In this comprehensive survey of historical scholarship, a business executive explores the ancient roots of business and finds lessons for public policy today.

A Harvard-trained history major and lawyer, Roberts has worked as a litigator and mediator, as well as general counsel or chief executive for varied business ventures. This ambitious debut establishes his bona fides as a first-rate historian. In 270 pages of granular but surprisingly brisk narrative sprinkled with maps and tables, he distills 5,000 years of history into a coherent story of business as a distinct profit-seeking activity. (Endnotes fill 50 pages; his bibliography adds 20 more.) From Fertile Crescent agricultural surpluses that supported cities, Roberts traces the evolution of governance that gave rise to wealth, trade, occupations, currencies and markets. Throughout, he conveys complicated material concisely, displays a nimble command of vocabulary and uses interesting stories to make points. There are a few shortcomings. Roberts’ presentation is sometimes too fluid—like going for drinks with a professor whose banter dips in and out of historical periods without realizing his pupil cannot keep up. The text also contains unnecessary repetition. In one case, he deploys two identically footnoted, virtually word-for-word sentences in the span of three pages. The focus is entirely on Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and European antiquity—the antecedents of Western-style business, which he accepts as universal today. Given the rise of China’s command economy and popularity of Sun Tzu’s writings in business circles, the scope of Roberts’ text seems narrow. Otherwise, the author does a stellar job of identifying modern business origins while rendering a multifaceted refresher course in ancient civilizations. Further, he delivers excellent commentary on what history should teach us, warning that businesses often pursue short-term profits even against their own long-term interests; “The interests of business are so different from those of any legitimate sovereign that it governs very badly indeed. That is why catastrophic results followed when business exerted political power for the first and only time in ancient history,” he writes about the late Roman Republic. A badly needed tonic for free-market zealotry and a major accomplishment in the field of business history.


Pub Date: June 5, 2011

ISBN: 978-0231153263

Page Count: 357

Publisher: Columbia Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 21, 2012

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


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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