Fruitful reading that will make it difficult to look at the world through quite the same eyes as in one’s virginal, pre–game...

THE PREDICTIONEER’S GAME

USING THE LOGIC OF BRAZEN SELF-INTEREST TO SEE AND SHAPE THE FUTURE

“Politics is predictable,” proclaims theorist Bueno de Mesquita (Politics/New York Univ.) in a work that adds a new dimension to the phrase “gaming the system.”

The author is a master of game theory, long used by mathematicians and economists to predict responses of “players” to various scenarios, and he claims—backed up by a “declassified CIA assessment”—a 90 percent accuracy rate in his use of that theory to predict political trends. Among his successes have been the forecast of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the Persian Gulf War well before the fact, drawing on a rather clinical but certainly effective view of human nature. About that point he is not bashful: “The view of people as cold, ruthless, and self-interested is at the heart of game-theory thinking,” he writes. “There may be room for nice guys, but not much. Most of the time, nice guys really do finish last.” Cut a deal, political or economic, and our nasty inner Hobbesian beings emerge, which leads to certain predictable responses. Furthering the clinical bit, Bueno de Mesquita declares the likes of Adolf Hitler and Kim Jong Il to be not madmen but rational beings doing what dictators do to stay in power—requiring rational responses, that is, to check their damage. “A question like ‘How can we get Kim Jong Il to behave better’ is too vague,” he writes. “We need to define the objective more precisely, and we need to know the range of choices that Kim and his government can undertake.” As the book progresses, the discussion becomes both more mathematically complex and more provocative. Bueno de Mesquita takes obvious pleasure, for instance, in twitting the Kyoto Protocol crowd as practically begging to be cheated on. Worth the price of admission, regardless of your view of the politics, is the author’s brief primer on how to buy a car, which could just finish off the collapse of Detroit.

Fruitful reading that will make it difficult to look at the world through quite the same eyes as in one’s virginal, pre–game theory days.

Pub Date: Oct. 6, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6787-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2009

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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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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