Tag Archives: economics

Shake, Rattle and Roll

Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future by Robert B. Reich (Knopf, $14.95, 192 pages)

Robert Reich’s Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future is sectioned into three parts.   In the first two sections, Reich offers arguments for why America’s growing inequality is bad.   The third offers ideas for fixing it.

Part One argues that growing inequality makes it impossible for America’s middle class to consume as much as they produce without going into debt.   The reason for the 2008 meltdown, he argues, was not that Americans had merely spent beyond their means or that Wall Street speculators had trashed the economy, though these he argues were true.   Rather, “their (middle class Americans) means had not kept up with what the larger economy could and should have been able to provide them.”   This is the reason behind the economic collapse.

Part one is the best section of the book.   Reich’s analysis is concise, though well supported.   The argumentation is spot on.   He makes strong points, develops them and supports them without wandering too far from his central theme.   He doesn’t simplify things, but manages to explain them well.

Part two argues that growing inequality will have dangerous social implications if nothing is done to change the direction.   This section begins with a thought experiment involving a fictional future party of populist radicals.   The argument Reich makes here is that capitalism has to be saved from itself.   If the middle class can’t achieve the things they used to, radicals will harness their populist anger and the end result will be the destruction of the economy and capitalism.

The specifics of the thought experiment are a little silly, though not entirely implausible.   It’s also a drawback that he lumps all of the populist anger together into one category.   That’s a bit insulting to middle class intellligence, but maybe Reich is right.   In any case, his main point – that capitalism needs to be saved from itself – is poignant.

Part three cobbles together a  lot of small possible situations, notably changes to tax codes, getting money out of politics, and a complete expansion of Medicare.

The drawback to section three is that there aren’t a lot of connections among the small solutions he cobbles together.   None of them are politically viable.   Reich ends by suggesting that the only real way forward is if financial corporations and the financial elite heed his warning and save capitalism from itself.

The Good:  Reich’s analysis of the structural problem under-girding the American economy appears to be accurate.   His argument is well supported by short at only 147 pages.

The Bad:  Sections two and three of the book simply aren’t as good as the first section.   Section two is purely speculative.   The argument is valid, but the specifics are impractical.   Section three disappoints in its presentation of solutions, which are not politically feasible.

The Bottom Line:  Aftershock is required reading for any progressive wanting to understand the structural economic problem behind the economic meltdown and the barriers to fixing it.   Well recommended.

Trevor Kidd

You can read more from Trevor Kidd at http://trevorkidd.com/ .

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius by Sylvia Nassar.

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Come and Get It

Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy by James A. Roberts (HarperOne, $25.99, 368 pages)

“The chief value of money lies in the fact that one lives in a world in which it is overestimated.”   – H. L. Mencken

Author James A. Roberts is a professor of marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.   There’s no doubt that he knows of what he writes.   In some ways Shiny Objects is similar to The Man Who Sold America by Jeffrey Cruikshank and Arthur Schultz, and Shoptimism – Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What by Lee Eisenberg.   Among them, the three  books capture a wide view of the marketing tricks, human weaknesses and buying trends that are behind the urge to attain the American dream.

Shiny Objects is clearly written for readers in the USA.   Author Roberts tailors what could easily be just another self-help book into a person-centered experience complete with memorable quotes at the start of each chapter (such as the one posted above).   He includes graphs, charts, sidebars and illustrations that enliven the very serious subject – compulsive acquisition that most folks cloak in the guise of the pursuit of the Great American Dream.

There is a strong interactive presence in many chapters that gently allows the reader to respond to the questionnaires that are designed to reveal personal tendencies, proclivities or urges related to material possessions and their appearance – which is, sadly, a false one – of granting happiness.

There is some original research associated with the writing of the book as well as numerous well-annotated references, data and quotes.   Roberts also references his survey of other researchers’ research on consumption/consumerism.

The marketing classes at Baylor presented by Dr. Roberts must be very popular given his smooth conversational style and ability to weave useful strategies through his narrative.   Perhaps this book, which is highly skeptical of the marketing practices in this country, is his way of offsetting the marketing skills he teaches in his college classes.   This quote makes the point: “The primary goal of this book is to make the argument that lasting happiness lies outside the consumer realm, beyond the shiny-object ethos.”

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Shiny Objects was released on November 8, 2011, and is available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.   “Shiny Objects is ultimately a hopeful statement about the power we each hold to redefine the pursuit of happiness.”   Amazon

Readers who find this book interesting may also want to consider Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert (Vintage, $15.95, 336 pages) and Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt (William Morrow Paperbacks, $15.99, 315 pages).

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Somebody’s Watching You

The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do by Eduardo Porter (Portfolio Hardcover, $27.95, 304 pages)

“There was a time when the United States offered workers a shot at prosperity.”

“The nicer the nice, the higher the price / This is what you pay for what you need. / The higher the price, the nicer the nice. / Jealous people like to see you bleed.”   Sylvester Stewart (AKA Sly Stone)

Author Eduardo Porter relies on well-known and documented studies for background in supporting his thesis that each thing we decide to purchase has a price.   The price does not always make sense to us.   Moreover, some prices are so attractive that they lead us to make wrong-headed decisions.  

Porter has divided his study into nine elements, each of which carries enormous importance for almost everyone.   The chapter devoted to things reveals some surprising conclusions such as that auctions are searches for fools, those who would actually pay more than an item’s true worth.   The most compelling chapter for this reviewer is about the price of life.   While life is generally perceived as priceless, there are strict rules regarding the criteria used to arrive at the specific figures for victim compensation awards.   (Talk to any law student who has taken Torts and he/she will explain this further.)

The direct approach taken in this book may be a bit jarring for some readers.   And the discussion of the price of women contains phrasing that is sometimes confusing.   This reviewer needed to reread certain passages in order to understand – or attempt to understand – the conclusion(s) drawn by the author.  

This survey book is reminscent of others that have used an organizing principle, like The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, to bring the reader to an intended conclusion.   Recommended – although the price of $27.95 for just 300 pages seems a bit high!

Ruta Arellano

Reprinted courtesy of San Francisco Book Review.   “A fascinating journey through what we see every day – but do not think enough about.   Eduardo Porter makes you think hard about the corporate interests at work behind the veil of prices (and much more).”   Simon Johnson, co-author of 13 Bankers.

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A New Audio-book Giveaway!

Thanks to Anna at Hachette Audio, we will be giving away three audio book copies of The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar.   This is an unabridged 9-CD set that has a value of $34.98.   You can see a video trailer-preview for this book at the Twelve Books website (Google it).   The following are some comments about this unique non-fiction book.

Sheena Iyengar’s work on choice and how our minds deal with it has been groundbreaking, repeatedly surprising, and enormously important.   She is someone we need to listen to.   Dr. Atul Gawande, author of Better and Complications

No one asks better questions, or comes up with more intriguing answers.   Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers

As you take exciting steps into this wide-ranging exploration of the choices we make, you will traverse the worlds of psychology, biology, philosophy, economics, business, public policy and medicine.   Malcolm Gladwell popularized some of Professor Iyengar’s research in Blink, but that is just a glimmer of what readers will discover in The Art of Choosing.

The author’s objective in these pages is a great one:  to help us become better choosers, with greater self-awareness of our biases and values.   She is tackling nothing less than the subtext of our lives – what we are thinking when we make choices; how our environment influences us; and how choice drives, frustrates, sustains and satisfies us.

You will learn why we need choice in our lives to feel control and contentment… (yet) we can sometimes be paralyzed by too many choices.   Unquestionably, it is one of the best books I’ve had the privilege of publishing.   Jonathan Karp, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, TWELVE

It’s easy to enter this book giveaway.   All you need to do is post a comment here or send an e-mail (using the subject line The Art of Choosing) to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second contest entry, tell us what the hardest choice was that you had to make in your life, and why it seemed so difficult at the time.   That’s it.

This contest will run until Midnight PST on Friday, May 7, 2010.   In order to enter, you must be a resident of the United States or Canada, with a residential address.   Audio books cannot be mailed to P.O. boxes.  

Good luck and good listening!

 

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