A call, in a few pointed words, for an expanded, genuine work ethic.

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WHY WE WORK

Schwartz (Psychology/Swarthmore Coll.; The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, 2003, etc.) begs to differ with Adam Smith—it’s not simply wages that keep people working.

Despite what we may have thought or been taught, it takes much more than just money to incite us to keep our noses to the grindstone. For worthwhile labor, writes the author, financial self-interest is not the sole answer. There are also ethics, empathy, and judgment on the job. Integrity often beats cash incentives, and a bad occupation can be transformed by integrity into good work. The dream of work allied with ethos is certainly not new, despite the efficiency of the assembly line perfected by Ford so many decades ago. The success of that way of doing things eventually became undeniable, but a better ideology, one that recognizes worker satisfaction, autonomy, and purpose, can become reality too. Schwartz argues that there can be profitable businesses in which employees thrive and maintain standards beyond cash. He prescribes, nevertheless, above-market wages (it makes employees feel valued) and job security, decentralized decision-making, and increased training applied to various fields including education, health care, and law. In other words, we require a revision of much of human nature. The author cites numerous social scientists, management gurus, and efficiency experts, and he revives venerable anecdotes—e.g, the tale of the wise hospital custodian who cleans a room twice rather than agitate a patient’s parent—to light the way. Schwartz’s TED book, less than 100 pages, grew out of his latest TED talk, and while it contains a decent number of intriguing nuggets regarding the intersection of work and happiness, his argument requires further fleshing out.

A call, in a few pointed words, for an expanded, genuine work ethic.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4767-8486-1

Page Count: 120

Publisher: TED/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Aug. 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2015

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A declaration worth hearing out in a time of growing inequality—and indignity.

ECONOMIC DIGNITY

Noted number cruncher Sperling delivers an economist’s rejoinder to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Former director of the National Economic Council in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the author has long taken a view of the dismal science that takes economic justice fully into account. Alongside all the metrics and estimates and reckonings of GDP, inflation, and the supply curve, he holds the great goal of economic policy to be the advancement of human dignity, a concept intangible enough to chase the econometricians away. Growth, the sacred mantra of most economic policy, “should never be considered an appropriate ultimate end goal” for it, he counsels. Though 4% is the magic number for annual growth to be considered healthy, it is healthy only if everyone is getting the benefits and not just the ultrawealthy who are making away with the spoils today. Defining dignity, admits Sperling, can be a kind of “I know it when I see it” problem, but it does not exist where people are a paycheck away from homelessness; the fact, however, that people widely share a view of indignity suggests the “intuitive universality” of its opposite. That said, the author identifies three qualifications, one of them the “ability to meaningfully participate in the economy with respect, not domination and humiliation.” Though these latter terms are also essentially unquantifiable, Sperling holds that this respect—lack of abuse, in another phrasing—can be obtained through a tight labor market and monetary and fiscal policy that pushes for full employment. In other words, where management needs to come looking for workers, workers are likely to be better treated than when the opposite holds. In still other words, writes the author, dignity is in part a function of “ ‘take this job and shove it’ power,” which is a power worth fighting for.

A declaration worth hearing out in a time of growing inequality—and indignity.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7987-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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Essential reading for citizens of the here and now. Other economists should marvel at how that plain language can be put to...

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CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

A French academic serves up a long, rigorous critique, dense with historical data, of American-style predatory capitalism—and offers remedies that Karl Marx might applaud.

Economist Piketty considers capital, in the monetary sense, from the vantage of what he considers the capital of the world, namely Paris; at times, his discussions of how capital works, and especially public capital, befit Locke-ian France and not Hobbesian America, a source of some controversy in the wide discussion surrounding his book. At heart, though, his argument turns on well-founded economic principles, notably r > g, meaning that the “rate of return on capital significantly exceeds the growth rate of the economy,” in Piketty’s gloss. It logically follows that when such conditions prevail, then wealth will accumulate in a few hands faster than it can be broadly distributed. By the author’s reckoning, the United States is one of the leading nations in the “high inequality” camp, though it was not always so. In the colonial era, Piketty likens the inequality quotient in New England to be about that of Scandinavia today, with few abject poor and few mega-rich. The difference is that the rich now—who are mostly the “supermanagers” of business rather than the “superstars” of sports and entertainment—have surrounded themselves with political shields that keep them safe from the specter of paying more in taxes and adding to the fund of public wealth. The author’s data is unassailable. His policy recommendations are considerably more controversial, including his call for a global tax on wealth. From start to finish, the discussion is written in plainspoken prose that, though punctuated by formulas, also draws on a wide range of cultural references.

Essential reading for citizens of the here and now. Other economists should marvel at how that plain language can be put to work explaining the most complex of ideas, foremost among them the fact that economic inequality is at an all-time high—and is only bound to grow worse.

Pub Date: March 10, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-674-43000-6

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: April 30, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2014

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