A rewarding exercise in understanding where we are and how we got there.



The sprawling saga of a national economy that has gone through several phases, the lion’s share of ownership becoming ever narrower.

Capital, writes economic historian Levy, is “the process through which a legal asset is invested with pecuniary value, in light of its capacity to yield a future pecuniary profit.” The word invested is an important component, since investment, the trust that the future will reward present outlay, is critical. In early U.S. history, the wherewithal for investment was limited to White men, who enjoyed the benefit of an economy fueled by slaves. Racial domination was central, effected in part by “an assortment of odd tasks that masters and overseers ingeniously invented to keep their slaves busy” when they were not harvesting cotton. The current doctrine—fomented primarily by evangelists and so-called conservatives—that poverty is the poor person’s fault goes back a surprisingly long time. Levy links it to the social Darwinism of the 1870s and ’80s. “What the social classes owed to each other was, essentially, nothing,” he writes of that doctrine. Union membership helped improve the lot of many workers in the decades following, but even so, a certain social Darwinism prevailed, through which one can detect the origins of pay disparity between White and minority workers and, especially, male and female workers. As Levy notes in this detailed, discursive narrative, union political power was grudgingly granted after the owners of capital battled workers endlessly: “Between 1880 and 1930, according to one estimate, U.S. courts would issue no less than 4,300 injunctions against labor union activity.” In time, though, union power would erode as Richard Nixon and other right-wing politicians exploited “white blue-collar dissatisfaction,” a divide-and-conquer motif that continues into the present. It helps to have some knowledge of economics to read this book, though it’s not essential. Levy is an uncommonly lucid interpreter of numbers and theories and a nimble explainer.

A rewarding exercise in understanding where we are and how we got there.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9501-5

Page Count: 928

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Jan. 6, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2021

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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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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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