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



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...


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.


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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