InReview – Issue 6

The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us by Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook; New York, Penguin Books, 1995; x, 272 pp.

Robert Frank is an economist on the Cornell University faculty; Philip Cook is professor of public policy at Duke University. The Winner-Take-All-Society is long on solid economic analysis and devoid of any sort of cheap brick throwing at the windows of the super-rich who they are trying to explain. Their argument is that the rapidly growing inequality between the few rich and all the rest is not because the few at the top are that much more talented or bright — they are only marginally better than the second best.

What has changed is the distribution of opportunities and the reward structure. “In effect, the reward structure common in entertainment and sports — where thousands compete for a handful of prizes at the top — has now permeated many other sectors of the economy” (p. viii). Much of this development is at least dependent on, if not driven by, information technology. Information technology facilitates efficiencies of scale that reward, for example, blockbuster movie hits, runaway best selling CDs and books, top-selling automobile models, and so on — and, by comparison, punish smaller, quirkier, regional competitors.

Frank and Cook explore the publishing industry, professional sports, executive compensation, elite educational programs, and other sectors of the economy. In each area they see huge numbers of competitors enter the competition for a very few top prizes of staggering proportions.

They might well have looked at today’s state-sponsored lotteries as a parallel case. One winner gets megamillions while millions of gamblers get nothing for their “investment.” And the masses seem to love it; they keep lining up to give away their money. There is a popular culture generally supportive of this winner-take-all mentality. I have rarely if ever heard any of my Chicago pals speak ill of Michael Jordan’s fabulous financial rewards for playing for the Bulls.

Frank and Cook point out, however, that spreading winner-take-all markets tend to have some negative social costs. They attract too many contestants; we have far too many attorneys because of this phenomenon. Our society, they argue, would on the whole be better if the difference between the super-rich few and the rest was not so great because many talented people would put their efforts into careers that are marginally (instead of massively) less profitable, but perhaps more fulfilling personally and more beneficial socially. Their argument is social ethical rather than personal ethical, i.e., it is not the classical argument about the “deadly sin” of greed or the “love of money is the root of all evil,” but rather that society as a whole would be better, healthier, more peaceful and just, if the gap between rich and poor were not so great, if our economic system did not so encourage winner-take-all conditions.

Frank and Cook have several tax and regulatory strategies to propose, some of them inspired by the counter-examples of our German and Japanese competitors. They prefer a consumption tax rather than trying to increase income taxes, for example. They do not believe that a centralized socialistic approach can work; but they also do not believe that an unfettered winner-take-all system will serve us best in the long run. This is a very thoughtful, troubling, and important book.

Reviewed by David W. Gill

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The Practice of Technology: Exploring Technology, Ecophilosophy, and Spiritual Disciplines for Vital Links by Alan Drengson; Albany NY, SUNY Press, 1995; viii, 218 pp.

Alan Drengson is a philosophy professor at the University of Victoria (British Columbia), and author of several books. Drengson’s thought is philosophically deep and expressed with clarity; he presents a rationally compelling argument that manages to be poetic and inspirational at the same time. His point of departure is that we have an environmental crisis (pollution, depletion, etc.) at the heart of which “lie the technology practices of the West, with their associated technocratic worldview” (p.2). Among the elements of this worldview and these practices are the quest for “power-over” control and the division of persons into parts and the world into fragments. Drengson tries to steer us toward a technology that is holistic, wise, and in harmony with the environment.

Drengson makes his case with grace and insight. An insistent voice in the background, however, keeps chanting “naive” and “utopian” in my ear! Perhaps some grand — or gradual — catastrophe will one day drive our technology leaders to embrace Drengson’s ecosophical perspective. Perhaps there will be a growing movement in our universities to insist that students engage with the human, spiritual, and ecological dimensions of their work. Perhaps some of our religious communities will explore the implications of their faith for all of life and work. In the meantime, however, the demands of short-term-profit-oriented business and highly-specialized, all-absorbing technological study and work are likely to frustrate any near-term transition to Drengson’s vision of appropriate-ecosophic technology.

Reviewed by David W. Gill

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Data Smog by David Shenk; San Francisco, Harper, 1997; 256 pp.

David Shenk’s warnings on the ‘glut of information’ in our age are both credible and constructive. Unlike other books with this general theme, Shenk is neither anti-technology nor one who merely longs for a simpler life. He likens the onslaught of information we receive to an over abundance of calories or pesticides. There is a point where the benefits are outweighed by the toxic side effects. Using example after carefully researched example, Shenk builds the case for the law of diminishing returns for information.

Knowing stock market numbers by the minute is possible, but it also confuses the bigger picture, which is more important. Too much information has masked understanding in the political decision making process. Speed in communication actually can lead to poor decision making with lots of data and little understanding.

Other authors have come this far. What Shenk adds starting in chapter 17 is a series of suggestions for what to do about the issue. The first step is awareness: more information is not always better. Shenk gives a series of constructive ideas for individuals, businesses and government dealing with information glut.

Information technology enthusiasts in particular should read this book. If it only serves to create a bit of caution or refocus their thinking on the role of information, it will have accomplished a great deal.

Reviewed by Al Erisman