A chilling anatomy of one bad decision followed by another—and another.

WHILE AMERICA AGED

HOW PENSION DEBTS RUINED GENERAL MOTORS, STOPPED THE NYC SUBWAYS, BANKRUPTED SAN DIEGO, AND LOOM AS THE NEXT FINANCIAL CRISIS

Lowenstein (Origins of the Crash: The Great Bubble and Its Undoing, 2004, etc.) probes a dangerous miscalculation made by American private and public enterprise: laying off responsibility for workers’ pensions and retirement health benefits on some unspecified future.

As baby boomers move into the retirement mainstream, the former Wall Street Journal columnist warns, the worst is yet to come. Examining how such situations evolved at General Motors, one of capitalism’s former crown jewels, and in two of the nation’s largest cities, he argues that confrontation-averse executives and pension trustees allowed hardball labor unions threatening crippling strikes to leverage benefit packages that were unsustainable from the beginning. Competitive pressures on the GM side and electoral politics in New York and San Diego also played their part in getting the unions attractive early retirement deals that, when workers began opting for them, brought crushing “future costs” closer than anyone had imagined. The GM story is perhaps the most tragic. In the late ’90s, the company found itself with some 180,000 hourly employees on its payroll—and 400,000 retirees. Unable competitively to raise prices, GM cuts its dividend; stockholders, the company’s nominal owners, begin to pick up the bill for retirees. In the cases of New York’s Transit System workers and San Diego city employees, the same syndrome was made more sordid by political infighting and backroom deals. Others simply buried their heads in the sand. Former New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman, for example, bet that pension-fund investments in a booming stock market would cover unfunded liabilities—then the market went down. Some form of paid national healthcare is inevitable for the future, says Lowenstein: “Business is global, and U.S. companies compete against foreign-based firms whose home-countries do pick up the tab.” Fixing pensions, he notes, will be even tougher, but at minimum Congress needs to regulate 401(k)s, which were “essentially developed in a social and legislative vacuum.”

A chilling anatomy of one bad decision followed by another—and another.

Pub Date: May 5, 2008

ISBN: 978-1-59420-167-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2008

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Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our...

THINKING, FAST AND SLOW

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.

ECONOMIC DIGNITY

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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