A provocative look at constraints on the modern presidency, not quite as imperial as we may have feared.



Ten years into the war on Islamist terrorism, a Harvard Law professor offers an unconventional take on the growth of presidential power.

From the beginning, the Bush administration viewed the 9/11 attacks not merely as a crime, but as an act of war, justifying the full deployment of the president’s powers as head of the U.S. military. From this increasingly controversial premise flowed a series of aggressive and much-criticized counterterrorism measures: the military detention of terror suspects and the device of military commissions to prosecute them, the unchecked discretion to choose among a variety of forums for trying terrorists, the construction of the so-called “black site” prisons around the world, the targeting and killing of enemy suspects, the liberal use of rendition, the increased surveillance at home and abroad and the enhanced interrogation techniques to elicit intelligence. How is it that three years into the succeeding administration virtually all talk about “shredding the Constitution” has vanished, that these bitterly decried practices have either been only marginally curtailed or even expanded? Goldsmith (The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration, 2007, etc.), a former Bush Justice and Defense Department attorney, rejects the cynical explanation that it’s all politics, a case merely of the vocal left giving a pass to the Obama administration. Rather, he insists that our system of checks and balances is working just fine, if not precisely in the way the framers imagined, to curb the predictable wartime excesses of the executive branch. Yes, to some extent since 9/11, the congress, courts and establishment press have caught up, reining in the president, but Goldsmith points to something unprecedented in our history: the emergence of what he terms the “presidential synopticon,” the many watchers of the executive branch—lawyers, inspectors general, human-rights activists—aided by new information technologies and the Internet and empowered by law to limit unilateralism, require accountability, force reform and help generate a consensus about legitimate practices.

A provocative look at constraints on the modern presidency, not quite as imperial as we may have feared.

Pub Date: March 12, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-393-08133-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 16, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2012

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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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