A little more than a generation ago, a stealthy revolution swept America. It was a dual changing of the guard: Two tribes, two attitudes, two approaches to a good society were simultaneously displaced by upstart rivals. In the world of business, the manufacturing bosses gave way to Wall Street dealmakers, bent on breaking up their empires. “Organization Man,” as the journalist William H. Whyte had christened the corporate archetype in his 1956 book, was ousted by “Transaction Man,” to cite Nicholas Lemann’s latest work of social history. In the world of public policy, lawyers who counted on large institutions to deliver prosperity and social harmony lost influence. In their place rose quantitative thinkers who put their faith in markets. It was The Economists’ Hour, as the title of the New York Times editorial writer Binyamin Appelbaum’s debut book has it.
Together, Lemann and Appelbaum contribute to the second wave of post-2008 commentary. The first postmortems focused narrowly on the global financial crisis, dissecting the distorted incentives, regulatory frailty, and groupthink that caused bankers to blow up the world economy. The new round of analysis broadens the lens, searching out larger political and intellectual wrong turns, an expansion that reflects the morphing of the 2008 crash into a general populist surge. By excavating history, Lemann and Appelbaum remind us that Transaction Man and his economist allies were not always ascendant, and that they won’t necessarily remain so. This frees both writers to ask whether an alternative social contract might be imaginable, or preferable.
The first section of Lemann’s elegant history conjures up the corporatist order that preceded Transaction Man’s arrival. The story is shaped around Adolf Berle, a lawyer who, with the statistician Gardiner Means, wrote The Modern Corporation and Private Property, a classic study of the concentration of power in the hands of company managers. Before the publication of that masterpiece, in 1932, other authors had drawn attention to what one of them called the “prestidigitation, double shuffling, honey-fugling, hornswaggling, and skullduggery” employed by corporate executives to dupe their supposed masters, the shareholders. Berle went further. He laid out in detail how shareholders, being so dispersed and numerous, could not hope to restrain bosses—indeed, how nobody could do so. Enormous powers to shape society belonged to company chieftains who answered to no one. Hence Berle’s prescription: The government should regulate them.