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April 17, 2013


Like preachers, physicists, politicians and other writers involved in niche specialties, economists lend their names and reputations to the book jackets which envelop the books of their fellow economists on sale in the publishing marketplace. They write glowing sentences and paragraphs of congratulation on the style, substance and originality of their fellow economists’ efforts with the printed word. Members of the buying public who are browsing in the economics section of bookstores are presumably attracted to such books by reading the (sometimes over-the-top) commentaries of this cheering section of experts so prominently displayed on these book jackets, but it works for me; I am attracted. I think the publishers are trying to stimulate sale of the books in question with such devices, but I don’t care. I am attracted.

My favorite Cambridge don, Lord Keynes, could if still with us write anything and I would buy it, even if there were disparaging remarks on the book jacket of such an effort. The same can now be said for Joseph E. Stiglitz (a don of sorts at Columbia and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics). I would buy anything he writes irrespective of any language employed on such book jackets by his peers (if he has any). His latest effort, The Price of Inequality, is a good example. (I did not buy this book because when my daughter heard of my impending purchase, she bought it for me for my birthday and thoughtfully sent it to me prior to my birthday, knowing I was chomping at the bit to get my hands and eyes on it).

I have not been disappointed. The book jacket contains the following statements: “Joseph Stiglitz is an insanely great economist” – Paul Krugman, Princeton and New York Times; “Stiglitz is the world’s leading scholarly expert on market failure” – Robert Kuttner, American Prospect; “The Best book so far on the financial crisis” – John Kay, Financial Times; “An indispensable history of the emergence of market fundamentalism” – John Palattella, The Nation. These statements are not over-the-top cheers, in my view. All such accolades can be defended. It IS a great book – and devoted to an enormous issue.

The book is a masterful treatment of a situation that cries out for solution, i.e., orchestrated inequality. It cannot go on unimpeded. Our most precious national attribute, democracy, is at stake. It is not just money and other assets and resources that are up for grabs in the question treated in his book, it is our survival as a democracy – or survival – period. If we survive on the present trajectory, it may be as some variant of a new rich-poor feudalist state, the rough equivalent in human history of our descent from classical Europe to a Europe of the so-called Dark Ages. It will vary in terms of the technology we have now that we didn’t have then, of course, but the socio-economic milieu of lord-serf and rich-poor will be very much in evidence. The only shield we have from such an outcome is an embrace of democratic idealism, i.e. the actual and not just pretended practice of equality in the marketplace and on the street.

What are some of the indications of our descent? The most obvious one is that America’s GDP is expanding but that living standards are eroding – simultaneously! That could not happen in a market that serves all the people. Ours clearly does not; it serves a very small percentage of the people at the expense of the rest of us, and that market badly and quickly needs reform, or else. Or else what? I cannot be sure; my current guess is a form of new feudalism as mentioned above. How it may eventuate depends upon too many variables to speculate with authority. The only certainty for our future if the market remains unreformed is the loss of our democracy, one of the few things left worth fighting and dying for.  Bought and paid for at Bunker Hill, Iwo Jima and Gettysburg, it is much too precious to leave to posturing politicians and apostles of greed to manipulate for their own selfish purposes.

One of the reasons Stiglitz writes so well is that he boldly leaves his field of economics to delve into other disciplines in order to make a broader point. For instance, an economist need not talk only of supply and demand in, say, rare metals; he or she can talk about the social impact of their scarcity in the marketplace (essential for converters on cars with environmental concerns if unavailable). He paints with a broad brush, as well he should. We do not live in a vacuum; we live in a very inter-connected world, especially with globalization. Economists who write should reflect this reality, and he does so in superb fashion.

No one asked me for a book jacket endorsement of this book, and for good reason. I did not pursue any further degrees in economics beyond my undergraduate degree, opting instead to go to law school. I have won no Nobels or Pulitizers, but I do claim some ability to pick out important topical works at the intersection of economics with law (public policy), especially as such confluence may decide the future of this country and the people in it. This is one such work. I recommend it as a must-read.

I am inspired by the reading of Stiglitz’s ‘The Price of Inequality’ and his brilliant insights and recommendations generously spread throughout its pages. Thus inspired, I will be writing more on the current scene through the prism of his insights and outlooks, and impatiently awaiting the next book from this brilliant intellect, a book I will buy oblivious to commentaries on its jacket. GERALD  E


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