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From the PublisherMany of us take for granted that each day we can go out and buy pretty much anything we want, stop at Starbucks for coffee and go home to buy more stuff online—if we have the cash, that is.
How we got to this point—the world of business so seamlessly woven into our everyday lives—is the story of Howard Means' engrossing, fast-paced Money Power: The History of Business.
The book began life as a TV documentary on CNBC, produced by David Grubin and narrated by the late Jason Robards. Means was working from the show's cript, but he added new material, and his book stands easily on its own as a separate work of scholarship.
Trying to tell the history of business in 274 pages (or 2 hours of TV time) is quite the challenge, and Money Power is bound to start some arguments by what it leaves out. For instance, you'll find nothing on famed English economist Adam Smith (1723-1790), known primarily for The Wealth of Nations. IBM turns up as a bit player in the chapter on Bill Gates and cyberspace.
Retail dynasties such as Sears and Wal-Mart also are absent. The book (and TV show) went for people and personalities rather than institutions. One early example of entrepreneurship: the English seagoing trader Godric, born circa 1065, later to become St. Godric. We don't often think of businessmen as saints, and indeed, Godric didn't achieve sainthood for what he did as a trader. Sainthood came for his selfless life after he gave away his money and lived as a hermit, writing poetry and befriending wild animals.
This book has plenty of people who practiced questionable ethics.
Gates is portrayed as ruthless, but his philanthropy and desire to eventually give away most of his fortune are duly noted.
The story of Time Warner (leading up to the recent merger with AOL), is partially presented as a blend of class (Henry Luce, founder of Time Inc.) and crass (the Warner brothers). Yet, Means contends one company needed the other to thrive in the ruthless media competition of the late 20th century, just as that behemoth needed to bulk up even more by merging with AOL at the dawn of the 21st.
Another pair who needed each other was James Watt and Matthew Boulton. Watt's steam engine may have been revolutionary, but he would have gone nowhere fast without the entrepreneurial, numbers-oriented Boulton.
Watt had already failed on his own, and his previous partner, Scottish iron manufacturer John Roebuck, went bankrupt. The happy union of Watt and Boulton helped usher in the Industrial Age, just as Luce's publications (Time, Life and Fortune) did for the Information Age early in the 20th century. In the book (and the documentary), one subject flows into another to get us where we are now, with our economy ever more dependent on computers and the Internet.
Means brings his subjects to life, whether they are names plucked out of history or modern times, such as super salesman Robert Woodruff, who turned sugar and water into gold by marketing Coca-Cola all over the globe, making us desire a product that we could just as easily live without.
Woodruff's tale demonstrates that life in this country is full of second chances. A marketing whiz but an indifferent student, he lasted but one semester at Emory University in his hometown of Atlanta. When he died at the age of 95 in 1985 (spared by a month of knowing about the New Coke formula-change fiasco), he had donated $200 million to the school.
Money Power makes the case that life today, without great business people, would make us poorer in pocket and spirit.—USA TODAY, May 21, 2001