BANKING ON DEATH

OR, INVESTING IN LIFE: THE HISTORY AND FUTURE OF PENSIONS

Thoughtful and massive: too much for any but the most serious public-policy wonk.

An academic who works both sides of the Atlantic takes a serious look at the dire condition of Anglo-Saxon pensions.

Blackburn (History/The New School; Sociology/Univ. of Essex) surveys the support of oldsters through history with some attention to the contributions of Gladstone, Bismarck, and the French Revolution. What’s new, of course, is the cheery report that most of us are living longer, an actuarial certainty that heralds scary demographics for national and private pension schemes. Just as menacing is the “accountability deficit” that places control of capital in the hands of managers rather than owners. Blackburn calls it “grey capitalism”: pension assets trapped in a web of interlocking relationships among fund managers, trustees, advisors, investment bankers, and union and corporate sponsors, who all reap real profits. It should be no surprise that the hope of privatization is constantly pleasing to rogue entities (think Enron and Arthur Andersen) as well as firms in a louche financial industry always blowing bubbles. Pensioners, the nominal beneficiaries, are commodities like Gogol’s dead souls. Whether “defined benefit” (like many union-sponsored plans) or “defined contribution” (like the ubiquitous 401[k]), the plans naturally fall prey to excessive self-dealing and meager returns. After much investigation, Blackburn suggests pre-funded “asset based welfare”: in summary, a dollop of capitalism wrapped in socialized pensions to be paid from college, employer, and locally based funds to which employees, employers, and the government would contribute, all supervised by a board or two. It’s neither a simple nor an easy sale. The author supports his study with global illustrations, giving particular attention to Wall Street and the City of London. The British-American comparison is undeniably useful, but it tends to bloat the text with material from one side of the pond that may hold little interest to those on the opposite shore.

Thoughtful and massive: too much for any but the most serious public-policy wonk.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2002

ISBN: 1-85984-795-1

Page Count: 540

Publisher: Verso

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2002

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

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

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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. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

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. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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