Book Reviews

The Critics

For too long progressive politicians have struggled to manage the trade-off between the politics of production and distribution. Their sterile intra-party battles have centered around the mistaken belief that you must choose between productivity and equity: that more of one leads to less of the other.  Read the full review.


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.

Publishers Weekly

Sperling (The Pro-Growth Progressive), former director of the National Economic Council under presidents Clinton and Obama, makes a well-reasoned and informative case for market reforms that would allow people to “car[e] for family without economic deprivation or desperation”; “pursue potential and a sense of purpose”; and “meaningfully participate in the economy with respect, not domination and humiliation.” After identifying challenges to economic dignity in America, including the links between racism and poverty and flaws in the criminal justice system, Sperling outlines possible solutions, such as creating green jobs, introducing a universal basic income for “dislocated workers [who] are trying to rise,” and increasing support for full-time caregivers. He also discusses the need to address shortcomings in contract workers’ benefits and rights, and to amend the current Social Security system. Sperling critiques conservatives for paying “lip service” to the working class while voting against measures that would improve their lives, such as minimum wage increases and child-care subsidies; advocates for increased government spending; and defends the merits of a well-regulated free market. Though Sperling tends to belabor his points, he successfully bridges the gap between writing for a lay audience and persuading policy wonks. This balanced and authoritative take shows how to work within the system to produce meaningful change.