Transaction Man – The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream
By Nicholas Lemann. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28.)
Reviewed by Richard K. Rein.
If you had to name today’s biggest companies you might quickly tick off Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, or Amazon. If you were asked to name the biggest firms of 50 years ago you might mention General Motors, GE, IBM, AT&T, or Westinghouse.
Easy. But if you were asked to explain how those corporate behemoths from mid-20th century America gave way to the 21st century big guys you might guess that it was a matter of foreign competition, bad management, or failure to keep up with changing technology. Nicholas Lemann, author of Transaction Man – The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream, has a different answer. The transformation of America’s corporate landscape, Lemann writes, “isn’t the result of inexorable processes that were too powerful to resist. Instead, it came from a series of choices that we, or at least America’s business and political elites, made.”
Lemann charts those choices and the resulting transformation from the golden age of the Institution Man, epitomized by William H. Whyte’s 1956, bestseller, The Organization Man, to the era of the Transaction Man, represented by the aggressive investors and dealmakers of the 1980s and 1990s, to the current era of the Network Man, in which large-scale and highly disruptive online platforms and Internet services occupy the corporate pinnacle.
Those choices are shown through portraits of men central to each of the three business epochs. Those portraits, in turn, are positioned around a series of vignettes of a single neighborhood on the southside of Chicago. The cast of characters in Chicago Lawn include a longtime GM auto dealer, a woman who had marched in support of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1966, a neighborhood organizer who was shot in the back as he was trying to quell a disturbance on his street, and others whose lives were touched by the disruption in the social order caused at least indirectly and sometimes directly by the macro-economic changes. > Read More …