Explain business to an innumerate child.
June 11, 2014 5:12 AM   Subscribe

I'm working on a novel (yeah, yeah) in which the bad guys are, among other things, a couple of rival business-criminal assholes. I know nearly zero about business, finance, and politics, and I don't want to talk about these folks in ways that show me to be the faffy prancing buffoon I really am.

A brief googling about basic business and finance topics mostly leads me to books about personal finance and starting a small business. Fine, but what goes on at the other end, the Bernie Madoff end of the spectrum? Maybe there's not that big a difference. I don't know; I don't even know what questions to ask. Previous attempts at learning this stuff have left me scratching my head when the materials assume I know most of the terminology already, and I really don't.

I'm looking for resources (books, mostly), educational materials, etc., about the broad concepts, the basic terminology, and how these things all relate to each other. F'rinstance, I've seen enough movies to know what a hostile takeover is, but I still don't understand stock at all. Like, what it's even for.

So teach me, MeFites. Gimme at least a middle-school education in economics, and taxes, and all that Wall Street shit. My detective has an immortal and a demon to beat.
posted by Mister Moofoo to Work & Money (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Hmmmm. I Am Not Your Economist...

Since you need to describe the shenanigans of criminal politically connected business types, you could do worse than to check out Matt Taibbi's writing from the past few years. He's really good at explaining the more mind-bending aspects of non-productive/rent-seeking financial behaviors, in a (shall we say) pointed style. I have difficulty grasping some of the more esoteric aspects of investment, myself, but he writes in a way that pretty much anyone could grasp.

Another -- kinda left-field -- resource could be the graphic novel, Economix, which provides a fantastic overview of how economic theory has changed over time. The illustrations are well done and effective, and I found it to be a great companion to more formal sources of information.

Speaking of, I got a lot out of taking a Macroeconomics class at my local community college, recently. If you are serious about your book project, a few hundred bucks is a solid, errr, investment, right? Our text for that class was called Principles of Economics (2nd Edition). The same guy publishes a Microeconomics text, I believe, as well. Unlike the two previous options, he's writing from a more Libertarian standpoint, but his ideology doesn't color the book overmuch. I'd describe it as surprisingly wry, for a textbook, and as offering a fairly balanced perspective on the basics (for instance, untangling the moral strands of the globalization debate).
posted by credible hulk at 5:44 AM on June 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you really want the basics for a child, I'd start with Teen Cash Class.
posted by devnull at 5:49 AM on June 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I recommend an old writer's trick: go to the library and look in the children's department for books on the subject. This also works for a quick basic-level education on anything else you may need to research in the future.
posted by Andrhia at 5:52 AM on June 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

There have been a number of books written about high-level dishonest business practices of the last couple of decades, many of these for the non-specialist. James B. Stewart's Den of Thieves is recommended.

You might want to go the documentary route. Enron, Smartest People in the Room. Or the fictional (non-fiction) Margin Call.

Both of these assume you can read between the lines somewhat. For Margin Call, they discover their stock portfolio is about to become worthless, so they sell it for what seems like a good price, passing off the loss to those who trust them, knowing it will be worth nothing in a couple of days.

For Enron, the "joke" is that they don't do anything as a business. By that I mean they do things like resell electricity. First they bought the supply, then they ensured outages and then sell it for a big profit to the desperate. They bought an electric company solely to steal its pension funds.

Here is a caveat: as a writer you do not need to write about what you know, but you do need to know about what you write. You might take shortcuts, but it will show, especially to those in the know.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:55 AM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Liar's Poker.
posted by mr vino at 6:03 AM on June 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

The best simple introduction to economics (as opposed to business) that I know of is the book Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan.

The US government's Small Business Administration has some basic information about how businesses are set up, structured, and run on their website (see the lefthand sidebar).

Once you know the basics you might find some fun inspiration for your characters' villany in The Curriculum which is a cynical, satirical take on the business world masquerading as an alternative to an MBA program.
posted by Wretch729 at 6:46 AM on June 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Liar's Poker

Seconded, quite firmly. The writings of Michael Lewis on the world of finance are what you want. He's very good at telling detail that conveys personality and breaking down arcane finance topics into something a layperson can understand. Lewis is not without flaws, and please don't take him as Gospel, but he'd be a useful Virgil to someone looking for a guide to the different circles of the finance world. Because you should know there are different circles, and the tribes that inhabit them are very different. Baseball players, basketball players, and football players are all professional athletes but you'd never have the kind of guy who plays center also playing shortstop, you know? If you want you characters to feel real then you have to learn enough to know what kind of people are found in the realm where you want your scheme to take place. Also try reading the blogger The Epicurean Dealmaker, particularly his posts on The Life, which discuss the culture of Wall Street.
posted by Diablevert at 7:28 AM on June 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Some classic non-fiction books discussing high-level white collar crime include:

Den of Thieves (1980s insider trading scandals)
Predators' Ball (same)
Smartest Guys In The Room (Enron)
Conspiracy of Fools (same)
The Informant (criminal antitrust violations by Archer Daniels Midland)
Eat What You Kill (perjury in pursuit of business by Wall Street bankruptcy lawyer)
Serpent on the Rock (securities fraud)
Circle of Greed (plaintiff-side securities lawyers behaving badly)
The Fall of the House of Zeus (toxic tort lawyers bribing judges)
posted by ewiar at 9:05 AM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks! These all look great, so far. All answers are best answers. Keep it coming!
posted by Mister Moofoo at 9:26 AM on June 11, 2014

On the subject of businesses-behaving-badly, there's the 2004 documentary The Corporation, now available on youtube, which argues that these abstract organizations have psychopathic tendencies.
posted by ceribus peribus at 6:21 PM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh! ceribus peribus' suggestion reminded me of the excellent PBS 2002 documentary The Commanding Heights. It may be a little big picture for your purposes, but it's a great overview of the rise of free markets and the global economy since the beginning of the 20th century. The whole thing is online for free from PBS here albeit in a slightly annoying format. (It's also on YouTube if you are willing to search.) It's a good counterpoint to the more openly anti-corporate The Corporation.
posted by Wretch729 at 7:10 PM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

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