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:

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Knowing Without Knowing

In 1913, Sigmund Freud wrote about "the strange behavior of patients in being able to combine a conscious knowing with not knowing" -- and went on to dramatically demonstrate the behavior personally, since he was diagnosed with cancer yet continued a habit of incessant cigar smoking. Beginning in the 1920s, Freud got regular reminders that he was risking death: He underwent more than 30 surgical operations to have precancerous growths removed from his nasal and oral cavities. 

This Verleugnung, as Freud called it, or "denial," is also common in the business world, says Harvard Business School historian Richard S. Tedlow. The behavior pattern was there when Henry Ford refused to acknowledge the signs all around him that car buyers were no longer satisfied with a one-size-fits-all Model T. It was there in the 1960s when Sears refused to take notice of the emergence of such discount retail chains as Target, Wal-Mart -- and Kmart, the company that would absorb the once proud Sears in 2005.

Tedlow's new book, Denial: Why Business Leaders Fail to Look Facts in the Face -- And What to Do About It is a provocative and enjoyable reflection on numerous business blunders and successes. These aren't just errors in judgment, mind you. They occur when executives avert their eyes from a reality of which they cannot but be aware. My review of Tedlow's book can be found at:

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

More on Michael Lewis' Book

Reuters has a very interesting video q&a with Michael Lewis, now on its website. You can find it at:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Eyesight to the Blind

Henry Paulson admits he didn't see the meltdown coming. In his memoir On the Brink, the former Treasury Secretary describes a 2006 meeting of the White House economic team at Camp David, where he warned of the possibility of a coming economic "disruption," which he said was overdue. But, he adds, "I misread the cause, and the scale, of the coming disaster. Notably absent from my presentation was any mention of problems in housing or mortgages."

So if Paulson missed it, and Treasury Secretary to-be Timothy Geithner missed it, and Fed chairman Ben Bernanke missed it...who saw the cataclysm coming?

In the words of Michael Lewis, only a handful of unusual, “almost by definition odd” outsiders were able to look past the conventional wisdom and see the subprime-mortgage-inflated market for what it was. Lewis profiles this tiny group who were able to "see the ugly facts and respond to them" -- and thereby make a killing even as most of Wall Street was decimated--in his new book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (Norton, $27.95). My review of this very informative and, believe it or not, entertaining book appears today on Reuters at

As is common with Lewis, there are some funny bits -- but given the subject matter, the volume could hardly be a laugh riot. After all, fortunes were destroyed and many, many people were financially ruined. Still, consider this passage, where the author describes his protagonists' hunt for the worst subprime-mortgage-backed bonds, which they were preparing to short:  “Looking for bad bonds inside a CDO [or collateralized debt obligation] was like fishing for crap in a Port-O-Let: the question wasn’t whether you’d catch some but how quickly you’d be satisfied you’d caught enough.”

That's typical of Lewis's not-for-family-hour prose. Darkly funny stuff. And also highly insightful. For a writer who made his reputation on claims that he knew nothing about nothing when hired to work on Wall Street in the '80s, somehow Lewis has learned a great deal about some very sophisticated investing.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Thinking About Change

Two themes have dominated the business-books scene in recent years: How people think and make decisions, and how people react to change. Not that these are unrelated. Much of what Corporate America’s managers and employees ponder is change—can we possibly implement this new top-down initiative? How will I be affected? What on earth is the boss contemplating?

Recent weeks have seen two more books added to an already impressive roster: Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and surgeon Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Both are riding high on best-seller lists. Now comes a third volume sure to join them there: Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, authors of the 2007 best-seller Made to Stick.

It’s instructive to compare just these three. Pink addresses both managers and the rest of us with a research-laden volume aimed at undermining what he sees as institutions’ over reliance on money as a motivator. Gawande argues that a great many professional tasks have become too complicated to be managed by our little brains—and that a simple device, the checklist, can make a world of difference. So both of these accounts consider how our minds work and how particular alterations can make the world a better place.

The Heaths, on the other hand, advocate no particular change, although they offer a great many examples. Instead, like such previous assaults as Who Moved My Cheese? and Our Iceberg Is Melting, Switch assumes that people resist change and must be taught to like it. This book is not as offensive as some of the change-motivating fables—after all, it’s not really aimed at a presumed-to-be-stupid rank and file, but at presumed-to-be-intelligent managers. But unlike, say, The Checklist Manifesto, it’s not exactly a joy to read—nor does one come away feeling exhilarated and eager to take up the authors’ cause.

For my complete review of Switch, posted at AOL's Daily Finance site, go to:

Friday, February 12, 2010

Let it Snow!

The heavy snow on the Eastern seaboard has meant lots of downtime for Washington, D.C. workers and even some for New York and New Jersey folks. As we enter the President's Day weekend, I notice I'm getting lots of "Out of the Office" responses to my e-mails. Having had no choice but to take several days off this week already, some people are out today and only returing to work on Tuesday...which makes me think.

When you're unemployed, you never really have a day off--or alternately, every day is a day off. It's a weird feeling: You know that every day, including weekends, you should be doing something regarding a job search. But what? Already this week, I've had an electronic-resume workshop canceled...thanks to forecast "inclement weather." Don't these people know that I need their help? And, now with the rest of the world being out-of-pocket, schussing down the slopes or out to Valentine's Day dinners, there's no way they'll be giving my e-mailed resume the scrutiny it deserves.

Oh, let it snow some more! Away with all work and work-less cares!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Perils of Paulson

When is a has-been NOT a has-been?

When is history NOT simply written by the winners?

Answer: When the subject is economics or the weather. The consequences of both those phenomena live on and on, and the interpreters--whether they be Alan Greenspan or Al Roker--get to talk on and on, into the indefinite future. "Yeah, well I didn't exactly predict what happened...BUT..."

There's still plenty of controversy over the actions taken by the government in the fall of 2008, when the Meltdown was in Flower. (Mixed metaphors are such fun.) Witness the third degrees recently doled out by Congress to both current and former Treasury Secretaries Timothy Geithner and Henry Paulson.

Paulson's hardcover retelling of events is now available in bookstores. For my take on it, go to:
It's an interesting book, with multiple revelations about the likes of FDIC chair Sheila Bair (who Paulson says was willing to see Citigroup die), numerous Senators and Congresspeople, and about Paulson himself. When the going got tough, as at various Congressional hearings, Paulson reveals that he tended to have the "dry heaves" and had to excuse himself from the room. The Treasury Secretary also shows himself to be a religious man and often depended upon the power of prayer to get him through.

If you're angry at the insiders who managed the bailout, TARP, and the takeover of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, you might look at Paulson's volume. It'll make you feel some sympathy for just what these people put themselves through to save the system.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

On the Scene: the Unemployment Office

I could tell who she was at a glance: a former journalist, now unemployed. One question confirmed it—“where did you work?” InStyle, she said, referring to the Time Inc. fashion-and-celebrity magazine. Time has had waves of layoffs like so many other media companies. And it turned out, the room was full of similar people, from InStyle, Gourmet, and, of course, BusinessWeek.

Site: the unemployment office. The New York State Department of Labor had summoned me there, via a threatening, computer-generated note. I anticipated a grilling, connected to some failure on my part, real or bureaucrat-invented. Turns out, everyone receiving unemployment benefits has to report for an “orientation session.” Happily, the Kafkaesque elements of the meeting were kept to a minimum, and department representatives even offered a bit of self-deprecating humor about how long a telephone caller might have to wait before speaking to a live person.

I thought again about this experience as I examined a posting on the New York Times site--a fascinating, action chart called "The Jobless Rate for People Like You"
As you click on variables such as race, gender, age, and education level, the graf line jumps – very notably, for example, for black men under the age of 25 who lack a high-school diploma, for whom the rate is nearly 50%. My group—white, male college grads over the age of 45—have a relatively low rate of unemployment, namely under 10%.

I don’t doubt that the last figure is at least somewhat accurate. Nevertheless, the “restructuring” going on in the field of journalism is having profound consequences for former scribblers, many of whom are casting about in other fields of work. I’ll be keeping you posted regarding my own job search and the adventures I encounter on the way.

Meanwhile, the Rutgers alumni magazine (Winter, 2010) carries a sobering piece, based on a survey conducted by that university's John J. Heldich Center for Workforce Development. Among the recently unemployed, the survey shows, 84% received no severance package, 60% received no warning that they were about to lose their jobs, and 53% have received no unemployment benefits. Those who have gotten such bennies must count themselves lucky.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Further review coverage of Daniel Pink's "Drive"

I've been advised that I could provide a useful service by aggregating reviews of recent books. So, at the risk of seeming to be flacking for certain titles, that's what I will begin doing. So far, I haven't seen a lot of negative coverage of Dan Pink's Drive -- but I will be sure to include such pans if they appear.

In a Time interview with writer Kristi Oloffson, Pink opines that some employers have resisted his ideas since “there’s this idea that employees have to be monitored, that if you let them have any kind of autonomy they’re going to slack off.” To read the interview go to,8599,1952993,00.html

And writing for, George Anders questions whether Pink’s proposals are appropriate for every kind of work -- specifically mentioning supermarket clerks and mall cops. But Anders concludes that Pink’s ideas “deserve a wide hearing” and suggests that corporate boards “could do well by kicking out their pay consultants for an hour and reading Pink's conclusions instead.” You can check out his column at:

That's Anders' take--what's yours? Several readers got into a heated back-and-forth after reading my article on Drive. One reader said he'd turned down a pay increase in exchange for greater vacation time. What do you think--is money still the primary motivator, or are you looking for something else in a work experience?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Why Carrots and Sticks Are Suddenly Passe

Daniel Pink’s just-published book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Riverhead Books) is beginning to get some attention. Credit the former Al Gore speechwriter (and author of the bestselling A Whole New Mind) with leveling a blow at “pay for performance” schemes at the precise moment when big bonuses are sooooooo unfashionable. Pink says that, provided people have a baseline level of pay, what really moves them toward high levels of performance are such factors as autonomy on the job, mastery over a craft, and a sense of contributing to a higher purpose.

Stanford B-school professor Robert Sutton believes Pink “does a masterful job of showing the limits and drawbacks of widely accepted assumptions about motivation--showing the limits of carrots and sticks.” (To read Sutton’s comments, go to:

On The Wall Street Journal’s website, Barbara Chai quotes Pink as recommending that people look for personal motivation--their “third drive”—by considering things they do for fun. “Think about whether you can make a living doing that,” says Pink. “It’s more possible than people think.” (Go to

My own take is recorded today on the website at

An NPR “Talk of the Nation” spot with Pink can be heard at:

As I cast about for further writing gigs, let me offer a New Year’s wish that baseline pay doesn’t become passé. A Los Angeles Times article details the woeful situation now facing freelance writers:,0,2787168.column