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Personal Finance: How to get U.S. back on track

One theme running through many recent books is: How did the United States get so far off track, and how do we get it right?

One theme running through many recent books is: How did the United States get so far off track, and how do we get it right?

Individuals, too, are looking for a fresh start after losing money in the stock market or on their homes.

Here are some noteworthy volumes.

"The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is nothing like the ballet movie, and it's one of my all-time favorite books because it reminds us that the improbable can happen with little or no warning and be painful. We learned that in dramatic fashion in 2008-09 with a financial crisis of grand proportions.

The idea behind The Black Swan is that we assume swans are white so we never contemplate or prepare for the devastation that could come with an unlikely "black swan" event. Yet when the unthinkable occurs, we must deal with the reality.

Another fascinating read that deals with the way our brains sometimes lead us astray is psychologist Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow.

"Models. Behaving. Badly." by Emanuel Derman captured my attention because it deals with a tendency by the brainiest to over-rely on models, missing critical points. That has been my gripe with economists clinging to outdated models and assuming more than a year ago that a robust recovery would be imminent.

If you know people who believe in models, perhaps they will enjoy an oath Derman coined with a colleague in response to the financial crisis: "I will never forget that the model is not the world."

"Currency Wars" by James Rickards is a controversial book written by an investment manager who has worked with the U.S. Defense Department on war games. It's got a doomsday quality, and gold bugs love it.

Though some argue the chaos Rickards envisions is preventable, the book alerts readers to the risks the United States could face in a financially weak state with a declining dollar.

"The Wizard of Lies" by Diana Henriques tells how Bernie Madoff pulled off the biggest Ponzi scheme in history and what he was thinking over decades as he cheated friends and enjoyed national financial prominence. It's a great read and provides insight into how the investment business works.

"Beyond Our Means" by Sheldon Garon examines the messages various cultures send people about saving and spending, and the vastly different impacts they leave on nations ranging from Japan to Germany and the United States. For the United States, a country that nearly choked to death on debt, it provides insights for a new agenda.

"Civilization: The West and the Rest" by Niall Ferguson also draws contrasts among various parts of the world and shows how developing nations are gaining strength by embracing some of America's greatest characteristics at a time when the United States is letting them slip. For example, he emphasizes the significance of exceptional education, a point also made by Raghuram Rajan in his book Fault Lines.

"The Big Secret for the Small Investor" by Joel Greenblatt, or his The Little Book that Still Beats the Market, would be a good starting place for the person who has turned away from stocks in the last few years who would like to return. Greenblatt is a respected professional investor, but unlike most, he can explain the essentials so simply that anyone can get it in a few minutes.

People working with an adviser can make sure they are getting their money's worth if they read Larry E. Swedroe and RC Balaban's Investment Mistakes Even Smart Investors Make and How to Avoid Them.

"Surviving the Bond Bear Market" by Marilyn Cohen and Chris Malburg is an important book for many to read after shunning stocks and building up massive exposure to bonds. Though some think they are safe because they have no stocks, bonds can turn harsh, too, and this book explains how to protect yourself.