Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? (And Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries)

Jared Bernstein, "Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? (And Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries)"
Berrett-Koehler Publishers | 2008 | ISBN: 1576754774 | 225 pages | PDF | 1,2 MB

Is Social Security really going bust, and what does that mean to me? If I hire an immigrant, am I hurting a native-born worker? How much can presidents really affect economic outcomes? Why does the stock market go up when employment declines? What's a "living wage?" Why do I feel so squeezed?

If you'd like to know the answers to these questions, premier economist Jared Bernstein is here to help. In Crunch he answers these as well as dozens of others he has fielded from working Americans by email, on blogs, and at events where he speaks. Chances are if there's a stumper you've always wanted to ask an economist, it's solved in this book.

Summary: Economic analysis for everyone
Rating: 5

This is a fantastic book. It is written for a layperson audience - an aim towards which it is extremely successful. The aim of the book is for the author to provide answers, and accessible analysis, to common socioeconomic questions of typical American citizens. For example, how to fix the health-care system and social security; how to explain the salaries of CEOs; why inequality in America increased; why minimum wage does not necessarily hurt the macroeconomy; why so many Americans feel financially and economically "squeezed" in their daily lives. There are also several more esoteric topics, such as the Federal Reserve System, the living wage, budget deficits, etc.

There are roughly 50 plus short articles, typically of two to six pages. The book is divided into five chapters. The book can easily be used as a type of reference for various economic issues and topics. Readers should be warned that Bernstein's economic analysis is not always conventional, nor necessarily widely shared by most economists, or found in typical economic textbooks. His approach is purposefully traditional with respect to the consideration of "opportunity costs" and trade-offs of various economic policies. He is also traditionally in his emphasis toward the importance of economic statistics. He is less traditional in that he believes that economics is not purely scientific, but substantially normative and political.

Politically Bernstein makes quite clear he supports a progressive agenda. This is most clear in chapter 5 where he articulates a political agenda toward American working families, income inequality, health-care, immigration, education, and globalization. The book emphasizes in the early pages that he has a "political economist" orientation toward social analysis. This means he believes power (especially political power, economic wealth, and socio-cultural prejudices) makes a difference in the competitive outcomes of economic activity. Surely this will turn off many potential readers. At the same time it is a great strength of Bernstein's book that he has provided very simply, clear, and short political economy analyses of everyday socioeconomic phenomena. Too often political economists spend far too much time trying to explain methodological and philosophical differences between their approach and neo-classical, i.e. mainstream, textbook analysis. Bernstein cuts to the chase. In this sense, Bernstein's book is a great contrastive complement to a mainstream principle economic textbook.

Bernstein's book provides many alternative analyses, which should deepen our understanding of social phenomena; not because Bernstein always has it right, but because his book forces the reader to think more deeply about social problems in a contrastive way to mainstream economic models such as supply and demand. He is always attempting to explain real statistics and data that confront us. When mainstream theory proves inadequate Bernstein does not hesitate to consider political power, wealth, and cultural prejudices as part of the explanation.

Bernstein's approach is highly inductive, very much in the tradition of the American institutionalist tradition of economists. Many readers will find this highly refreshing, especially if they received a dogmatically deductive approach in their economic classroom experience. Bernstein deals with the real world and real world problems.

Bernstein is the codirector of research at the Economic Policy Institute and coauthor of the biannual publication of "The State of Working America". "The State of Working America" is a wealth of socioeconomic data. Although this biannual book provides some of the best and most interesting statistics on American households and for national trends, it is not necessarily reader friendly. "Crunch" offers non-statistical access to the basic data "The State of Working America" complies. This is a most important contribution.

In "Crunch" Bernstein's encyclopedic knowledge of socioeconomic statistics and trends has met and informed a great populist writer. This book deserves a wide audience and careful scrutiny of his claims and analysis.

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