Sowell’s economics in a social vacuum is as meaningful as color in the absence of light.

From conservative think-tanker Sowell (The Quest for Cosmic Justice, 1999, etc.), ideological balderdash parading as a disinterested introduction to economics.

“Utter ignorance and gross fallacies” dominate the economic knowledge of the man on the street, thunders Sowell, so he is here to right this wrong with a clear-eyed introduction to the dismal science, free of bell curve and bar graph, and most of all with “nothing to say about the validity of social, moral, or political goals such as ‘affordable housing,’ ‘a living wage’ or ‘social justice.’” Readers can almost feel the spray of his invective, but Sowell claims that these elements play no role in economics, which is “the study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses.” The free flow of money and goods in a competitive market is Sowell’s Eden. And he trots out one example after another of how fettering the market will bring ill results: how the homeless of New York would have roofs if there had never been rent control, how “distinguishing discrimination from differences in qualifications and performances is not easy in practice, though the distinction is fundamental in principal,” as if racism were no more institutionalized than his market is value-free. “Monopolies are very hard to maintain without laws to protect the monopoly forms from competition,” is typical Sowell, as if, one, monopolies were foundlings in need of protection and, two, they didn’t get that very protection already. When Sowell reduces economics to the twin concepts of scarcity and the intelligent allocation of resources, he really does seem to think his readers are so “ill-informed and misinformed” as to forget that without society there would be no economics, and that society does sometimes think about the social contract, rights, and protection of the weak.

Sowell’s economics in a social vacuum is as meaningful as color in the absence of light.

Pub Date: Feb. 15, 2001

ISBN: 0-465-08138-X

Page Count: 500

Publisher: Basic Books

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2001


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

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. 3, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2011


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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