Guided by the hand of New Yorker business columnist Surowiecki, a collection of articles about corporate villainy uncovered in the post-bubble meltdown is by turns depressing and enraging.
It’s Surowiecki’s writing that glitters most brightly here—in the introduction, in the comments opening each section, even in the footnotes. Overall, the writers grant that executive greed and malfeasance are nothing new (self-dealing has been a cautionary element since the nation’s first business went public), but they’ve been amplified like a virus in the bloodstream and are now systemic, having corrupted all the checks and balances devised to curb them and having created all the necessary incentives to encourage them. Among the best of the 27 pieces here are P. J. O’Rourke’s humorous but also telling take on how things went bad at Enron—“Enron broke the rules of ethics. But the corporation’s worst sins seem to have been lawful”—and Peter Behr and April Witt’s revealing item on the “structural finance” that allowed Enron legally to shake down its stockholders and employees. Qwest, WorldCom, Adelphia, and Tyco all get pored over, as does Arthur Andersen and its double-dealing, overseeing the books it cooked. There are also a few articles that will have readers scratching their heads at Surowiecki’s judgment: a cutesy-snide, gossipy piece on Martha Stewart by Marc Peyser, et al., that traffics in the same celebrity culture it purports to condemn; an embarrassingly tetchy burp from Michael Kinsley: “So, now it’s the turn of corporate CEOs to feel the righteous petulance of the American people”; and a plainly bewildering stab at comedy from Michael Lewis: “Forget for a moment that a better explanation for each stock market plunge is that the market is still pretty rich by historical standards, and historical standards are now back in fashion.” Which explains exactly what?
Ultimately, readers will wish that almost all the articles, of greater and lesser import, had been originally written by Surowiecki.