An alarm call, but not alarmist. Less fluently written, but no less valuable, than Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost...

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THE PRICE OF A BARGAIN

THE QUEST FOR CHEAP AND THE DEATH OF GLOBALIZATION

You know the economy is in trouble when you can’t find anything for a dollar in a dollar store.

Financial journalist Laird, who is from Canada, that healthier economy to the north, takes a sidelong look at the depressing—literally and figuratively—effects of the eternal quest for the cheapest possible goods. The great innovation of chains such as Wal-Mart, he says, has been to tighten the supply chain and squeeze out every spare cent, so that consumer goods have dropped significantly in price from even a decade ago. Of course, so have real wages and the value of a dollar, but it’s not just that. The economy started on a track, and in order to sustain all those bargains, we all had to consume excessively until awakened by the ugly reality of a recession bordering on depression. All that tail-chasing had some curious effects. As Laird notes, retail great Macy’s saw its profits tumble thanks to “aggressive copycat discounts,” even as its boss talked about “the relentless pursuit of newness”—as if that were a good thing. Such a system obviously cannot be sustained, writes the author, which may be one reason why we’re seeing ever more expensive goods creeping into the dollar stores of old. Under these conditions, no significant wealth creation is possible, a major drag on a capitalist system premised on that ideal. Furthermore, it’s the gee-gaws that are going for nothing, while the things we really need—food, medical care, housing, utilities—are steadily increasing in price. The “system of cheap” is broken, writes Laird, and we may look back on it one day wistfully as a chimera, since “we will very likely never shop this hard again.”

An alarm call, but not alarmist. Less fluently written, but no less valuable, than Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture (2009), which it neatly bookends.

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-230-61491-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2009

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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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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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