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The Conscience of A Liberal by Paul Krugman (Norton). Here is that rarest of policy tomes—an unabashedly liberal manifesto that addresses the problem of economic inequality without proposing a protectionist solution. Krugman is best known for his op-ed column in the New York Times (previously he was a Slate columnist). But he is also a Princeton economist, and this book, though not remotely an academic work, is informed by his expertise. Krugman's most provocative argument is that globalization and ever-more-efficient market capitalism can't fully explain our increasingly winner-take-all economy, since inequality is a significantly greater problem in the United States than it is in other wealthy countries subject to the same economic forces. Rather, it is government policies and the societal ethic they encourage that have widened the gap between rich and poor.
Tracing U.S. history over the past century, Krugman finds that the economic inequality of the late 19th century's Gilded Age—the robber barons' heyday—held fast until Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, only to return after Ronald Reagan became president in 1980. That might seem intuitively true to political activists, but the standard wonk view (heretofore embraced by me) is that government can affect economic behavior only at the margins. Krugman, though, cites strong academic evidence to argue that the right's political ascendancy hasn't reinforced inequality in the United States so much as it's created it. Rather than offer the usual laundry list of policy solutions typically found in whither-liberalism treatises, Krugman offers one: national health care. His discussion of health-care reform, essentially an expanded and updated version of a superb essay that Krugman and his wife, Robin Wells, published last year in the New York Review of Books, makes the most concise and persuasive case for a single-payer solution that I've ever seen.—Timothy Noah
Chic Ironic Bitterness by R. Jay Magill Jr. (University of Michigan). One of the many perks of working at Slate—besides free lighting—are the bound galleys that publishers send for review. Books that would normally be encountered in the musty back rooms of a university bookstore are available fresh from their padded envelopes. Chic Ironic Bitterness caught my eye with its perfect title. The I-word has been sullied and made annoying by misuse, and it's also a quivering, inchoate concept. Magill deftly delineates the philosophic antecedents that have led to our present conception of irony, and takes the more difficult step of describing the societal effects that a widely adopted ironic viewpoint produces. To wit: "A culture falsely enthusiastic over the trivial is ironically expressing the dead energy of a loftier political ideology." The author's self-deprecating style befits his subject, and he demonstrates, with flair, that Generation X did not invent detachment. Hearken to the words of Walt Whitman in 1866: "The men believe not in the women, nor women in the men … and the aim of the litterateurs is to find something to make fun of. … Genuine belief has left us." Sounds like Gawker to me.— Michael Agger