A New Yorker writer explores the seismic changes the United States has undergone in the last generation—particularly when it comes to rising income inequality—examining three remarkable individuals who epitomized and helped create their eras as well as the one we live in now.
Lemann has a skill for making grand stories about American life feel human ... One of the pleasures of this book is its accessible, succinct history of modern finance. He did it in two earlier books, The Promised Land, his 1991 account of the great black migration, and The Big Test, about the SAT and meritocracy, which was published in 1999. Anyone who read those books when they appeared would have been better prepared for some of the political and cultural debates that followed. I suspect the same will be true of Transaction Man, given the present focus on economic inequality and corporate America’s role in creating it.
Transaction Man is recommended to anyone who got through the Great Recession without tackling any books about it. As unnatural as mathematical thinking may feel to the reading classes, the income-gap fault line plus the virtual kudzu of an internet that outstrips comprehension should be enough to convince the stubbornest humanist to watch the numbers, and Lemann provides an entry point ... [there are] fascinating figures who reward Lemann’s honed profiling skills ... As judicious as Lemann strives to be, we know where his heart is, especially given his accounts of three Chicagoans—an unflinchingly ethical white Buick dealer and two much poorer African Americans, a retired working mother and a community activist—victimized by financialization’s social costs ... It’s...hard to know how Lemann imagines pluralism might reassert itself in a post-we-hope transactional USA.
In Transaction Man, Lemann does a fine job of identifying and reporting the various strands of a narrative that he hoped would explain why 'the economy we have now is not doing a good job of generating . . . social trust, political calm, or widely shared prosperity.' But he never succeeds in weaving them together in a convincing, coherent story. The problem is not, as the author suggests, that Berle, Jensen, Hoffman and their contemporaries succumbed to 'conceptual grandeur.' They were merely part of the dynamic process by which every generation responds with ideas and policies to events and challenges, and even successful economic models atrophy and are replaced by something better. Rather, if anyone is guilty of conceptual overreach, it is Lemann himself.