*Publisher’s Weekly* on my next book *Big Business*

My subtitle is A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero, and here is the review:

Cowen (The Great Stagnation), an economics professor at George Mason University, counters complaints of fraudulent corporate behavior, excessive CEO pay, invasions of privacy, oppressive work culture, and corporate influence on government in this spirited defense of big business. He creatively mines polls, economic data, and even social psychology to argue that big business has, on balance, been unfairly judged. Disarmingly, he acknowledges that it’s not perfect—he criticizes the health care industry, notes that corporate cultures have not responded well to sexual harassment, and recognizes threats to privacy from the technology sector—but then he hedges: health care consolidation, he says, is at least partly the result of government regulation; corporations are now responding to sexual harassment; and traditionally generated gossip may well be a bigger threat than breaches of data privacy. Cowen is a smart, original thinker with a knack for reframing criticisms in the context of a larger, utilitarian perspective (drugs produced by pharmaceutical companies save lives, Google Maps gets us where we want to go) that implicitly endorses the current economic system; he comes off more like a lawyer than an ideologue. This analysis is unlikely to convince readers skeptical of big business of its virtue, but it provides food for thought.

Here is information to purchase the book.


You should have just called it The Bugman Manifesto.

'He creatively mines' - that this was highlighted by a book author probably brought a bit of joy to the writer of that blurb.

'but then he hedges' - the writer just might be familiar with this web site.

'he comes off more like a lawyer than an ideologue' - well, that is certainly a compliment, considering the high esteem we all have for lawyers. Though it is amusing that Prof. Cowen apparently did not come off like an economist, such as this one, who clearly had no interest in acting like a lawyer when talking about business - “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

If this blog did not exist, you would have no reason to live, would you?

Hard to imagine, but if this web site disappeared tomorrow after posting what a long running facade it actually was, that result would be fantastic.

Of course, that is not going to happen, because web sites like are far too valuable to things like painting billionaires as poor picked on people who deserve our slavish devotion - as already so well modelled here.

That's appears to be a yes. Thank you.

And here I was, thinking that the answer to 'If this blog did not exist, you would have no reason to live, would you?' was no.

To put it differently, if this web site had never existed it would not be a reason to stop living, and if this web site was to permanently disappear in an hour, it would also not be a reason to stop living.

I am not going to go into tedious detail about how old fashioned this commenting system is, but the amusing thing is that if MR were to go to something like disqus, I would keep on living without ever bothering to comment here again. I can deal with switching javascript on and off at need, and only the naive think this place is not extensively data mined, but it is always refreshing to see someplace that remains frozen sometime around 2007. Metafilter is another example of old school in this vein - that site going away would be a major loss, along the lines of the recent death of X-Ray Burns at WFMU.

You are welcome.

You should write your own blog.

Call it Marginal Revolution Revolution

If this blog ended then clockwork prior could continue his educational work elsewhere. Being interested in learning, I’d sign up to see that too.

Is it just me, or have they backed off using Smith in their arguments?
Seems there are some major traps for neo-liberals in Wealth of Nations.

I predict this will be Cowen's worst selling book written for a popular audience.

Interesting that the subtitle is "A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero." A love letter? It must be a joke or Straussian. Arguments make the best love letters! The only thing more romantic than a well reasoned polemic is one with lots of data, practicality and hedging.

The "American Anti-Hero" description? Who is the prototypical American anti-hero? Huck Finn, The Man With No Name, Don Corleone? Nah, the faceless, all powerful, legal and inhuman institutions who are central to nobody's life, except perhaps the CEO and board, if they are not out to lunch themselves.

Maybe it's a Girardian thing. Tyler is drawn to write this love letter through memetic desire.

What is really hilarious is just how 'antihero' can be defined, as seen in this sentence - 'An antihero or antiheroine is a main character in a story who lacks conventional heroic qualities and attributes such as idealism, courage and morality.'

Because when it comes to American big business, it is at least accurate to say very few people associate it with idealism, courage, or morality.

People are likely to have even more fun with this book than the one where Prof. Cowen says that creating favelas in America for the underclass would be desirable, though arguably, this book could be seen as just a sequel to Average Is Over.

Killer point. American big business sucks.

If only we didn’t have Standard Oil, Google, IBM, Apple, etc. our lives would be so much better.

We could be like every other fifth rate country on planet earth that lives off economic public goods generated by American corporations...

Sorry to spoil your fun! But do go on....

Just imagine how awesome Government would be if it weren't for Big Business preventing progress all these many decades...

'We could be like every other fifth rate country on planet earth that lives off economic public goods generated by American corporations'

Or we could be more like Germany, you know, the country where both the diesel and gasoline motor were invented, with companies like Mercedes, BMW, and Porsche remaining world renowned for their quality and innovation. Oddly, GM has basically left the European market, having sold off its operations to PSA, a French company.

And Germany is the country that just happens to be where the HQ of America's largest truck manufacturer is located.

And from what was Andriod created? - why, a GPL OS created by a Finnish programmer. Though who would care that much about Android if it weren't for the WWW using HTML - oddly enough, another creation from Europe.

Odd how neither Linux nor HTML had anything to do with a big American business, isn't it?

Sorry, Germany is a wonderful country and certainly the class of Western Europe economically speaking...but their wonderful auto industry is a derivation of an industry originally conceived of in the US.

Again you can have all of the economic public goods developed by the rest of the world and I’ll happily take what the US has generated....

"American big business"

Now do Volkswagen.

I know I shouldn't...


Girard, I’m afraid, may explain all, and how he maintained his generous nature would be great to know, but say more please. What, or which, mimetic desire?

An interesting quote about excessive CEO pay:

[ Labor advocates are also fond of appealing to their readers’ sense of fairness by arguing that CEO pay at the company proves it can afford a $15 minimum wage. But the math here also doesn’t add up. Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon earned a combined $19.4 million compensation package in 2015, including salary, stock options, and other perks. That makes for a dramatic sound bite. But if this money was somehow divided between all 2.3 million Wal-Mart associates, each associate would get a one-time $8.43 bonus—that’s it. ]

Now divide up the annual earnings of the that the family members who inherited majority ownership of Walmart.


Interesting that Wapo used the Walton's and not the actual CEOs pay. The guys who manage payroll are clearly less involved in the process.

'...he comes off more like a lawyer than an ideologue...'
- it is worthy of a genuine 'lol'

"health care consolidation, he says, is at least partly the result of government regulation" That's not entirely false. A criticism of health care leading up to reform was that the industry was too "fragmented": many small, inefficient providers. Consolidation was considered the answer, especially the consolidation of all those small, inefficient physician practices. With consolidation, it was expected that physicians could afford to adopt more efficient practices, such as electronic medical records. And after HCR, consolidation it was, as hospitals accelerated direct employment of physicians (hospitals now employ over 50% of all physicians) and large multi-specialty group practices flourished.

What wasn't considered, or adequately considered, is that consolidation might produce higher prices (i.e., reimbursement), as the large hospital organizations and group practices began to dominate the market and could demand higher reimbursement from third party payers because of their large patient base. And this phenomenon, in turn, motivated more consolidation, as those left behind in the wave of consolidations suffered lower reimbursement and even threats of exclusion.

What the experts didn't understand is that the nascent bend in the cost curve was the result of competition, as independent (of hospitals), much more efficient, lower-cost, outpatient facilities proliferated. So what happened? Hospitals absorbed much of the competition, leaving the surviving independent and much more efficient, lower-cost, outpatient facilities with lower reimbursement, and the less efficient, higher-cost hospital organizations with a larger share of the market and higher reimbursement. It's a combination of a misguided policy and bigness that got us to where we are today. Now, for the cynics among us, this is all by design, for it will make government regulation of the industry much easier than when it was so "fragmented".

+1 for objectivity
local hospital prices are apparently up about 60%!! since Obamacare
and all the politicians who "fixed" health care cant explain and don't wanna talka about the reason for the cost increases

It's not that big business is bad, it's just there is no significant alternative. For many professionals, such as STEM, etc., who do not want to be in academia, there are too few government and non-profit / institutional opportunities. These people want to practice their vocation, but not be subject to an intense and ruthless corporate culture. Their predictable but reliable sheep-like expectations can be met in a different environment. It is not about being in a union or a hyper-pensionalized entitlement zone, but being part of that work spectrum that is not subject to the extreme polarity of corporate 'high school cafeteria'. It need not be subsidized and can certainly be highly regulated, which would fit with Engineering, Lawyering, and Doctoring. I think that much of the new gig economy gets it, but it just has to be more formalized. Of course, it would probably need exclusive access to some types of markets such as government contracts. Its all about diversity.

sorta weak/dumb review/er of what is probably gonna be
a pretty good book

This book sounds like it could work for these times. There are a lot of good things to say about business, and big business. An American of any age has memories of businesses growing large while satisfying millions of customers. The older you are, the more waves you've seen, and the more times you've been the satisfied customer.

I don't know about you, but we go to Costco once a week.

Still there is a flip side and a pernicious risk specific to big business. One is that is that it encourages workers to see themselves in an amoral role, in which moral decisions are conducted elsewhere (by executives, or lawyers, or in worst case courts). We wouldn't blame the guy who ran the tractor building the failed slurry dam. We probably shouldn't blame the designer either, if he was given constraints by management. And maybe we shouldn't blame management if they were given an optimistic environmental report. And maybe that report wasn't so bad if it footnoted risks ..

If big business is good, strong oversight is good too, because big business doesn't have the structure, or incentives, to do strong moral reasoning internally.

I was trying to think of an example moral lapse .. cheating on diesel engine control/emissions probably fits the bill. And there probably isn't one single villain to be found, just an organization that drifted into what seemed an economically efficient decision.

'cheating on diesel engine control/emissions probably fits the bill'

Over decades - what did you think this was the first or second time VW cheated? Or that VW was unique? 'Specifically, Volkswagen’s Fastback and Squareback 1973 models would sense low temperatures and cut out the cars’ exhaust recirculation system. In addition, 1973 VW buses had switches that would override “the transmission controlled spark-advance system at low temperatures.”

A year later Volkswagen, based in what was then West Germany, agreed to pay $120,000 to settle the charges but did not admit any wrongdoing.

Around the same time, the EPA also reprimanded six manufacturers—GM, Ford, Chrysler, American Motors, Nissan, and Toyota—for installing devices which would "defeat the effectiveness of emission control systems under conditions not experienced during EPA’s certification testing.”' https://arstechnica.com/cars/2017/09/volkswagens-emissions-cheating-scandal-has-a-long-complicated-history/

Do read the whole article - big car manufacturers have been cheating for decades, and continue to do so even after being caught doing it in the past.

Not to mention truck manufacturers - '1998 was a good year for the EPA Enforcement Action writer. In October of that year, the EPA reached a settlement with seven of the largest heavy-duty diesel manufacturers in the US—Caterpillar, Cummins Engine Company, Detroit Diesel Corporation, Mack Trucks, Navistar International Transportation Corporation, Renault Vehicules Industriels, and Volvo Truck Corporation. The accusations were eerily familiar to those made by the EPA against Volkswagen today.'

These aren't lapses, these are business as usual, until (if) they get caught.

"These aren't lapses, these are business as usual.."

I don't believe *that*. I think people are mostly good, and in whatever organization they serve, they try to do good. But they, all us humans, stumble. If I recall correctly, Dan Ariely has some good work on situational thinking, including in organizations.

It's just another part of our nature that we simplify things, and attach evil to the other. Far leftists blame big business. Far rightists blame big government.

They are both making a category error.

Its the humans and their organizations.

'I don't believe *that*.'

Read the article. The number of repeat offenders comes in a roughly 20 year cycle, just long enough to imagine that a new group of people come up through the ranks, and think they can get away with cheating. It is not a lapse, it is a pattern, one dating back to the introduction of emission and fuel economy standards.

>big business doesn't have the structure, or incentives, to do strong moral reasoning internally.

And what, Big Government does? Jesus, man.

Big Business has problems for sure, but most of them have to do with being Big -- which is a problem that Big Government has 100x worse.

I am sure I have said this before, but certain problems are universal to human organizations. To lay it on thick, but to be serious at the same time, this is the kind of thing that leads one to a pragmatic politics.

If any organization, public, private, nonprofit, even religions, can become morally lost, that is the reason that none can be preeminent. They must be placed in tension, to achieve balance.

TPM is correct. The problem with Big Business is the big part not the business part.

To address the statement above about moral lapses in big business, here's a list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_corporate_collapses_and_scandals
52 of the biggest absolute collapses and 67 scandals that didn't result in collapse. Not sure which is worse...

Oh, and if you're interested, here are 91 scandals that are purely accounting scandals: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accounting_scandals

Big business is rife with this kind of behavior. Read "The Big Four" by two former accounting partners. Our (now global) system of financial reporting and oversight is an absolute disgrace.

We might be on the same page. I said

"It's just another part of our nature that we simplify things, and attach evil to the other. Far leftists blame big business. Far rightists blame big government.

They are both making a category error.

Its the humans and their organizations."

It occurred to me during my hike that while Tyler is right that big business can and does do good, there is a parallel book that makes the same case for big government.


Both might be true at the same time.

"he comes off more like a lawyer than an ideologue": sue the bastard for every penny, Mr Cowen. It's no light thing to be compared to a shyster.

notes that corporate cultures have not responded well to sexual harassment,

What does 'responding well' mean? Turning every disagreeable social encounter into an opportunity for grift and graft by trial lawyers?

Have you sold the movie rights yet?

Well, if he had planned that, the subtitle would be 'A Love Letter to an American Super Hero' because that seems to be where the movie money is flowing most lucratively.

Definitely a romantic comedy. A bearded econ prof falls for a beautiful and incredibly wealthy female CEO of a large corp. As they enter the building of the corp headquarters one day, a scruffy crowd of hoi polloi are protesting, led by an obvious leftist academic who is spouting nonsense from a mic. Our anti-hero grabs the mic from the leftist and lectures the crowd on what they owe corporations. As he lectures, the crowd turns from angry protesters to obeisant admirers. Or something like that.

The econ prof and the female CEO have to be cutely at odds with each other for the first 45 minutes. At some point the CEO (Tea Leoni?) also has her eye on some amoral alpha financier but eventually realizes the good-guy prof is the one for her.

So many possibilities.

"A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero"

Howard Roark chortled.

Never knew the frequency of sexual harassment in the workplace is really near the top of the list in most thoughtful critiques of capitalism. Can't wait to read this Quoxitic slaying of strawmen.

"Cowen is a smart, original thinker..." No one has ever praised corporations or corporate CEO's? Please. I will read it, however.

I hope there is a section on their influence on politics and how they manipulate things like the minimum wage to destroy competition.

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