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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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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EDISON

One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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