An arguable thesis, perhaps, but an evenhanded view of a topic generating much heat.



Economist Galbraith (Univ. of Texas; The End of Normal: The Great Crisis and the Future of Growth, 2014, etc.) ventures an anti-Pikettian view of the sharply divisive fact that not all wallets are created equal.

In strictest economic terms, inequality is not a bad thing; it “generates the competition that determines status and standing and prestige,” writes the author, and therefore serves as a driver of economic progress. Galbraith, who allows that it’s hard to separate politics from the idealized world of numbers and formulas, enumerates several kinds of inequality, of which one in particular, income inequality, is hard to measure: income is often hidden, tax records obscured, numbers skewed for (mostly) political reasons. The French economist Thomas Piketty has made the same observation, most recently with regard to tax statistics. Galbraith, though, sharply departs from Piketty on many points, arguing, for one thing, that income inequality has become “less certain and inexorable after 2000 than it was before” and that after the crisis of 2008, inequalities have declined slightly. This seems counterintuitive given the pronounced gulf between the haves and the have-nots, as does Galbraith’s assertion that richer societies are generally more equal than poorer ones because “a rich society, by definition, must have a large middle class.” Given another trend, the steady erosion of the middle class, this again seems questionable, at least for the U.S., but Galbraith defends his arguments capably. At times his prose, generally dry but accessible, catches fire, as when he writes in favor of the inheritance tax in light of “the privileged, feckless, and lazy brats that the original founders of great fortunes tend to spawn.” Readers with economics and political science backgrounds will benefit most from the book, and they alone are likely to be interested in such things as his account of inequality in history and his political excurses on, for instance, “whether egalitarian societies do better on the battlefield than their unequal opponents.”

An arguable thesis, perhaps, but an evenhanded view of a topic generating much heat.

Pub Date: March 10, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-19-025046-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2016

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Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our...


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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A declaration worth hearing out in a time of growing inequality—and indignity.


Noted number cruncher Sperling delivers an economist’s rejoinder to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Former director of the National Economic Council in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the author has long taken a view of the dismal science that takes economic justice fully into account. Alongside all the metrics and estimates and reckonings of GDP, inflation, and the supply curve, he holds the great goal of economic policy to be the advancement of human dignity, a concept intangible enough to chase the econometricians away. Growth, the sacred mantra of most economic policy, “should never be considered an appropriate ultimate end goal” for it, he counsels. Though 4% is the magic number for annual growth to be considered healthy, it is healthy only if everyone is getting the benefits and not just the ultrawealthy who are making away with the spoils today. Defining dignity, admits Sperling, can be a kind of “I know it when I see it” problem, but it does not exist where people are a paycheck away from homelessness; the fact, however, that people widely share a view of indignity suggests the “intuitive universality” of its opposite. That said, the author identifies three qualifications, one of them the “ability to meaningfully participate in the economy with respect, not domination and humiliation.” Though these latter terms are also essentially unquantifiable, Sperling holds that this respect—lack of abuse, in another phrasing—can be obtained through a tight labor market and monetary and fiscal policy that pushes for full employment. In other words, where management needs to come looking for workers, workers are likely to be better treated than when the opposite holds. In still other words, writes the author, dignity is in part a function of “ ‘take this job and shove it’ power,” which is a power worth fighting for.

A declaration worth hearing out in a time of growing inequality—and indignity.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7987-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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