A fruitful argument against the politics of “simple-minded populism,” eminently worthy of consideration and debate.

THE FUTURE OF FREEDOM

ILLIBERAL DEMOCRACY AT HOME AND ABROAD

The problem with democracy is that it lets just about everyone have a say.

Or so would go an inelegant rendition of Newsweek International editor Zakaria’s more sophisticated argument, which is akin to those of, say, Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama in the Big Idea school of political criticism. Briefly, Zakaria holds that some of the features we take for granted in democracy, such as universal adult suffrage, are recent innovations that overlie, and now threaten to obscure, far more important aspects of “constitutional liberalism—the rule of law, private property rights, and . . . separated powers and free speech and assembly.” These ideals, “best symbolized not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge,” are the true hallmarks of democracy, but they are not the ones that Americans, at least, think of when that golden term is uttered, and not the ones that are called to mind when the talk turns to spreading one-man, one-vote democracy around the world, which is a peculiarly American project. (“Think of it this way,” Zakaria intones, “if France had been the world’s leading power for the last century, would 18-year-olds wearing jeans in restaurants come up to you and say, ‘Hi, I’m John and I’ll be your waiter today’?”) The rest of the world, and particularly the Arab and Asian quarters, is not much interested in this power-sharing ideal—which in any event, by Zakaria’s account, so often tends to lead to the tyranny of the majority and “the erosion of liberty, the manipulation of freedom, and the decay of a common life.” Zakaria’s arguments are, of course, arguable, but they are interesting and provocative at the same time. His passing notes are more intriguing, culled from statistical tables and academic journal articles, on the material and political conditions required if a democracy of any kind is to endure: per-capita income and GDP above $6,000, an independent judiciary, an incorrupt central bank.

A fruitful argument against the politics of “simple-minded populism,” eminently worthy of consideration and debate.

Pub Date: April 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-393-04764-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2003

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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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