The best books that explain why corporations are so powerful but the economy still stinks

Benjamin C. Waterhouse Author Of Lobbying America: The Politics of Business from Nixon to NAFTA
By Benjamin C. Waterhouse

Who am I?

I’m a professor of modern U.S. History and have written books explaining the political and cultural power of corporations, lobbyists, and business people in American life. To me, the signal event of recent history was when the rapid economic growth that followed WWII ended in the 1970s. From globalization and deindustrialization to the rise of authoritarianism under the guise of populism, from systemic racism and the rise of the carceral state to the proliferation of bad jobs and the gig economy—the effects of that historic change shape every aspect of modern life. But this topic can sometimes seem a little dry, so I’m always looking for books that help make sense of it.


I wrote...

Lobbying America: The Politics of Business from Nixon to NAFTA

By Benjamin C. Waterhouse,

Book cover of Lobbying America: The Politics of Business from Nixon to NAFTA

What is my book about?

Lobbying America tells the story of the political mobilization of American business in the 1970s and 1980s. Benjamin Waterhouse traces the rise and ultimate fragmentation of a broad-based effort to unify the business community and promote a fiscally conservative, antiregulatory, and market-oriented policy agenda to Congress and the country at large. Arguing that business’s political involvement was historically distinctive during this period, Waterhouse illustrates the changing power and goals of America’s top corporate leaders.

Examining the rise of the Business Roundtable and the revitalization of older business associations such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Waterhouse takes readers inside the mindset of the powerful CEOs who responded to the crises of inflation, recession, and declining industrial productivity by organizing an effective and disciplined lobbying force. 

The books I picked & why

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An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy

By Marc Levinson,

Book cover of An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy

Why this book?

Levinson is a rare thing among economists: he is willing to admit what we don’t understand.

This book argues that global productivity declined in the 1970s compared to the 30 years after World War II, and no one knows why. It seems that, under capitalism, economic growth is normally just very slow, and the fast postwar growth was the aberration. But what really matters is how political leaders responded, making a series of bad decisions to try to appease people’s over-inflated expectations of growth. And this happened all over the world, from the U.S. to Germany to Japan to Latin America. This is the book that let me understand every aspect of modern life in the last 50 years—from stagnant wages to the roller-coaster casino economy to political dysfunction to gig companies.


Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream

By Nicholas Lemann,

Book cover of Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream

Why this book?

This book is the most readable treatment I’ve encountered of a very complicated and theoretical set of ideas about how corporations have changed—not only in their legal structure but as social creatures—in the last century. Lemann makes the difficult theories of thinkers like Adolf Berle, John Kenneth Galbraith, Milton Friedman, and Michael Jensen easy to understand and fun to read about. And in the process, he explains how corporations lost their “souls”—how we reached a point where companies are finance-obsessed, detached from their communities, and fixated on short-term profits and not long-term stability.


The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America

By Rick Wartzman,

Book cover of The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America

Why this book?

This book captures the decline of the traditional job—stable, well-paid, with a good chance of moving up—between World War II and the end of the 20th century. Wartzman is a clear, engaging writer who tells gripping stories about workers, bosses, chief executives, and politicians to explain what the old “social contract” between big companies and American society was, and why it disappeared. But he’s also particularly good at not overly romanticizing the earlier era, when huge swaths of people—like women, people of color, immigrants, the disabled, and others—were cut out of the workforce by prejudice and racism. This book makes business and labor history engaging and entertaining, even while it will make you mad about how bad things have become.


Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America

By Marcia Chatelain,

Book cover of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America

Why this book?

This book is a wonderful example of how an author can explain but not judge the complexities and contradictions of our modern economy. Chatelain explains the role fast food franchising, and McDonald’s in particular, has played in African American economic and social life since the 1960s. What I found so striking about this was the honest ambivalence: McDonald’s sells unhealthy foods that contribute to obesity and other health problems, and it pays generally exploitative wages; but at the same time, owning a McDonald’s franchise can be a way for African American entrepreneurs to thrive and build both wealth and political power in their communities.


The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It

By David Weil,

Book cover of The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It

Why this book?

This book—written by a scholar who also works in government—is both infuriating and enlightening. It takes on the real problem of precarious, poorly paid jobs and, by getting way into the weeds of how companies are organized, gives a clear explanation for how so many jobs became so bad and at least some hope for a policy fix. The root of the problem, Weill shows, is basically outsourcing: large companies hire out jobs (cleaners, security, customer service) to low-paying, often badly managed small companies, and that drives down wages, benefits, and job security. The most insane examples of this occur when laborers are pushed into being independent contractors or franchise owners. Officially they are “small business owners” but in practice, they have no control over their work and no opportunities to grow. The book is full of memorable (and enraging) vignettes and examples, making a dry argument about corporate structure really compelling.


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