Atlantic Monthly senior editor Beatty (The World According to Peter Drucker, 1998, etc.) has put together an eclectic collection of readings that examines the influence of corporations on American life—from the cotton mills of 19th-century New England to the leveraged buyouts of contemporary Wall Street.
Two features distinguish the corporation from traditional partnerships: limited liability and perpetual existence. The former permits investors to shield their personal assets no matter how badly their ventures fare while the latter ensures that businesses transcend the personal fortunes of their partners. Both features encouraged industrial growth in the private sector on a scale otherwise impossible. Until the 20th century, the US lacked a central government powerful enough to undertake large-scale public works projects, such as building railroads. As the readings amply demonstrate, the corporation filled that void, enabling the development of the major industrial enterprises that transformed America from a rural, decentralized society to an integrated industrial power. Although the author’s account traces the familiar terrain of how corporate America changed to reflect social and political developments (the rise of labor unions, women in the work force, anti-monopoly sentiment), its real strength lies in Beatty’s deft selection of readings that reveal how the country’s economic evolution affected societal attitudes and individual lives. For instance, he includes an unexpectedly glowing report from Charles Dickens on the working conditions in the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, which contrasts nicely with the satirical indictment of corporate culture taken from Joseph Heller’s novel, Something Happened. Although Beatty includes readings that highlight the contributions of large corporations to the national development, he is at his best when he gets the contemporary corporate giant in his cross-hairs, skewering pampered executives for mismanagement and pointing to the deleterious effect of the corporate mentality on American culture and family.
An engaging and varied look at the economic forces that have shaped America.