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The Trouble with Government Hardcover – March 1, 2001


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In The State of the Nation, published in 1996, Harvard President Emeritus Bok compared America's progress in 17 different fields over the past 40 years to the progress of six other advanced industrial democracies. This companion volume seeks to explain and propose remedies for government failings that affect the wide range of areas in which America lags. Bok first considers and largely rejects common diagnoses of what ails American government--politicians and parties, the media and special interests--then proposes his own theory of the four basic weaknesses that afflict this country: poorly designed legislation, burdensome regulation, the neglect of working-class interests and failed antipoverty policies. Three chapters examine and perceptively criticize widely proposed antidotes, before considering solutions specifically targeting the four basic weaknesses. Despite the short shrift given some arguments, Bok's reasoning is generally persuasive, impressively informed and deft at unearthing root causes behind supposed sources of distress. He's especially convincing in tracing regulatory dysfunction to our adversarial, individualistic culture, fragmented government and lack of broadly inclusive organizations representing business, labor and other relevant interest groups. But while the relative successes of certain social democracies justifies his inquiry, Bok shuns any systematic examination of those nations' achievements or of how they might be adapted. He runs out of steam pondering remedies with an individualist focus that seem more symptom than cure--a disappointing conclusion to an illuminating, vitally important quest.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

The one American institution as notoriously difficult to manage as our federal government might be Harvard University, which gives Harvard's president emeritus standing to analyze why the government does not govern better than it does. In his previous book, The State of the Nation, Bok compared the United States with other industrialized democracies in areas such as the economy, environment, and education and found a mixed picture of success and want. Here he looks at why our laws and regulations are often badly designed and executed, why other nations surpass us in creating opportunities and safeguards for low-income citizens, and how we might improve. Examining hundreds of remedies, he concludes that policy is less the culprit than "causes deeply rooted in our institutions, our political system, and even our culture," with public apathy more than public officials largely at blame. The ambition and scope of this book are its strength as well as weakness. Readers will hardly find its match as an accessible and fair summary of current policy and institutional questions. Yet when Bok is done weighing one proposal against another, against yet another, only the resolute will still be with him. Even so, this is a book for nearly every library. Robert F. Nardini, Chichester, NH
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 507 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (March 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674004485
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674004481
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,383,311 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

2.6 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Jerry Nechal on August 5, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This book's title immediately caught my attention. Currently many of us are not totally enamored with the present state of affairs in both the federal government and national politics. After completing the book, I am convinced that its title is somewhat misleading. Bok ultimately is not totally persuasive in that the real source is "Trouble With Government;" but instead his major conclusion is that the trouble is with us, the U.S. electorate.
Bok, Harvard President Emeritus, presents a very well researched and articulated analysis of the shortcomings of present day government. However, if you looking for highly entertaining big-ticket recommendations on how to improve government, you will not find them here. Instead, the book seems directed toward the more informed student of government and politics, who is seeking a comprehensive and well thought out analysis.
I found Bok's more academic approach and style in sharp contrast to Robert Reich's recent work, The Future of Success, which is an analysis of our current economy. In the latter, Reich is more entertaining and captivating with perhaps more mass appeal. Bok's style, on the other hand, is more intellectual and ultimately attractive to the political or social scientist type.
The Trouble With Government is Bok's companion volume to the State of the Nation, which was published in 1996. He begins with an empirical analysis, which shows the U.S. lagging behind other advanced democracies in several key quality of life indicators. In his search for the cause of these shortcomings, he first looks at the "usual suspects," which are politicians, political parties, the media and special interests.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Reader on December 28, 2010
Format: Paperback
This book provides a comprehensive and well-documented analysis of the primary reasons for our government's many failings. The upside is that the book is painstakingly evenhanded and non-partisan. The downside is that every chapter seems to end in a frustrating stalemate between two or more opposing policy positions that have equal merit (or that lack merit equally). This book is sort of an annotated restatement of Churchill's assertion that democracy, though a terrible form of government, is still better than any of the alternatives. I don't blame the author for democracy's shortcomings. His title, after all, is The Trouble with Government, not The Solution for Government.
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful By y b on February 10, 2013
Format: Paperback
Don't worry, I borrowed this book from the Library and wouldn't have wasted a cent on it even before I read it. Now that I have, I can authoritatively inform you that it is full of meaningless Liberal drivel. Its only redeeming value is that it is a somewhat entertaining read through the benefit of hindsight.
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1 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 8, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Author ignores heterogeneous nature of the US, both geographically and ethnicly, comparing the US to smaller and less populous democracies elsewhere. He also fudges the poverty level concept: whereas senior citizen households are almost entirely composed of one or two people, households below the poiverty level which include children show three, four or more persons trying to live on an income sufficient ONLY for one or two, and alleviating this siituation (voluntary on the part of the parents) would only condemn future generations to bare existence levels by encouraging this prolific breeding by those who cannot adequately support their offspring. He also does not give due weight to the immigration (legal or illegal) of millions of workers qualified only for manual labor, which depresses the wage levels at the low end; he should observe the day labor lineups which occur in all of our metropolitan areas, to realize that these people just do not work every day and it is impossible to sustain a family on such work. An oversupply!
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9 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Bastian on September 3, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Nearly every page of this book exudes this ivory-tower academic's desire for more socialism. In effect, his solution to "the trouble with government" is more government, higher taxes, more support and loyal allegiance from the proletariat, and less personal liberty and freedom.
He praises professional politicians, impressed at how well informed they are about issues near and dear to his heart. (No wonder; the issues near and dear to Mr. Bok's heart involve big government programs, socialistic wealth redistribution, and grand societal architectural schemes that are near and dear to every power-loving politician.)
Bok never questions the basic premise that we need big government. He claims that as we have come to depend on the State to meet so many of our needs, our welfare depends more than ever on how well our government performs. Wouldn't it be nice to see instead a realistic exploration of how much better off we'd be if we didn't depend on the State to meet so many of our needs; if we had much lower taxes, more money to meet those needs ourselves, more time and money to support charities that can more effectively address societal issues than tired, failed government megaprograms.
Bok acknowledges that government is ubiquitous and involved in every facet of our lives, yet his view of "the trouble with government" isn't that it's too invasive, but that it's not invasive enough and isn't always run by the most effective bureaucrats.
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