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 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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