A defense of orphanages wrapped in the trappings of a memoir. But both projects require greater eloquence than economist McKenzie (Univ. of California, Irvine; Competing Visions, 1985, etc.) possesses. The son of alcoholic parents, McKenzie was placed in a North Carolina orphanage at age ten after his mother committed suicide. At this Presbyterian institution in the 1950s, the children worked long hours on the farm or in the kitchen and were subject to rigorous discipline and corporal punishment. But McKenzie argues that compared to the options, he and the rest of the home's inmates received an excellent upbringing: Nearly all of his fellow ""orphans"" came from disastrous homes like his, often with one or both parents alive. The population of the home was already dwindling by the end of McKenzie's stay, as foster care and other social programs aimed at keeping families together began to increase in popularity. McKenzie has polled the home's alumni and found that they are better educated, earn more money, and have fewer divorces than the American population at large; further, ""these orphans showed an overwhelming preference for their way of growing up to the next best alternative,"" bolstering Newt Gingrich's side of the current debate about institutionalizing children. But McKenzie's portrait of his younger self wears an unconvincing gritted-teeth grin: He discusses both good and bad memories, but he rushes to editorialize instead of fleshing out his experiences. And that editorializing is usually clumsy to the point of opacity: ""A person who grows up in a home for children and then makes his way in the world doesn't need to be reminded that he does not tower over the professional status achieved by others."" A Horatio Alger tale, sunk by its agonized prose and sinister tone of denial.