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Boston Review Books

Boston Review Books are accessible, short books that take ideas seriously. They are animated by hope, committed to equality, and convinced that the imagination eludes political categories. The editors aim to establish a public space in which people can loosen the hold of conventional preconceptions and start to reason together across the lines others are so busily drawing.

In order to control climate change, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that greenhouse gas emissions will need to fall by about forty percent by 2030.

The promise of America has long been conceived as the promise of happiness. Being American is all about the opportunity to pursue one’s own bliss. But what is the good life, and are we getting closer to its attainment? In the cacophony of competing conceptions of the good, technological interventions that claim to help us achieve it, and rancorous debate over government’s role in securing it for us, every step toward happiness seems to come with at least one step back.

Pamela S. Karlan is a unique figure in American law. A professor at Stanford Law School and former counsel for the NAACP, she has argued seven cases at the Supreme Court and worked on dozens more as a clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun. In her first book written for a general audience, she examines what happens in American courtrooms—especially the Supreme Court—and what it means for our everyday lives and to our national commitments to democracy, justice, and fairness.

The United States is on the brink of intervention in Syria, but the effect of any eventual American action is impossible to predict. The Syrian conflict has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions, yet most observers warn that the worst is still to come. And the international community cannot agree how respond to this humanitarian catastrophe. World leaders have repeatedly resolved not to let atrocities happen in plain view, but the legacy of the bloody and costly intervention in Iraq has left policymakers with little appetite for more military operations.

Climate engineering—which could slow the pace of global warming by injecting reflective particles into the upper atmosphere—has emerged in recent years as an extremely controversial technology. And for good reason: it carries unknown risks and it may undermine commitments to conserving energy. Some critics also view it as an immoral human breach of the natural world. The latter objection, David Keith argues in A Scientist’s Case for Climate Engineering, is groundless; we have been using technology to alter our environment for years.

In Giving Kids a Fair Chance, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman argues that the accident of birth is the greatest source of inequality in America today. Children born into disadvantage are, by the time they start kindergarten, already at risk of dropping out of school, teen pregnancy, crime, and a lifetime of low-wage work. This is bad for all those born into disadvantage and bad for American society.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has ignited new questions about the relationship between democracy and equality in the United States. Are we also entering a moment in history in which the disjuncture between our principles and our institutions is cast into especially sharp relief? Do new developments--most notably the rise of extreme inequality--offer new threats to the realization of our most cherished principles? Can we build an open, democratic, and successful movement to realize our ideals? Occupy the Future offers informed and opinionated essays that address these questions.

The vast majority of scientists agree that human activity has significantly increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere--most dramatically since the 1970s. Yet global warming skeptics and ill-informed elected officials continue to dismiss this broad scientific consensus.

“Buy local,” “buy green,” “buy organic,” “fair trade”--how effective has the ethical consumption movement been in changing market behavior? Can consumers create fair and sustainable supply chains by shopping selectively?

Full employment used to be an explicit goal of economic policy in most of the industrialized world. Some countries even achieved it. In Back to Full Employment, economist Robert Pollin argues that the United States--today faced with its highest level of unemployment since the Great Depression--should put full employment back on the agenda.

In the United States and in Europe, politicians, activists, and even some scholars argue that Islam is incompatible with Western values and that we put ourselves at risk if we believe that Muslim immigrants can integrate into our society. Norway’s Anders Behring Breivik took this argument to its extreme and murderous conclusion in July 2011. Meanwhile in the United States, state legislatures’ efforts to ban the practice of Islamic law, or sharia, are gathering steam--despite a notable lack of evidence that sharia poses any real threat.

The Tea Party and its allies celebrate the rogue states of the Southwest as a model for the nation in their go-it-alone posturing and tough immigration-enforcement talk. In Border Wars, dogged investigative journalist Tom Barry documents the costs of that model: lives lost; families torn apart; billions of wasted tax dollars; vigilantes prowling the desert; and fiscal crises in cities, counties, and states. Even worse, he warns, the entire nation risks following their lead.

As New York State Attorney General from 1998 to 2006, Eliot Spitzer successfully pursued corporate crime, including stock price inflation, securities fraud, and predatory lending practices. Drawing on those experiences, in this book Spitzer considers when and how the government should intervene in the workings of the market.

Global momentum is building to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So far, so good. The less happy news is that Earth’s temperatures will continue to rise for decades. And evidence shows that climbing temperatures are already having serious consequences for vulnerable people and regions through droughts, extreme weather, and melting glaciers. In this book, climate experts Michael Mastrandrea and Stephen Schneider argue that we need to start adapting to climate change, now.

The Obama administration promises to take on comprehensive immigration reform in 2010, setting policymakers to work on legislation that might give the approximately eleven million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States a path to legalization of status. Commentators have been quick to observe that any such proposal will face intense opposition. Few issues have so divided the country in recent years as immigration. Immigrants and the Right to Stay brings the debate into the realm of public reason.

There is nothing wrong with economics, Dean Baker contends, but economists routinely ignore their own principles when it comes to economic policy. What would policy look like if we took basic principles of mainstream economics seriously and applied them consistently? In the debate over regulation, for example, Baker--one of the few economists who predicted the meltdown of fall 2008--points out that ideological blinders have obscured the fact there is no “free market” to protect.

This book is a passionate call for citizen action to uphold the rule of law when government does not. Arguing that post-9/11 legislation and foreign policy severed the executive branch from the will of the people, Elaine Scarry in Rule of Law, Misrule of Men offers a fierce defense of the people’s role as guarantor of our democracy.

Michael Gecan, a longtime community organizer, offers in this book a disturbing conclusion: the kinds of problems that began to afflict large cities in the 1970s have now spread to the suburbs and beyond. The institutional cornerstones of American life are on an extended decline.

Drop something in front of a two-year-old, and she's likely to pick it up for you. This is not a learned behavior, psychologist Michael Tomasello argues. Through observations of young children in experiments he himself has designed, Tomasello shows that children are naturally--and uniquely--cooperative. Put through similar experiments, for example, apes demonstrate the ability to work together and share, but choose not to. As children grow, their almost reflexive desire to help--without expectation of reward--becomes shaped by culture. They become more aware of being a member of a group.

American public history--in magazines and books, television documentaries, and museums--tends to celebrate its subject at all costs, even to the point of denial and distortion. This does us a great disservice, argues William Hogeland in Inventing American History. Looking at details glossed over in three examples of public history--the Alexander Hamilton revival, tributes to Pete Seeger and William F. Buckley, and the Constitution Center in Philadelphia--Hogeland considers what we lose when history is written to conform to political aims.

By the end of the twentieth century, sub-Saharan Africa had experienced twenty-five years of economic and political disaster. While “economic miracles” in China and India raised hundreds of millions from extreme poverty, Africa seemed to have been overtaken by violent conflict and mass destitution, and ranked lowest in the world in just about every economic and social indicator.

The United States, home to five percent of the worlds’ population, now houses twenty-five percent of the world’s prison inmates. Our incarceration rate--at 714 per 100,000 residents and rising--is almost forty percent greater than our nearest competitors (the Bahamas, Belarus, and Russia). More pointedly, it is 6.2 times the Canadian rate and 12.3 times the rate in Japan. Economist Glenn Loury argues that this extraordinary mass incarceration is not a response to rising crime rates or a proud success of social policy.

Vivian Gornick, one of our finest critics, tackled the theme of love and marriage in her last collection of essays, The End of the Novel of Love, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. In this new collection, she turns her attention to another large theme in literature: the struggle for the semblance of inner freedom.

In 2002 Dr. Hans Blix, then chief United Nations weapons inspector, led his team on a search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Before the United States went to war with Iraq the next March, he maintained there were no WMD in Iraq. History proved him right. For more than forty years Dr. Blix has worked on global disarmament, and with this new book he renews the call for nuclear nonproliferation. His interests, though, go beyond stemming the threat of nuclear attack from rogue states and terrorists.

Akbar Ganji, called by some “Iran’s most famous dissident,” was a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. But, troubled by the regime’s repressive nature, he became an investigative journalist in the 1990s, writing for Iran’s pro-democracy newspapers. Most notably, he traced the murders of dissident intellectuals to Iran’s secret service. In 2000 Ganji was arrested, sentenced to six years in prison, and banned from working as a journalist. His eighty-day hunger strike during his last year in prison mobilized the international human rights community.

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