We're nostalgic here at the Five Dumbest Things Research Lab. We're old enough to remember when people on Wall Street read books instead of cooking them.
So in honor of the summer's unofficial kickoff, we now present the research lab's vacation reading list. We've taken some time out of our relaxed schedule to recommend some noteworthy books for people who want more Dumbness from Wall Street than can be delivered in a weekly column.
Happy beach reading, and don't forget the sunblock!
1. Reichian Analysis
Back in the olden days, you had to be pretty special for someone to devote a whole book to your rise and fall. You had to be the Roman Empire. Or at least the Third Reich.
Nowadays, the rise-and-fall book is a cliche. What with thousands of companies booming and busting in the past few years, about the only way to avoid these up-and-down tales in a bookstore is to head straight for the cooking shelf. And even there, you run the risk of seeing Martha Stewart.
You got your rise and fall of
. The R&F treatment for
The Industry Standard
. You've even got dot-coms getting the R&F treatment in an
oral history -- the kind of song and dance that used to be reserved for World War II, the civil rights movement and the Beatles.
But if you still can't get enough of the R&F stuff, try one of these:
- Stealing Time: An account of what went wrong in the creation of AOL Time Warner (AOL) , by The Washington Post's ace AOL reporter Alec Klein. It's smoothly written, with killer details. You got one AOL executive trying to strangle a second one, and the second one pulling a knife on a third one. Not to mention the three rabbis praying for AOL's stock price.
- Broadbandits: A survey course of the history of the telecom business. Our favorite anecdote: Excite@Home CEO Tom Jermoluk announcing his resignation to his staff -- via a phone call from a yacht somewhere off the coast of Chile. Talk about the captain going down with the ship.
- Dot.bomb: A heartwarming story, replete with all-American values, about how a good old-fashioned, indomitably optimistic entrepreneur can lead a company straight into the toilet. The dot-com at issue, the now-defunct Value America, had minuscule sales, a Web site held together by duct tape, and a founder who was as mistrusted by Wall Street as he was delusionally self-confident. Dot.bomb is a story of how people can labor away furiously at a business, which, in hindsight, foresight and any sight, was doomed from the start.
- Karaoke Nation: The best of the lot, this book sweeps you back to that blissful era when getting rich was one's birthright, when a guy in flip-flops could believe he would "take down" AT&T (T) - Get Report, and when phrases like "strategic partner" and "monetizing eyeballs" rolled sweetly off the tongue. The deadpan running joke of the book is the utter seriousness with which the author, Steve Fishman, undertakes his mission: to get rich and achieve self-actualization by becoming the king of online karaoke. In future generations, incredulous librarians will likely misfile this nonfiction book among novels. If they only knew.
The Boys of Dumber
2. Barking Up the Wrong Tree
How did American business get in this mess, anyway? Maybe from reading too many books like this one:
Leadership Lessons of the Navy SEALs
See, this is a literary genre that bugs us to no end: the "Management/Leadership Secrets/Lessons of Insert-Well-Known-Name-Here" book.
In theory, we've got nothing against learning from the Lives of the Great. But in practice, all these books do is trivialize the achievements of remarkable people so you can sell 1.235 million cases of cola this quarter instead of the 1.229 million you did last quarter.
Did Moses ascend Mount Sinai so you could learn the value of face-to-face meetings? Did Jesus recruit 12 apostles to demonstrate the importance of team-building? Some authors think they did. We hope not.
is simply one of the latest examples of this category. Mind you, there's nothing particularly wrong with the advice the authors dispense. In fact, we admire the strident unfashionableness of telling readers that making bosses accessible to underlings is overrated.
But what bugs us is the book's flattery of the reader: the implication that the literally life-or-death challenges facing a crew of commandos have anything to do with 99.9% of corporate life. Sure, it's interesting to know that if you're venturing into enemy waters in the Persian Gulf, you should pack an extra motor and bring along a heavy gunner. But we're skeptical that Navy SEALs are relevant to managing an Old Navy.
3. Take This Mob and Shove It
Despite the warfare connection, one lesson we couldn't find in
was guidance on how to, um, take out the competition.
After all, to paraphrase the title character in Charlie Chaplin's 1947 talkie
, just as war is the logical extension of diplomacy, murder is the logical extension of business.
Think about that chilling thought: There's little hassle in separating your customer from his money if your customer is dead. And dead people tend not to ask for refunds.
Which brings us to the next book on our reading list:
Born to Steal: When the Mafia Hit Wall Street
reporter Gary Weiss.
OK, OK. Murder actually doesn't play a major role in the book. But it lurks in the background, playing a supporting role to loan-sharking, money laundering, copious drug use, bloody beatings and home-invasion robberies. Not to mention securities fraud. Plenty of securities fraud.
Through the career of one serial stock-scammer, a Louis Pasciuto, Weiss tells a lurid story about Wall Street's low-rent Jack Grubmans -- brokers ripping people off by selling valueless stocks, or just taking people's money and not even bothering to send them stock.
Consider it a nonfiction version of the movie
-- the film that does for the financial services industry what
did to a weekend at the beach.
4. Stakes on the Grill
Actually, you don't need the Mafia to tell a scary business story. All you need is a venture capitalist. A CEO. And
That's the appeal of
High Stakes, No Prisoners
, one of our favorite books in the research lab reference room. (It's out of print, but you can chase it down online or at your local public library.)
The broad outlines of the story seem rather pleasant. In 1994, the author, Charles H. Ferguson, founds a company. Less than two years later, he's sold it to the world's largest software company and made sackfuls of money.
Oh, but all that stuff in between. The heartache. The frustration. The treachery. The greed. It's the kind of stuff that makes being a Navy SEAL look fun.
5. I've Got the World By the Bells
Finally, remember that old saying about how great works of art are never created by committee?
Well, it's time to carve out an exception.
This one is for
the report issued last month by the Special Investigative Committee of the Board of Directors of WorldCom. We at the lab have
written about the report before, but we can't praise it highly enough.
Ostensibly, the report is an inquiry into how WorldCom could have falsified its books on a $9 billion scale. But more accurately, the report is a fable about a weird universe in which numbers on financial statements lived a life that was independent from the business operations they supposedly represented.
If the costs at a particular business unit came in higher than expected, the people at this surreal WorldCom didn't try to fix the underlying operation, according to the report. They simply replaced the offending number with another figure more pleasing to the eye.
But as with all fiction, reality inevitably intrudes.
TheStreet.com has a revenue-sharing relationship with Amazon.com under which it receives a portion of the revenue from Amazon purchases by customers directed there from TSC.