Is the state of public intellectualism in decline, or is Posner just really smart and terribly grumpy?

The answer: a bit of the former, a lot of the latter. Anyone who watches cable news knows the punditocracy has lowered the requirements of admission, as volume has replaced reason in public debates. The proliferation of cable channels and other media outlets has created a booming need for talking heads, but these heads often fail to talk as intelligently as they should. Posner (An Affair of State, 1999, etc.) strings together a slew of charts and graphs to document empirically the decline, meticulously counting and then comparing the number of scholarly citations of a public intellectual’s works versus the number of media citations. (In a dazzling display of his math skills, Posner also asserts that U¹(t,b)–U2(t,d)=Z¹>0, but there he’s just showing off.) Of course, Posner is right in many of his assertions, especially his argument that much of the decline is due to academics who write outside of their discipline, but he’s also a bit of a crank, one not above taking a few underhanded swings at his personal foes. Sure, it might be clearly demonstrated that Camille Paglia deserves ridicule, but Martha Nussbaum? If Nussbaum represents the decline of the American intellectual, then we’re in pretty good shape. Likewise, Posner rightly savages the self-serving antics of Paul Ehrlich and Edward Said, but he tosses Lani Guinier into the mix as well, with not much of a hint as to what she did to deserve his opprobrium. To his credit, Posner does achieve a left/right balance in his attacks, positioning himself somewhat above the ideological fray, and his analyses of such figures as Stephen Jay Gould and Noam Chomsky are detailed and articulate. The jeremiad closes with a few impractical suggestions for improvement that will never be adopted. It takes the wind out of a reviewer’s sails when the author predicts one’s criticisms; predicting them, however, does not entail that he doesn’t deserve them.


Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-674-00633-X

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2001

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A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.


Custer died for your sins. And so, this book would seem to suggest, did every other native victim of colonialism.

Inducing guilt in non-native readers would seem to be the guiding idea behind Dunbar-Ortiz’s (Emerita, Ethnic Studies/California State Univ., Hayward; Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War, 2005, etc.) survey, which is hardly a new strategy. Indeed, the author says little that hasn’t been said before, but she packs a trove of ideological assumptions into nearly every page. For one thing, while “Indian” isn’t bad, since “[i]ndigenous individuals and peoples in North America on the whole do not consider ‘Indian’ a slur,” “American” is due to the fact that it’s “blatantly imperialistic.” Just so, indigenous peoples were overwhelmed by a “colonialist settler-state” (the very language broadly applied to Israelis vis-à-vis the Palestinians today) and then “displaced to fragmented reservations and economically decimated”—after, that is, having been forced to live in “concentration camps.” Were he around today, Vine Deloria Jr., the always-indignant champion of bias-puncturing in defense of native history, would disavow such tidily packaged, ready-made, reflexive language. As it is, the readers who are likely to come to this book—undergraduates, mostly, in survey courses—probably won’t question Dunbar-Ortiz’s inaccurate assertion that the military phrase “in country” derives from the military phrase “Indian country” or her insistence that all Spanish people in the New World were “gold-obsessed.” Furthermore, most readers won’t likely know that some Ancestral Pueblo (for whom Dunbar-Ortiz uses the long-abandoned term “Anasazi”) sites show evidence of cannibalism and torture, which in turn points to the inconvenient fact that North America wasn’t entirely an Eden before the arrival of Europe.

A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8070-0040-3

Page Count: 296

Publisher: Beacon Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

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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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