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Review Essay

The Dismal Kingdom

Do Economists Have Too Much Power?

In This Review

The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society
The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society
By Binyamin Appelbaum
Little, Brown, 2019, 448 pp. Purchase
Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream
Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream
By Nicholas Lemann
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019, 320 pp. Purchase

Over the past 60 years, the United States has run what amounts to a natural experiment designed to answer a simple question: What happens when a government starts conducting its business in the foreign language of economists? After 1960, anyone who wanted to discuss almost any aspect of U.S. public policy—from how to make cars safer to whether to abolish the draft, from how to support the housing market to whether to regulate the financial sector—had to speak economics. Economists, the thinking went, promised expertise and fact-based analysis. They would bring scientific precision and rigor to government interventions.

For a while, this approach seemed a sure bet for steady progress. But several decades on, the picture is less encouraging. Consider, for example, the most basic quantitative indicator of well-being: the average length of a life. For much of the last century, life expectancy in the United States increased roughly

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