A thoroughly unsunny and dense but fascinating look at the engines of our discontent.

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THE GREAT LEVELER

VIOLENCE AND THE HISTORY OF INEQUALITY FROM THE STONE AGE TO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

Economic history that examines the mechanisms and prospects of lessening inequality in our time.

The rich and poor have been with us always. Or at least, writes Scheidel (Humanities/Stanford Univ.; State Power in Ancient China and Rome, 2015, etc.), surpluses have, and with them “humans who were prepared to share them unevenly.” Enter the first capitalists, the first hoarders, and the first impoverished people. Thanks in large measure to the French economist Thomas Piketty, much attention has recently been given to this economic inequality and its causes; less energy has been exerted on how to put an end to it or ameliorate its harsher effects, other than to float the wan idea that wealth has to be redistributed. But how? Enter the historically minded Scheidel, whose observations don’t make for a pretty picture: of the proven methods for redistributing wealth and lessening inequality in the past, the most effective harken back to the four horsemen, involving shaking a society’s and economy’s foundations to the ground. Some energies toward this end—civil wars, revolts, etc.—have served only to increase inequality. However, writes the author, the old “violent levelers” aren’t afoot on a broad scale, and on the horizon, there’s no “easy way to vote, regulate, or teach our way to significantly greater equality.” Toward the end of his examination of these levelers and their past occurrences in places like Mesoamerica and Bronze Age Crete, he adds, “only all-out thermonuclear war might fundamentally reset the existing distribution of resources.” Given history, it seems certain that in such a scenario, one person will own all the bomb shelters and the other 99 will be out in the cold. Along the way, Scheidel offers provocative observations about things as they are, including the odd thought (for an academic) that “workers are increasingly overqualified for the work they do,” contributing to wage dispersion and suppression and thus to inequality.

A thoroughly unsunny and dense but fascinating look at the engines of our discontent.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-691-16502-8

Page Count: 520

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: Dec. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2016

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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 deftly argued case for a new kind of socialism that, while sure to inspire controversy, bears widespread discussion.

CAPITAL AND IDEOLOGY

A massive investigation of economic history in the service of proposing a political order to overcome inequality.

Readers who like their political manifestoes in manageable sizes, à la Common Sense or The Communist Manifesto, may be overwhelmed by the latest from famed French economist Piketty (Top Incomes in France in the Twentieth Century: Inequality and Redistribution, 1901-1998, 2014, etc.), but it’s a significant work. The author interrogates the principal forms of economic organization over time, from slavery to “non-European trifunctional societies,” Chinese-style communism, and “hypercapitalist” orders, in order to examine relative levels of inequality and its evolution. Each system is founded on an ideology, and “every ideology, no matter how extreme it may seem in its defense of inequality, expresses a certain idea of social justice.” In the present era, at least in the U.S., that idea of social justice would seem to be only that the big ones eat the little ones, the principal justification being that the wealthiest people became rich because they are “the most enterprising, deserving, and useful.” In fact, as Piketty demonstrates, there’s more to inequality than the mere “size of the income gap.” Contrary to hypercapitalist ideology and its defenders, the playing field is not level, the market is not self-regulating, and access is not evenly distributed. Against this, Piketty arrives at a proposed system that, among other things, would redistribute wealth across societies by heavy taxation, especially of inheritances, to create a “participatory socialism” in which power is widely shared and trade across nations is truly free. The word “socialism,” he allows, is a kind of Pandora’s box that can scare people off—and, he further acknowledges, “the Russian and Czech oligarchs who buy athletic teams and newspapers may not be the most savory characters, but the Soviet system was a nightmare and had to go.” Yet so, too, writes the author, is a capitalism that rewards so few at the expense of so many.

A deftly argued case for a new kind of socialism that, while sure to inspire controversy, bears widespread discussion.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-674-98082-2

Page Count: 976

Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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