Recommend me a good book on business corruption?
October 8, 2007 12:27 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for a business book that reflects the way business is really done.

I am looking for general business books that reflects the way business is really done. I am tired of reading books that talk about "happy-clappy" concepts that most of the time don't happen in real business life. I am looking for a business book(s) or even business novels that shows the harsh reality of the business world. I am tired of reading general business books that have a warm fuzzy glow about them. I do not want to read another business book that contains mini-case studies of how Apple is innovative or how Ben and Jerrys's is ethical. Likewise, books that claim the customer is king and books that talk warmly of how great client-vendor relationships can be. Basically, I want a book that dishes the dirt on the business world and tells is as it is.

The chasm between the way business actions are described in business textbooks of my college days and the the real-world seems to be huge. I need some books to bridge that chasm.
posted by jacobean to Work & Money (20 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Liar's Poker by Michael Lewis
posted by found missing at 12:36 PM on October 8, 2007

Meet Stanley Bing.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 12:36 PM on October 8, 2007

The Informant - the story of how the FBI stumbled upon one of the biggest price-fixing conspiracies in the world. This American Life did an entire episode on the story if you want a taste.
posted by murphy slaw at 12:42 PM on October 8, 2007

Seconding Liar's Poker, though it covers only a very specific portion of business.
posted by drezdn at 12:44 PM on October 8, 2007

Thirding Liar's Poker. Two great and gripping books about how businesses end up in terrible situations are Conspiracy of Fools (huh, I'll have to read The Informant by the same author) and Where the Suckers Moon.
posted by backupjesus at 12:55 PM on October 8, 2007

Fourthing Liar's Poker and seconding Stanley Bing. Maybe American Psycho and Glengarry Glen Ross (the playbook), too, though both are fiction, and all of these cover only narrow segments of business. There was a book, too, though the name escapes me right now. Ooh, and Inside Job, about the S&L crisis, and Hit Men, about the music industry, though, again, these are narrow treatments.
posted by box at 1:06 PM on October 8, 2007

OK, so the assumption here is that Enron was the norm? Isn't the primary message one can take from CoF is that that company was a standout for being corrupt, amateurish and spectacularly inept? At least that's what every outsider felt when they actually dealt with it. The whole "we're like Toyota" thing, Skinner's "asshole" investor call, etc. Those guys were way, way out there.

All of these listed books are spectacular exposes because you don't sell 100,000 copies of anything that isn't spectacular. The news doesn't report on the guy who takes the bus home and feeds his cat. They report the murder and mayhem because that sells papers. There's probably a "if it bleeds..." rule for mass market business books too. "If it indicts..." maybe.

So my recommendation is a more staid book: Boeing-Versus-Airbus. Not a spectacular expose but probably closer to the norm of real world business.
posted by mrbugsentry at 1:15 PM on October 8, 2007

Read Warren Buffett's essays or his shareholder letters.
posted by mullacc at 1:23 PM on October 8, 2007

Note that the "Essays of Warren Buffet" are the shareholder letters, chopped up and rearranged into a book.
posted by mbrubeck at 1:27 PM on October 8, 2007

Well, let's compare your question "Basically, I want a book that dishes the dirt on the business world and tells is as it is." with your title up there: "Recommend me a good book on business corruption".

As others have said, "tells it as it is" is not the same thing as "business corruption". There are plenty of books out there on corruption in business but they are every bit as sensational as the fluffy ones you have already been reading. Real businesses are generally pretty boring - which is why non-academic business books fall in to the hagiography or muckraking camps.
posted by patricio at 1:48 PM on October 8, 2007

It's fiction, but I've heard good things about Bombadiers, by Po Bronson.
posted by jquinby at 1:53 PM on October 8, 2007

mrbugsentry and patricio make a good point--the most entertaining books are almost always about the outliers (unless you've got a really amazing writer, with which the world of business journalism isn't exactly overflowing).
posted by box at 2:07 PM on October 8, 2007

Those [Enron] guys were way, way out there.

What I took away from the book was that the vast majority of Enron folks, even at the top levels, were decidedly not way, way out there, but rather acted in ways consistent with normal business practice. Nearly any company would accept financial engineering that increased revenue and profits as a godsend and not ask hard questions about it. Even if such questions were asked, the reams of disclosure and the accountants' sign-off would have stopped most inquiries.
posted by backupjesus at 2:16 PM on October 8, 2007

Most businesses, like most people, are neither spectacularly ethical nor especially corrupt. Most follow the rules the majority of the time (due to some combination of wanting to do the right thing and "because rules are rules" and out of fear of getting in trouble), and break rules, especially small or stupid rules, occasionally. Most are very, very boring 90 percent of the time, punctuated by small victories, like winning a new client or introducing a product that people in their field like, the stories of which are still boring when told to people who don't care about that field or those clients. Neither you, nor anyone else, would pay to read a book about those businesses, which is why there aren't many of those books. Just like there are not that many books about a guy who works hard as an actuary and pays all of his taxes in full and has no major problems or dilemmas in life except that he sometimes tells his wife that those jeans don't make her butt look big when her butt actually does look big, and one time when the guy at the drive-through gave him too much change, he kept it instead of giving it back.

You could read some business school textbooks, some of which will give you case studies of problems (both practical and ethical) that various businesses have faced and how they have dealt with them. These will be boring, but if you read enough of them, you might get some idea of how real businesses operate on a day-to-day basis. Or you can read exciting, mass market, "pop business" books that deal with the outliers, which will either be cheerleader-y books about the best, most exciting businesses or exposes of the worst businesses. These will not give you any sense of what most businesses are like, but if you read the expose type, they will certainly confirm your bias that businesses are corrupt and shady.
posted by decathecting at 2:30 PM on October 8, 2007

Well...since you can't really divorce contemporary business practice from the underlying economic theory of our time...
posted by Thorzdad at 3:04 PM on October 8, 2007

Did we read the same book? Every time the Enron guys deal with outsiders who are not Andersen, [nay, who are not their team within Andersen] the people who deal with them can't believe what amateurs and crooks they are. They get away with what they do for as long as they do in part because nobody is prepared for such brazen fraud.

I came to the book expecting to see them as part of broader accounting scandals, but these guys are so far outside the norm, only a handful of companies come close. There are 3200 companies on NASDAQ and 2700 on the NYSE. How many are in the same ballpark as Fastow and Skilling? Worldcom and Adelphia, maybe? These guys weren't tweaking numbers, they were inventing business entities out of thin air.

Now, if your goal is to read agitprop, by all means, don't let me stand in your way. Read whatever supports your preconceived notions. That way there is no danger of learning anything.

But if your goal is to actually learn something, consider the less spectacular reads.
posted by mrbugsentry at 3:21 PM on October 8, 2007

A great business book is Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. It covers the leveraged buy out of the RJR Nabisco company. The book does a great job of presenting all of the different characters in the saga. Some of the people are honest and earnest while others are megalomaniacal. True Greed by Hope Lampert also covers the same story. Back in 1993, HBO also made movie staring James Garner of the RJR Nabisco takeover.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 3:22 PM on October 8, 2007

You'll notice that most of the books mentioned deal with the money trade rather than business as a generic. There's good reason for that. Finance is virtually a world apart, attracts the kind of competitive people who can get carried away by the dark side of the force. Though not always, as the cites of Warren Buffett show.

But if it's scandal you're looking for, go to usual suspects. The Cigarette Century does for tobacco, Big Pharma for drugs. You might consider the biographies and autobiographies, also. Give the devil his due with Grinding It Out, (followed, of course, by Fast Food Nation). Alternatively, For God, Country and Coca Cola. High Stakes, No Prisoners is, despite the stupid title, an interesting insider's view of building a tech company in a hurry in order to go public and get rich quick. Worked, too, though not without pain

(Bombardiers struck me as dull. Bronson was trying to turn a bunch of young wallstreeters into the cast of Catch-22 and it just didn't work. Hard to make a moral, much less dramatic, equivalence between death at 20,000 feet and the desire to leave a soul killing but highly remunerative job on the trading floor. For a far better book on the desperation of the working world, I urge you to read The Axe.)

But as above, most business, even big business, is not the stuff of great drama, much less great corruption, therefore is not much written about. Of course you can find evil if you wait long enough and care to look and if your sense of outrage is not too demanding- but you can find it in any human enterprise. Neither wholly bad nor wholly good, that sort of thing.

You want to know what really goes on in modern business? Get a job at a dull, large company, autoparts, say, or packaged cereal, and look and listen. Whole lot less there than meets the imagination. The harsh reality is mostly just tedium.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:31 PM on October 8, 2007

Personally, I would choose "The Good Soldier Ŝvejk" by Jan Haŝek, but that's just my current cynical mood. (I know the hats on the Ŝs should be inverted, but my esperanto keyboard doesn't have those letters.)
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 11:39 AM on October 9, 2007

One place to look for business books is the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs "Business book of the year" award. The shortlist is generally pretty interesting. The 2007 result has just been announced.
posted by patricio at 4:59 AM on October 26, 2007

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