A stimulating modern rejoinder to Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of creative destruction.

ANTIFRAGILE

THINGS THAT GAIN FROM DISORDER

Engineer and trend-watcher Taleb builds on his best-selling hit The Black Swan (2007) to limn a world of uncertainty and chaos.

The world is a fragile place, full of surprises. Humans—and especially their markets—hate surprises in general. Small wonder, then, that we spend so much effort trying to make our buildings earthquake-proof and our computers virus-proof, that things prophylactic (no, not that) occupy so much of our thoughts. Taleb calls this “antifragility,” writing, “Just as we cannot improve health without reducing disease, or increase wealth without first decreasing losses, antifragility and fragility are degrees on a spectrum.” This being a book meant to solve big-picture problems that may or may not be real for most readers, Taleb urges that many of our efforts are misguided, if understandable. He scorns the “fragilistas” so afraid of their own shadows that they put systems into place “in which the benefits are small and visible, and the side effects potentially severe and invisible.” His current tract is meant as a corrective, and it’s mostly successful at what it aims to do, if sometimes a little daunting—readers are asked, for instance, to grapple with terms such as “apophatic,” “hormesis” and “Mithridatization,” all useful but thorny all the same. In what a college comp instructor might mark as a shift in diction, however, he throws in more familiar language: “Redundancy is not necessarily wussy; it can be extremely aggressive.” And good thing, too. Touring the landscape of uncertainty, Taleb conjures up a few first principles and praises a few models, not least of them Seneca, the great Stoic philosopher who also “happened to be the wealthiest person in the Roman Empire.” Mostly, though, the book is an accumulation of small examples and counterexamples, more suggestive than prescriptive.

A stimulating modern rejoinder to Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of creative destruction.

Pub Date: Nov. 27, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6782-4

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Jan. 15, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2013

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“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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