Krumme’s book is the more lyrical and introspective of the two. She acknowledges the benefits of optimization, such as two-day delivery by Amazon even to her remote island home. And she wrestles with how to de-optimize. Is there an optimal way to do so? Is even asking that question a way of trapping oneself inside the optimization mind-set? But if she isn’t rational about how to curb optimization, is she just blindly groping back to a premodern past that wasn’t so great after all?

In the end, Krumme comes around to a third path, which is to separate life into two spheres: one optimized and one beyond the reach of optimization. One is like the mainland, big and streamlined. The other is like her little island. An island needs the mainland, clearly. It isn’t self-sufficient. But an island can serve the mainland as well. Beyond the metaphor, “Islands allow pockets or niches of species ecosystems to evolve without giant predators, insulated from disease and parasites,” she writes. “An island left insular can thus help revive the mainland in times of trouble.”

While Krumme researched her book during the Covid pandemic, Martin landed his final draft in January 2020. Still, the anxiety that we associate with Covid and other events (Jan. 6, 2021) was already present. In the preceding years, his Martin Prosperity Institute had interviewed people in depth to figure out how to save what he terms “democratic capitalism.” He found that they were “perplexed and sheepish” about politics, “disheartened and confused” about their economic status.

Instead of viewing society and the economy as a “perfectible machine,” Martin writes, we should strive for resilience. Don’t, he writes, confuse proxies (like test scores) for the real thing (a good education). Recognize when friction can be a good thing — as with the Tobin tax, which is a small tax on financial transactions aimed at curbing rapid-fire trading. Avoid “reductionism,” such as regarding employees as interchangeable parts in a machine.

Martin concludes that American democratic capitalism is “heading for an ugly fall” if it continues on its current path. “Our obsession with economic efficiency has featured too much pressure, too much connectedness, and too much pursuit of perfection,” he writes. The answer, he believes, is to “stay reflective” and “tweak relentlessly.” Because the system is nonlinear and unpredictable, he writes, there is no way to know what might happen: “America’s next chapter could be the greatest in its history!”

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