Some familiarity with economic principles will benefit readers, but its conclusions are both accessible and urgent.



A long-view look at a problem that has been vexing economists and policymakers lately—namely, financial and social inequality.

In theory, America is a society not riven by the class divisions of old Europe, and in the beginning, with some exceptions, American colonists were indeed equally not-well-to-do. Independence, write Lindert (Economics/Univ. of California, Davis; Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century, 2004, etc.) and Williamson (Emeritus, Economics/Harvard Univ.; Trade and Poverty: When the Third World Fell Behind, 2011, etc.), was an expensive proposition, with incomes falling as much as 30 percent. The early republic, however, was an economic phenomenon, and with the steady expansion of the nation into the continental interior, fortunes were built—though, as the authors note, history had a way of intervening, as when the Civil War served as a modest equalizer in the South even as it built still larger fortunes in the North. Of particular interest in this cliometric account are the factors that the authors identify in the making of “the Great Leveling,” which followed the Gilded Age and persisted into the 1970s. “While educational attainment, measured as the average years of schooling completed by adults, advanced by nearly one school year per decade during the Great Leveling,” they write, “a marked deceleration followed.” The lesson here is that education is both a powerful economic engine and a democratizing force. At times critical of the Piketty school of thought, the authors further identify other factors in our present levels of inequality, including the refusal to regulate the financial industry, to fund education, and to tax large inheritances. The opportunities to end inequality are as obvious as C-notes dropped on the ground, they write in closing: “Of course, the fact that they are still lying there testifies to the political difficulty of bending over to pick them up.”

Some familiarity with economic principles will benefit readers, but its conclusions are both accessible and urgent.

Pub Date: May 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-691-17049-7

Page Count: 424

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: March 8, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2016

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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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