An amiable tour of the socioscientific evidence that accounts for our political miscalculations.

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POLITICAL ANIMALS

HOW OUR STONE-AGE BRAIN GETS IN THE WAY OF SMART POLITICS

An explanation of how our brains are simply not built for politics in the modern world.

Why would a series of shark attacks along the New Jersey coast cause locals to abandon President Woodrow Wilson’s re-election bid? Why, in the immediate wake of 9/11, did support for President George W. Bush soar? Why do fans of winning football teams feel better about incumbents? Why did it take voters so long to realize Nixon was lying about Watergate and Clinton was lying about philandering? Shenkman (History/George Mason Univ.; Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter, 2008, etc.) answers these and many other questions by focusing on the disconnect between our brains and our instincts and emotions, powerful antennae that worked well for our hunter-gatherer ancestors gathered in tribes of about 150. These instincts fail us in the modern world, where scale, pace, and context have enlarged and quickened beyond anything our Pleistocene-era circuitry can handle. Drawing on a variety of disciplines—neuroscience, evolutionary and social psychology, anthropology, among others—Shenkman addresses our alarming indifference to politics, our chronic misreading of our leaders, our ambivalent relationship to the truth, and our frequent failure to empathize in situations that clearly warrant concern. Readers will appreciate his personable, chatty tone and will delight in the broad allusions and the wide variety of historical incidents he cites to help make his point. He examines why certain members of the Donner Party survived, why the Pentagon persisted with the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign against North Vietnam despite evidence of its futility, and why we value group membership over the truth. His call for us to recognize and account for our biases and to invoke a higher order of thinking sounds more wishful than likely, but he makes a convincing case about our hard-wired infirmities and how they work to undermine our democracy.

An amiable tour of the socioscientific evidence that accounts for our political miscalculations.

Pub Date: Jan. 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-465-03300-3

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2015

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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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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST

Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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