As good a look as we’re likely to get about an organization where, Ellsberg notwithstanding, keeping secrets is second...

SOLDIERS OF REASON

THE RAND CORPORATION AND THE RISE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE

A crisp history of the world’s most influential think tank, which the Soviet publication Pravda once called the “academy of science and death.”

The Manhattan Project proved to the military during World War II the efficacy of assistance from independent civilian scientists. Seeking to maintain that link and understanding the need to cope with peacetime threats to national security, Air Force hot shots, including the legendary Generals Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold and Curtis LeMay, helped to found RAND (for “research and development”). Throughout the next half-century, RAND’s intellectual gunslingers—its researchers and advisors have won 27 Nobel Prizes—expanded their role and helped set large portions of America’s military and political agenda. RAND’s detractors accuse the corporation of subordinating morality to the achievement of U.S. government policy, of operating wholly without conscience and of practically inventing the Cold War. Los Angeles Times contributor and novelist Abella (Final Acts, 2000, etc.) takes a swipe at the problematic implications for the country of RAND’s seeming amorality, but he deals far more successfully with the corporation’s history, particularly the early years, and the procession of larger-than-life personalities who passed through RAND’s portals and who influenced the nation’s thinking far more than any single policy paper the institute produced. RAND’s luminaries have included the brilliant mathematician John von Neumann, thermonuclear war expert (and model for Dr. Strangelove) Herman Kahn, national-security expert and Cold War strategist Albert Wohlstetter, Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, and even the humorist Leo Rosten. Its theorists have contributed to our everyday lexicon such words and phrases as “fail-safe,” “doomsday machine,” “systems analysis,” “futurology,” “zero-sum game” and “prisoner’s dilemma.” How many enemy factories can we destroy with the kind of aircraft we possess? After a nuclear exchange, would the living truly envy the dead? Paid to think the unthinkable, RAND’s analysts and their mission come off here as simultaneously marvelous and horrible.

As good a look as we’re likely to get about an organization where, Ellsberg notwithstanding, keeping secrets is second nature.

Pub Date: May 1, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-15-101081-3

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2008

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Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our...

THINKING, FAST AND SLOW

A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner summarizes and synthesizes the recent decades of research on intuition and systematic thinking.

The author of several scholarly texts, Kahneman (Emeritus Psychology and Public Affairs/Princeton Univ.) now offers general readers not just the findings of psychological research but also a better understanding of how research questions arise and how scholars systematically frame and answer them. He begins with the distinction between System 1 and System 2 mental operations, the former referring to quick, automatic thought, the latter to more effortful, overt thinking. We rely heavily, writes, on System 1, resorting to the higher-energy System 2 only when we need or want to. Kahneman continually refers to System 2 as “lazy”: We don’t want to think rigorously about something. The author then explores the nuances of our two-system minds, showing how they perform in various situations. Psychological experiments have repeatedly revealed that our intuitions are generally wrong, that our assessments are based on biases and that our System 1 hates doubt and despises ambiguity. Kahneman largely avoids jargon; when he does use some (“heuristics,” for example), he argues that such terms really ought to join our everyday vocabulary. He reviews many fundamental concepts in psychology and statistics (regression to the mean, the narrative fallacy, the optimistic bias), showing how they relate to his overall concerns about how we think and why we make the decisions that we do. Some of the later chapters (dealing with risk-taking and statistics and probabilities) are denser than others (some readers may resent such demands on System 2!), but the passages that deal with the economic and political implications of the research are gripping.

Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our minds.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-374-27563-1

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2011

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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