For the numerate and fiscally wonky, an accessible survey that does a fine job of reallocating past, present, and future.



A financial economist’s view of credit, investment, speculation, and other matters of the pocketbook.

The study of finance is traditionally the finest layer of dust on the stack of arid tomes devoted to the dismal science. The Cyndi Lauper echo of the title aside, Goetzmann (Finance and Management/Yale School of Management; co-editor: The Origins of Value: The Financial Innovations that Created Modern Capital Markets, 2005, etc.) doesn’t exactly shift the discussion into pop territory. However, his book is more accessible than many in the field, positing that the instruments of finance have done more than their share to make civilized life possible. The author invites us to consider that a principal effect of finance is to travel in time: that is, finance “reallocates economic value through time,” linking present and future while also shifting the burden of risk to allow investors and states to do such things as build infrastructure. Finance also involves an increase in social complexity, requiring alphanumeric language for record-keeping and bureaucrats to keep track of things, so that finance is responsible for state-building. Among the earliest financial documents we have, writes Goetzmann, are clay tablets recording impossible debts denoted by absurdly gigantic numbers: “The ability to imagine and then to express such vast quantities,” he writes, “would not have been possible without the leap of mathematical abstraction in the Uruk period.” So, too, with Chinese record-keeping systems involving great quantities of grain offered in tribute by great numbers of people. Throughout, in perhaps an accidental theme, Goetzmann’s narrative offers numerous examples of the inequalities wrought by financial systems, whether the medieval practice of “tax farming” or the speculative schemes floated by a well-known Founding Father. Of considerable interest is the author’s brief closing look at future possibilities for financial regimes, such as a sovereign wealth fund to bolster some version of social security.

For the numerate and fiscally wonky, an accessible survey that does a fine job of reallocating past, present, and future.

Pub Date: June 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-691-14378-1

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: April 11, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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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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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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