THE WINNER-TAKE-ALL SOCIETY

HOW MORE AND MORE AMERICANS COMPETE FOR EVER FEWER AND BIGGER REWARDS, ENCOURAGING ECONOMIC WASTE, GROWING INCOME INEQUALITY, AND AN IMPOVERISHED CULTURED LIFE

An unsettling report from two economists on how new competitive forces are impacting Americans' social, business, and ethical lives. According to the Frank (Cornell Univ.; Passions Within Reason, 1988) and Cook (Duke Univ.), winner-take-all markets have two major characteristics: reward by relative rather than absolute performance and concentration of rewards in the hands of few top performers. In other words, these markets have rewarded winners disproportionately compared with runners-up, despite sometimes infinitesimal differences in outcomes (e.g., although Mary Lou Retton won her Olympic gold medal by only a slim margin, she went on to years of Wheaties endorsements, while the name of her rival is barely recalled). Although there are some benefits to these markets, they have widened the gulf between rich and poor, channeled citizens away from their natural talents and into less socially beneficial but potentially lucrative tasks, and even led to greater concentration of the best students into elite institutions. In recent years, winner-take-all imperatives have spread from professional sports and the performing arts to other sectors of the economy, including publishing, where the midlist book is being crowded out at the expense of the next blockbuster; law and investment banking, fields that lure flocks of college graduates looking for fast lucre; and even management. Frank and Cook ably explain the forces (e.g., global competition and technology) that have upped the competitive ante and raised the stakes so much that contestants will continually strive to maintain an advantage. To their credit, the authors urge changes in reward structures rather than direct regulations of career choices, though some of their proposals (e.g., loser paying in tort cases) might worsen the growing inequality that they cite as a result of winner- take-all markets. A thoughtful analysis of how today's haves and have-nots got this way.

Pub Date: Sept. 21, 1995

ISBN: 0-02-874034-3

Page Count: 220

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1995

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 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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