Monday, July 5, 2010

Moving On

Thanks to social-media savant Dan Blank, I now have a new website. I will continue there to write about new business and economics books, developments in the book-publishing world, and about my own forthcoming book, The Company Town (Basic Books, September 7).

Once my book is in stores, I'll likely focus more on writing about my own book-peddling experiences. At the moment, I'm spending lots of energy investigating social media -- LinkedIn, Twitter, and even Facebook, to which I must admit having a slight aversion. LinkedIn, after all, is oriented to careers, Tweets are short and somewhat forgetable, but Facebook seems more akin to unabashed exhibitionism. What's more, I don't have a dog or cute kids to photograph, so I don't have much on my Facebook page. Here's a picture of a cute lizard to make up for my non-pet-owner shortcomings.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Last Gentleman

This blog ordinarily is focused on business, economics, and related social issues –but a pause is in order to recognize Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who passed away early today. Byrd is probably the last of his kind, and a direct link can be drawn between Byrd another gentleman of the South, Senator William Fulbright (D-Ark.), with whom Byrd bore many similarities.

In their salad days, both were segregationists. Byrd, of course, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Both senators, in their own ways, repented. (Byrd became a sponsor of legislation that saluted Martin Luther King.) Both had lengthy Senate careers – in fact, were institutions, seemingly invulnerable to the whims of a fickle electorate. And both became unwavering opponents of military adventurism and American imperial arrogance. Fulbright opposed the idiocy and facile cold-war analogies of Vietnam, along with the certainties of his fellow southerners, Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk—and Fulbright wrote a classic indictment of U.S. overreach, The Arrogance of Power. Byrd, in turn, spoke out –in fact, he railed – against the moronic military aggression directed toward Iraq by another southerner (or, at least, professed southerner) George W. Bush. “The image of America has changed,” he said in challenging the U.S. invasion. “Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned.”

We live with the unhappy legacy of Bush’s folly –and Byrd’s fellow senators’ cowardice and kowtowing to the will of the bullying Bush Administration. Byrd’s opposition to U.S. imperialism was rooted in the sense that he could overcome every electoral challenge, so in that way he was a throwback to less democratic times. But Americans still face a maddening conundrum: Which is better—democratically endorsed imperial overreach or challenges from those who have enjoyed elite privileges? In the era of the likes of Scott Brown and Ron Paul, we no longer have to make that choice.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Home, Sweet Home -- Thanks to the Boss

They used to call it corporate welfarism or welfare capitalism, back in the day when company unions were also called "employee representation plans." Now, no one bothers with company unions anymore. You want representation? Call your congressman.

But some companies are still looking to extend a helping hand to workers. Jim Warren, the former managing editor of The Chicago Tribune and now, occasionally at least, author of a column for Bloomberg Business Week, has described how an increasing number of employers are assisting workers with home purchases. Among Warren's examples: CVS Caremark, Loyola University, and Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding, all of which have extended home loans to employees and offered credit counseling, too. "This keeps people employed and helps in [workforce] retention," CVS program administrator Stephen Wing told Warren.

Doesn't that sound a lot like the philosophy that led capitalists from Andrew Carnegie to candyman Milton Hershey and textile maker Charles Cannon to build their company towns? I'm not putting it down: It makes good business sense and, especially in these difficult times, is every bit as important as a solid, employer-paid health-care plan.

To read Warren's article, go to

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Fall Books: Beyond the Blockbusters

The trade show known as BookExpo has just ended, showcasing the fall books, especially those for which publishers have spent lots of dough. George W. Bush (Crown), Tony Blair (Knopf), Maria Bartiromo (Penguin), and Bob Woodward (Simon and Schuster) all have big books coming, but they're unlikely to be the most interesting.

Provocative business titles include Hacking Work (Portfolio), in which consultants Bill Jensen and Josh Klein assume that many of your employer's rules are stupid and counterproductive. The authors tell you how to get around them and, as a result, be more productive.

Stanford professor Bob Sutton, author of the no-B.S. best-seller The No Asshole Rule, has a new common-sense work, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…And Learn From the Worst (Business Plus). Sutton's blog is at

Former Wired editor Kevin Kelly offers What Technology Wants (Viking), which the publisher says will offer “a refreshing view of technology as a living force in the world.”

And Forbes writer Emily Lambert will have The Futures: The Rise of the Speculator and the Origins of the World’s Biggest Markets (Basic Books) detailing past and present doings at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, “the original (and eventually largest) futures market.”

The topic of online social networking dominated the conversation at BookExpo, so naturally, there are many books on the topic. These include former Web executive Lisa Gansky’s The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing and Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams’ Macrowikinomics. Both books are from Penguin imprint Portfolio. Read more at

 And if you can stand to read another financial-meltdown account, at least one more is on the way: All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis (Portfolio) by Bethany McLean of Vanity Fair magazine and New York Times columnist Joe Nocera.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Coming Soon...

It's currently the number 508,261 book on climbing.

My book, The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy (Basic Books), officially publishes in September. Bound galleys are out now, having been mailed to possible reviewers and others. Amazon is taking early orders, which explains how there can be any sales numbers at all.

As a longtime reviewer of others' books, I'm bracing myself for what is to come. Some wag once observed that a book author is one who destroys for himself the simple pleasure of going into a bookstore: If his book is not there, he is furious; if it is there, he wonders why it's not displayed more prominently; and so on. It might equally be said that authors drive themselves mad over review coverage. "They said that? Why those, #@!!$%$#*!"

One complaint that's sure to be heard: The author failed to describe [substitute your favorite town]. Actually, there are 50 company towns discussed in some detail and dozens more mentioned. But there is no way to include all of them. Last summer, my wife told a staffer in a Pawtucket historical museum that I was writing a book on company towns. "Oh, how many volumes?" the woman responded.  True enough, their numbers are legion. So I am hoping to create an interactive website that will allow input and discussion from folks across the land, letting everyone discuss their memories of company towns they have known and loved/hated.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Management Strategy 101

Some years back, an attack on managment theory was published under the name of Fad Surfing in the Boardroom, by Eileen Shapiro. The book's main idea was that management consultants ran a racket in which they got gullible corporate executives to regularly shake up their organizations by pursuing one buzzword-laden management fad after another -- often to little avail.

Now comes The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World by former Fortune managing editor Walter Kiechel III. This book's attitude toward consultants' theories is diametrically different. The Lords of Strategy is largely an intellectual history of management thinking, not so different in character from such U.S. history books as Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club or Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America. Kiechel isn't always worshipful of the consultants' ideas, but he does offer a framework in which one year's analysis seems to stand on the shoulders of a previous season's ideas. In other words, the strategic theories are viewed as far from a bunch of scattered and superficial fads.

I learned a lot from Kiechel's well-written, thoughtful volume. But overall, it didn't leave me feeling particularly good about "corporate strategy," which the author sometimes terms "Greater Taylorism." Scientific management tends to treat employees as a means rather than an end -- as easily replaced cogs in the works. We're all easily replaced, as our current 10% unemployment rate attests. For my complete review go to:

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Time to Bust Up the Mega-Banks?

Did the recent financial meltdown reveal that the U.S. was a lot like a Third World economy -- like, say, Indonesia in the 1990s, when connections to the ruling elite were all important to enterprises that wanted to prosper? 

Consider this analysis of the recent Wall Street bailout from former International Monetary Fund chief economist Simon Johnson: “Washington has behaved like an emerging market government in the 1990s – using public resources to protect a handful of large banks with strong political connections.”

Johnson and his co-author James Kwak, celebrated bloggers with "The Baseline Scenario" ( and now with The Huffington Post, have just published a cri de coeur to bust up this cozy political arrangement, which the authors say extends to both major political parties. In 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown (Pantheon, $26.95) the authors argue: “If you hid the name of the country and just showed them the numbers, there is no doubt what old IMF hands would say: nationalize troubled banks and break them up as necessary.”

Socialism! Anarchism! And shades of Alan Greenspan, who not so long ago commented that if some banks today are "too big to fail...they're too big."

So what would be an acceptable size for the six megabanks (Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley)? These authors say none should probably have assets exceeding 4% of GDP, or roughly $570 billion in assets, and no more than 2% of GDP, or $285 billion, in the case of investment banks. Pretty reasonable I'd say.

For my full review go to: