An appealing, very different approach to a pressing problem.

SCARCITY

WHY HAVING TOO LITTLE MEANS SO MUCH

An intriguing discussion of poverty and scarcity that uses the tools of behavioral economics and offers some different approaches to mitigation.

Mullainathan (Economics/Harvard Univ.; co-author: Policy and Choice: Public Finance Through the Lens of Behavioral Economics, 2011, etc.) and Shafir (Psychology and Public Affairs/Princeton Univ.; editor: The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy, 2012, etc.) compare scarcity in different forms—financial, but also in relation to time, diet and loneliness—reporting on psychological tests and human and organizational activity to develop their idea that scarcity can be approached from a cognitive standpoint. The authors discuss the concept of “tunneling,” in which focus is so tightly confined that alternate or broader considerations are excluded, and “bandwidth tax,” where “poverty itself taxes the mind…reduces fluid intelligence and executive control." The authors stress that their approach to scarcity is different than that of economists. They distinguish between “physical scarcity,” which they say “is ubiquitous,” and “the feeling of scarcity,” which is not. They examine the mechanics of payday loans and the way market vendors in the Indian city of Chennai finance inventory, and they discuss how choices are constrained by habits of thought. They insist that scarcity “is not merely the gap between resources and desires on average.” Managing slack, as well as relative plenty, matters as much as managing scarcity, and incentives prove more powerful than education in changing habits. “As we contemplate the better management of scarcity,” they write, “we should remember that scarcity often begins with abundance. The crunch just before a deadline often originates with ample time used ineffectively in the weeks preceding it. The months just before harvest are particularly cash tight because money was not spent well in the easy months following last harvest.”

An appealing, very different approach to a pressing problem.

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9264-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Times/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2013

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The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

THE LAWS OF HUMAN NATURE

A follow-on to the author’s garbled but popular 48 Laws of Power, promising that readers will learn how to win friends and influence people, to say nothing of outfoxing all those “toxic types” out in the world.

Greene (Mastery, 2012, etc.) begins with a big sell, averring that his book “is designed to immerse you in all aspects of human behavior and illuminate its root causes.” To gauge by this fat compendium, human behavior is mostly rotten, a presumption that fits with the author’s neo-Machiavellian program of self-validation and eventual strategic supremacy. The author works to formula: First, state a “law,” such as “confront your dark side” or “know your limits,” the latter of which seems pale compared to the Delphic oracle’s “nothing in excess.” Next, elaborate on that law with what might seem to be as plain as day: “Losing contact with reality, we make irrational decisions. That is why our success often does not last.” One imagines there might be other reasons for the evanescence of glory, but there you go. Finally, spin out a long tutelary yarn, seemingly the longer the better, to shore up the truism—in this case, the cometary rise and fall of one-time Disney CEO Michael Eisner, with the warning, “his fate could easily be yours, albeit most likely on a smaller scale,” which ranks right up there with the fortuneteller’s “I sense that someone you know has died" in orders of probability. It’s enough to inspire a new law: Beware of those who spend too much time telling you what you already know, even when it’s dressed up in fresh-sounding terms. “Continually mix the visceral with the analytic” is the language of a consultant’s report, more important-sounding than “go with your gut but use your head, too.”

The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

Pub Date: Oct. 23, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-42814-5

Page Count: 580

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

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Readers unfamiliar with the anecdotal material Greene presents may find interesting avenues to pursue, but they should...

MASTERY

Greene (The 33 Strategies of War, 2007, etc.) believes that genius can be learned if we pay attention and reject social conformity.

The author suggests that our emergence as a species with stereoscopic, frontal vision and sophisticated hand-eye coordination gave us an advantage over earlier humans and primates because it allowed us to contemplate a situation and ponder alternatives for action. This, along with the advantages conferred by mirror neurons, which allow us to intuit what others may be thinking, contributed to our ability to learn, pass on inventions to future generations and improve our problem-solving ability. Throughout most of human history, we were hunter-gatherers, and our brains are engineered accordingly. The author has a jaundiced view of our modern technological society, which, he writes, encourages quick, rash judgments. We fail to spend the time needed to develop thorough mastery of a subject. Greene writes that every human is “born unique,” with specific potential that we can develop if we listen to our inner voice. He offers many interesting but tendentious examples to illustrate his theory, including Einstein, Darwin, Mozart and Temple Grandin. In the case of Darwin, Greene ignores the formative intellectual influences that shaped his thought, including the discovery of geological evolution with which he was familiar before his famous voyage. The author uses Grandin's struggle to overcome autistic social handicaps as a model for the necessity for everyone to create a deceptive social mask.

Readers unfamiliar with the anecdotal material Greene presents may find interesting avenues to pursue, but they should beware of the author's quirky, sometimes misleading brush-stroke characterizations.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-670-02496-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Sept. 13, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

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