An endlessly rewarding book full of takeaways, including the thought that the best societies protect everyone’s rights.



A wide-ranging survey of the conditions of liberty required to steer the world away from the Hobbesian war of each against all.

Why do nations fail? So Acemoglu and Robinson, economists at MIT and the University of Chicago respectively, asked in their 2012 collaboration, Why Nations Fail. Their answer is complex, but it falls largely on the absence or failure of democratic institutions. In this continuation of their previous book, they examine how liberty works: It is not “natural,” not widespread, “is rare in history and is rare today,” and is a fairly recent phenomenon that balances the competing demands of state and society while being reinforced by that balance. For instance, the Athenian constitutional reforms of Cleisthenes “were helpful for strengthening the political power of Athenian citizens while also battling the cage of norms”—that cage of norms being the informal body of customs supplanted by state institutions. Those norms in turn “constrained what the state could do and how far state building could go,” providing their own set of checks. Though somewhat fluid in its definition, liberty, as Acemoglu and Robinson show, is expressed differently under various “leviathans,” to extend the Hobbesian critique. The American Leviathan, for example, does not contend properly with inequality and racial oppression, two enemies of liberty, while the “Paper Leviathan” is a bureaucratic machine favoring the privileged class, serving as both a political and economic brake on development and yielding “fear, violence, and dominance for most of its citizens.” So it is with China, a “Despotic Leviathan” that commands the economy and coerces political conformity. The authors trace a link between democratic states and what they call “Shackled Leviathans,” the beast in restraints being the best of all possible scenarios. Though the argument is a little jargon-y, it is, as with the authors’ previous books, provocative and intuitively correct.

An endlessly rewarding book full of takeaways, including the thought that the best societies protect everyone’s rights.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-7352-2438-4

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: June 30, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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


“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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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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