poorest groups; and no cooperative or voluntary sector worth talking about. Even the church in Romania is funded by taxation!!

It was a single book last year – Dismembered; how the attack on the state harms us all – which started me off on a series of posts which led to my little E-book on the subject Reforming the State”. 
Noone really likes the state – it is an easy butt of jokes and has an increasingly malevolent side in the surveillance state. 
But it cannot be left simply to subside….Either it has an important function – which would need to be properly articulated for these times and supported. 
Or it has passed its sell-by date – in which case we need to take more seriously the various mutual or P2P alternatives which are mooted from time to time….

Recommended Reading about “the State”
The State - theories and issues; ed Hay, Lister and Marsh (2006). I've just come across this book and, from a first skim, would strongly recommend it
The Modern State; Christopher Pierson (1996); - despite its age - is one book I would recommend since, unlike most books with such titles, it is actually readable - if a bit boring and seems to touch base with all relevant issues. It does, however, need updating after the Fukuyama and Mann volumes...
- Government at a Glance 2017; A recent and very handy analysis of the scope and impact of public services. Only for the 35 member states of OECD (so the Baltic States, Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia are included – but not Bulgaria or Romania)
- Those who want a more detailed historical treatment can now dip into Francis Fukuyama’s marvellous 2 volumes which he introduces here. I never imagined that 700 page books with titles such as The Origins of Political Order – from prehuman times to the French Revolution (2011); and Political Order and Political Decay – from the industrial revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy (2014) could be so engrossing....
- Governance for Health (2012 WHO) A good overview of health indicators and coverage (if that's what turns you on)
- Globalisation and the State (2000); a good (short) overview article
- The State in a Changing World (World Bank 1997) – the report that indicated the powerful World Bank had had to eat some its scathing words about the role of the state. Goes on a bit!
- The Retreat of the State; Susan Strange (1996) Susan Strange was one of the founders of International Political Economy – and, for me, talked the most sense about the contours of the modern state – identifying, for example, the importance of multi-national companies (including the global consultancies; the Mafia; and the technocrats of global institutions), She also authored Casino Capitalism (1986); States and Markets (1988) and, her last book, Mad Money (1998) 
The first of what turned out to be a 4 volume study, reminding us that “the State” is a modern construct and only one of four types of power (political) – the other three being ideological, military and economic. Not an easy read...
- The Sociology of the State; Bertrand Badie and Pierre Birnbaum (1983). A good non-Anglo-saxon view of the subject