HAMILTON'S BLESSING

THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE AND TIMES OF OUR NATIONAL DEBT

American Heritage columnist Gordon (The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street, 1988) deserves credit for attempting a brief history of the national debt aimed at a wide audience, but the result is somewhat disappointing. Gordon argues that debt can be a valuable economic and political tool when used consciously and wisely, as Alexander Hamilton attempted to do, but poses a real threat when it results from an unwillingness to make difficult decisions, as with the current federal deficit. This distinction loses its sharpness when applied to more complicated events, such as the funding of the Civil War and Roosevelt's policies in the 1930s, and is lost from sight during the discussion of Andrew Mellon's supply-side economics of the 1920s. But this theory nevertheless serves to bracket a quick survey of American public finance. Unfortunately, at times Gordon's tendency to skim the surface of selected events and rely on conventional platitudes results in a rather skewed account. It is impossible, for example, to understand why early proponents of the income tax were intent on soaking the rich unless their proposals are considered in relation to the equally unbalanced burdens imposed on the less affluent by tariffs and monetary policies. A one-paragraph discussion of the balanced- budget amendment, labeling it a ``chimera,'' though perceptive, hardly covers the range of relevant concerns. Advocating a flat tax so simple that returns can be mailed in on a postcard and then referring to deductions for business expenditures even suggests a lack of systematic thought. Most importantly, the failings of contemporary politicians cannot be the whole story behind the recent, persistent deficits, for Gordon supplies considerable evidence that politicians have always had failings. For those seeking to understand the national debt, this book is a good place to start—it's just not a good place to stop.

Pub Date: Feb. 13, 1997

ISBN: 0-8027-1323-8

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Walker

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1997

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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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A deftly argued case for a new kind of socialism that, while sure to inspire controversy, bears widespread discussion.

CAPITAL AND IDEOLOGY

A massive investigation of economic history in the service of proposing a political order to overcome inequality.

Readers who like their political manifestoes in manageable sizes, à la Common Sense or The Communist Manifesto, may be overwhelmed by the latest from famed French economist Piketty (Top Incomes in France in the Twentieth Century: Inequality and Redistribution, 1901-1998, 2014, etc.), but it’s a significant work. The author interrogates the principal forms of economic organization over time, from slavery to “non-European trifunctional societies,” Chinese-style communism, and “hypercapitalist” orders, in order to examine relative levels of inequality and its evolution. Each system is founded on an ideology, and “every ideology, no matter how extreme it may seem in its defense of inequality, expresses a certain idea of social justice.” In the present era, at least in the U.S., that idea of social justice would seem to be only that the big ones eat the little ones, the principal justification being that the wealthiest people became rich because they are “the most enterprising, deserving, and useful.” In fact, as Piketty demonstrates, there’s more to inequality than the mere “size of the income gap.” Contrary to hypercapitalist ideology and its defenders, the playing field is not level, the market is not self-regulating, and access is not evenly distributed. Against this, Piketty arrives at a proposed system that, among other things, would redistribute wealth across societies by heavy taxation, especially of inheritances, to create a “participatory socialism” in which power is widely shared and trade across nations is truly free. The word “socialism,” he allows, is a kind of Pandora’s box that can scare people off—and, he further acknowledges, “the Russian and Czech oligarchs who buy athletic teams and newspapers may not be the most savory characters, but the Soviet system was a nightmare and had to go.” Yet so, too, writes the author, is a capitalism that rewards so few at the expense of so many.

A deftly argued case for a new kind of socialism that, while sure to inspire controversy, bears widespread discussion.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-674-98082-2

Page Count: 976

Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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