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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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. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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