Customer Reviews: The Commanding Heights : The Battle for the World Economy
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on August 9, 2004
"The Commanding Heights" is well written and offers a very good historical overview of the economics of the middle and late 20th Century. There are wonderful historcal explanations of the rise of socialism in the west and communism in the east as well as the two grand economic schools in the west which were the products of John Maynard Keynes and Frederich Von Hayek. From this point the authors go on to give some form and explanation of globalization and the benefits and negative fallouts that are associated with it.

As a whole the book is absolutely worth reading, however keep in mind that the writers develope a certain point of view. The reader is left with the impression that after the free market revolutions of the 1980s Keynes was put to flight and it is obvious that what we need are even more open markets and that this is the solution to all the world's problems. Keep in mind that there are some goods and services that the market simply cannot deliver and like most cycles in history this debate is probably not settled.

As for their explanations on globalization they are pretty much on the mark. Obviously free markets are what is needed in most parts of the world and the move towards them will absolutely make the world a better place in the LONG run, but maybe a much less agreeable place in the short.

There are numerous supplements that I would recommend with this book, but I won't list them here. Make this a part of your journey to understand the wider world, but do not make the mistake of thinking this is the final answer. There is much more to learn and understand than this book offers. Great place to start however.
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The second half of the 20th century was marked by the ebb and flow of government influence over national and international economies. Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw characterize the balance between government and private marketplace clout as a battle for the commanding heights of the economy. They trace this fight back to the years after World War II, where they discover that capitalism had been widely discredited and governments were basking in the glow of wartime victory. With descriptions of the catalytic people and events that moved markets and policy, Yergin and Stanislaw have turned an essentially academic topic into a readable book, which is as much about economics as it is about history. As engaging as the stories are, don't assume you're in for a light read. Many business books today have plenty of sizzle, but not much steak. We at getAbstract recommend that you sink your teeth into this big, juicy T-bone of a book, a rare treat for intellectual readers searching for economic adventure and substantive history.
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on December 26, 2002
As an Easterner, I could not understand the impact of F. Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom" on economic development when I first read that book. Fortunately, "The Commanding Heights" provides me with the answer - Planned economy becomes the mainstream of Western societies after World War II and the system had brought these countries economic prosperity for several decades. There was a danger that the policy makers would think the system is a " cure-all" medicine. Free marketers such as Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman had to battle under that tough environment. Hayek's work however opens up the mind of Mrs. Thatcher and provides the foundation for the Renaissance of individualism.
"The Commanding Heights" is a book of economic history after World War II. The book covers the economic transformation of regions or countries such as U.S.A., Western Europe, Central Europe, Britain, China, India, Latin America and Southeast Asia. The background and achievement of key politicans and economists are also contained extensively. The messages of the books are clear - Free market economic system is better than planned economy and government's role should be shifted from market player to referee.
While I agree that the book is highly readable, some pieces are missing, still. Readers cannot find story of developed African countries such as South Africa and Egypt. If you want to know the economic history of the Middle East, you must be prepared to be disappointed. In addition, as the book is descriptive in nature, in-depth analysis on why centrally planning suddenly turns sour is lacking. These are my reasons that the book is rated as a four-star instead of five-star publication.
In all, the authors have done a tremendous job in the subject. This book should be short-listed as one of the textbooks for students studying economics or history.
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on July 24, 2003
Don't be scared, Commanding Heights, in every sense, is a lively yet informative economics book. A text for everyone, from the main street person to Milton Friedman
The writers, Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw, are both players of the business world, and Ph.D. holders (Yergin's from Cambridge University, where he was Marshall Scholar, and Stanislaw holds a Ph.D. from Edinburgh University). Furthermore, Yergin's book "The Prize" was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. One could only expect a dry, scholarly frightening work from the two, but, surprisingly, Commanding Heights is anything but intimidating.
This is a very good introduction to 20th century's economic plans and philosophies- from Gandhi's "swadeshi" to Thatcherism of the late 1970s and 80s to the 'global economy' of the 90s and present.
The book's treatment of Thatcher and Thatcherism is very good and readable, and almost enlightening. The portrayal of Margaret Thatcher is illuminating, if not flattering for the subject. The Thatcher of the book is not the evil witch of left-wing politics, but that of a hard-working, decent and uncompromising woman from a lower middle class background. Her (political) partnership with Joseph Keith and her devotion to Keith's plan is intriguing, and her David-and-Goliath battles with the 'establishment' is inspirational. ("I am the rebel head of an establishment government" she once boasted). Keynesians beware- this book might turn you into a Thatcherite!
Another highlight is the book's treatment of Latin America's economic dogmas and policies. Here, Chapter Nine of the book, it reads like a dark, compelling, political thriller authored by Vargas Llosa (Not surprisingly, Llosa's name appears in this book). Like the rest of the book, this chapter is highly fascinating and lively.
With great clarity and intelligence, this is a highly recommended 'big' book. A great companion as we face a new century. READ IT!
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on January 18, 1998
Daniel Yergin provides the reader extraordinary insight into contemporary globalization. In a masterful, sweeping work that encompasses economic and social history of the post-war era, Yergin (who won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Prize," his study of the oil industry) and his co-author Joseph Stanislaw help us understand how economies around the world, but especially in the third world, are abandoning the old faith in big government and are embracing the marketplace. But Yergin and Stanislaw also warn that the marketplace -- laissez-faire -- is fraught with perils for countries that don't have sound governance and indigenous institutions and entrepreneurs who are able to function responsibly in an increasingly interdependent world. I found the book's analysis particularly lucid; the chronology at the end, which details the evolution of economic theory as well as cites political trends, should be especially useful to students. This is a book I'd recommend highly for laymen and scholars alike.
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on August 25, 2005
The Commanding Heights tells the fascinating history of the past century through economics. Starting with the reconstruction after the world wars, the rise of communism, socialism, and the economic slump of the 1970's through the rise of globalization and laissez-faire economics in the 1980's and 1990's.

The book is, without a doubt, the product of a particular time, and a particular point of view. In the late nineties, it seemed as though everything was going in the right direction, pretty much the world over. Even though this the book was revised post 9-11, it still retains the feeling that all roads lead inevitably to the free market and prosperity is the inevitable result. I wouldn't call the book one-sided, but the rise of the free market is definitely the theme.

I was left with a couple of questions unanswered by the book. The book describes the dominance of Keynesian economics (heavy government involvement) in the decades after WW2 and describes the descent of state-owned industry into stagnancy and inefficiency. Keynesian economics rebuilt Europe and Japan and delivered prosperity throughout the 50's and 60's. The failure of statist economics in the 1970's is well described in the book, but why did it work so well during the earlier decades?

Also, the Great Depression and its causes are only touched upon. The fear of market failures motivated the move to Keynesian state control of the economy. The decades before WWI were the last period of ascendency of capitalism and free trade and something went wrong. What went wrong and are we at risk of repeating the same mistakes?

That said, this is one of the most interesting books I've read this year. The political and economic developments in the news make so much more sense with the context of recent history. If you want to understand one of the most vital components of how the world works, the Commanding Heights is a great place to start.
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on April 26, 2000
This book should have gotten five stars without a doubt. It's very readable; the author doesn't fall into the temptation of inventing new "-isms" as so many academics do. The content is extremely accurate and very well documented, with viewpoints from major historical players. Why not five stars? First, it did get a little repetitive and by the time I got to South America, the chapter seemed very predictable (let me guess, they cut spending and taxes and privatised, restricted monetary supply and killed off the evil hyperinflation dragon and everybody lived employed ever after). Second, instead of constantly giving concrete examples, the author could have examined the theoretical debates that pit free-marketeers and Keynesians against one another. The downside of free markets, both globally and domestically is not examined, despite the fact that the argumentative ammunition to bring down anti-market theories is abundant. Finally, I thought Daniel Yergin generalised a little too often when examining economic remedies. The dismal science is known as such because general assumptions in the real economic world are virtually impossible.
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on January 13, 2000
I was disappointed by this book, but then my expectations were very high after reading Yergin's earlier work on the history of the oil industry (5 stars!). Early on, the authors present us with a historical dilemna: the post World War II nations are distrustful of market economies and experiencing prosperity under centralized, planned economies. Yet market economies take over in a matter of decades. The authors use the strategy of a broad, global view to explain why and how -- with most of the emphasis on how. As a result, the reading is quite repetetive. The thesis is clear: market economies work best. There is almost no discussion on the limitations of market economies -- or of their social consequences. Worse, for those like myself with no background in economics, the implications of the emerging global free-market economy is virtually untouched. My advice... read "The Prize".
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on July 4, 2004
In Carl Sagan's "Contact," the unknown entity encountered by Arroway after her journey into the wormhole delivers a scathing critique of the human condition, and goes on to express his concern about Earth's "astonishingly backward economic systems." "Commanding Heights" is a comprehensive account of those "backward" economic systems and chronicles the seemingly amaranthine battle between governments and the marketplace for control of the most important elements of the global economy. The discussion centers on the economic events of the second half of the twentieth century, sandwiched between the establishment of the British welfare state at the conclusion of the Second World War and the Asian financial contagion unfolding at the time of the book's publication.
The theme of "Commanding Heights" is the superiority of resource allocation via free markets vis-à-vis resource allocation by means of government control of strategic business undertakings. Along this free market-government control continuum, there are three fundamental, ideological positions concerning the workings of an economy: economic totalitarianism, strategic intervention, and non-interventionism. Given this backdrop, the second half of the twentieth century is depicted as a colossal experiment in wealth creation and redistribution. Advocates of neoclassical economics such as Friedrich von Hayek pitted their ideas against Keynesians and supporters of the command-and-control system.
World War II and its concomitant cost in human lives and shattered economic potential served as the catalyst for a remaking of the global economic order. Policymakers and politicians began questioning the effectiveness of a purely laissez-faire market system in mitigating the impact of macroeconomic failures and in addressing the issues of equity, poverty, and unemployment. Keynes provided a blueprint for the emergence of the so-called mixed economy, advocating government intervention through fiscal and monetary measures. Nationalization of strategic industries, central planning, and direct regulation were some of the tools made available to administrators.
By the time of the oil shocks of the 1970s, it became increasingly clear that this system of state control over essential economic activities was ill-equipped to deal with market shocks, and that regulatory capture rendered direct government supervision of natural monopolies and fundamental services ineffective and untenable. At the end of the 1980s, concerns about market failure started to give way to belief in the superiority of the market in allocating resources and ensuring that economic actors adhere to the principles of equity and fair play. Government began to take a back seat from managing the commanding heights of the economy, and privatization, deregulation, and liberalization became the norm.
The authors are unabashedly in favor of laissez-faire economics; this is shown by the recounting of recent economic history as a set of multifarious journeys undertaken by various countries that nearly invariably leads to the adoption of neoclassical economics as the sole logical solution to the ills caused by big government.
Ultimately, whether the experiment with `enlightened' free enterprise and the continuing retreat of government will succeed or not in the long term will depend on a host of factors, such as: (1) is the pursuit of pure profit by erstwhile government-owned entities detrimental to public welfare? (2) will liberalization ensure a fair distribution of wealth? (3) does internationally mobile capital impinge on national sovereignty? (4) is the marketplace inherently superior in price determination, especially in the short term? and (5) will the "balance of confidence" turn out to be in favor of free markets?
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on November 17, 2006
This book was rather fun to read but I am not convinced that the authors have as deep an understanding of the phenomena they are writing about as they would like the readers to believe. The book reads like a narrative, full of assertions that are not backed by rigorous analysis of hard evidence. The authors do not critically explore causal relationships, nor do they talk about research that has done so. They present only one particular perspective on the unfolding of events, and they do not defend this perspective against potential criticism.

My experience with economics has always reinforced the idea that causality can be difficult to establish, and can often operate in unexpected ways. An economist must proceed skeptically, being careful to explore alternative explanations and being prepared to defend assertions with theory and data. The authors do not seem to share this view, taking instead a more naive approach.

Maybe I was expecting too much; after all this book is meant to be accessible to non-economists. However, making a book more accessible does not necessitate a lack of rigour or the absence of critical thought; the authors could have removed some of the redundancy in the book (their writing is far from concise!) and replaced it with explorations of alternative perspectives. The book would be greatly enriched by adding more discussion of research that supports (or opposes) their views.
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