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The Zero-sum Society Distribution And The Possibilities For Economic Change Paperback – April 10, 2001

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; New edition edition (April 10, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465085881
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465085880
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,516,312 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"An extraordinarily good and lucid examination of current economic difficulties." -- John Kenneth Galbraith, The New York Review of Books

About the Author

Lester Thurow has been professor of management and economics at MIT for more than thirty years. A Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University, he taught at Harvard from 1966 to 1968 after a term as a staff economist on President Lyndon Johnson's Council of Economic Advisers. In addition to writing several books, three of them New York Times best sellers, he has served on the Editorial Board of the New York Times, as a contributing editor of Newsweek, and as a member of Time magazine's Board of Economists.

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Customer Reviews

2.7 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Jane Pek on October 27, 2000
Format: Paperback
This was one of the most readable non-fiction books I've ever come across. It's written in clear effective English and makes its point (mainly through repetition) very well.
Thurow has one basic idea - that the American economy was paralysed in the 1970s because of the variety of groups (upper-class versus lower-class, blacks versus whites, industrial versus agricultural etc.) with conflicting interests that made it impossible for the government to undertake effective policies. As such, this book seems pretty commonsensical and hardly revolutionary nor particularly enlightening. Thurow takes us through the various economic problems that the US faced at the time to show how this is the case.
This problem appears to be the combined flaw of democracy - that people have a say in how the country is run - although he didn't explore that; and capitalism - the doctrine of self-interest. The groups all want to protect themselves. This means that any change will inevitably be vetoed/subject to prolonged protest by at least one group - namely, the group that will have to suffer (by seeing their incomes decline) so that the rest of the economy can benefit. This shows up in the protection of inefficient industries such as steel and textiles, the unwillingness to impose strict income and price controls etc. In effect, the economy will continue to stay stagnant until certain groups are imposed on for the sake of everyone else.
He also makes the interesting case that inflation was not really a problem, backing this up with statistics that show that the average American's standard of living rose; and income differences didn't widen. Rather, it was a matter of perception and psychology.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By M.N.JAM on August 15, 2013
Format: Paperback
Thurow's Zero Sum Society is a classic, one of the few books written about the contemporary US over the past thirty years or so that was and is worth reading. Two others are Olsen's Rise and Decline of Nations and Lasch's Culture of Narcissism. The three, which can and should be read together, are prophetic of what has happened since they were published (1980-82). If the Thurow's views seem commonplace, it has because they have penetrated the thinking of many. Carping about whether Thurow is properly using game theoretic terminology is irrelevant to the core thesis of the book, which is that the US is simply not adapting to the global order it did so much to promote in the aftermath of WWII.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By J. Davis on October 4, 2013
Format: Paperback
The ZSS was one of the most valuable and insightful economic books ever written, and it is well worth reading even today. Thurow, a brilliant man and an excellent writer, combines (as I see it) philosophy and economics brilliantly in this classic. The most important part of the book--not to diminish many other important features--was his lucid explanation of why political activity is usually zero-sum (people's gain from a government action is accompanied by losses for many others).

Although written in 1980, this concept remains just as valid today. Just take the current debate over the health insurance law. Many people (correctly)complain that it will hurt them, while many others (also correctly) praise it for helping them. If this concept was understood by the masses, it would lead to a more constructive dialogue today. Regrettably, people want laws passed that help them without hurting anyone else, and that simply isn't possible.

Thurow is known as a liberal, but I would argue he's really a very reasonable moderate or centrist. He makes compelling arguments against the corporate income tax and antitrust laws that liberals should read carefully. He also makes strong arguments for government involvement in the economy that conservatives should read carefully. Anyone who wants a deep understanding of economics and politics should read this classic. My only complaint with him is that he hasn't published an update of ZSS. It would be worthwhile to the American public to discuss some more recent economic events within the book's context.
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