Fire MBAs, Race Like Rats -- Surviving a Double Dip: Books

The cover jacket of "Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race" by Todd G. Buchholz. Source: Penguin Group via Bloomberg

U.S. labor isn’t working, to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s slogan, and many investors are bracing for a double-dip recession. With about one out of every six American workers unemployed or underemployed, what to do?

Learn to love the rat race, advises hedge-fund veteran Todd Buchholz. Sack the MBA-educated bean counters, says auto executive Bob Lutz. Manage the Mafia way, counsels Louis Ferrante, a tough guy turned motivational speaker.

These, I kid not, are the recommendations of three new books that address, in wildly different ways, a question bedeviling advanced economies: How can we revive growth? Especially now when output is stalling, S&P downgrades the U.S.’s credit rating to AA+ from AAA, stock markets gyrate and full employment exists only for bickering politicians.

Start with Buchholz, whose mercurial career has included stints as a Harvard economics teacher, a White House adviser, and a managing director at Julian Robertson’s Tiger Management LLC hedge fund. In “Rush,” he argues that competition -- the mad race to get ahead and one-up the Joneses -- isn’t the root of evil, as social critics aver. It’s the source of happiness.

Preposterous, you say? Buchholz himself once thought so. He originally set out to write a book positing the opposite: Americans were losing their souls by chasing ever more money, success and tummy tucks.

Survival, Mojitos

That theory fell apart, he says, as he delved into the findings of neuroscience, anthropology and behavioral economics. His conclusion: Competition and happiness are so interconnected that we can’t have one without the other, no matter how much we long to go on vacation or even, heaven forbid, retire.

“Happiness is not a peaceful, frictionless bliss,” he says. “That would be mixing up happiness with dozing off to sleep.”

Like it or not, thousands of years of evolution have burned competitiveness into our DNA, driving humans to develop lifesaving vaccines as well as bank-killing financial instruments. Though we yearn to return to the Garden of Eden, our minds and bodies are designed to maximize survival, not to ensure happiness. We’re programmed to overcome poverty and fight off predators, not guzzle mojitos while channel surfing.

Happy Momentum

Our frontal lobes, for example, are time machines that allow us to imagine and plan for the future. Programmed to think about tomorrow, we tend to feel happy when our lives have forward momentum, Buchholz says. Especially if the momentum leaves the Joneses eating our dust.

Part pop professor, part circus barker, Buchholz is consistently provocative, though he sometimes crosses the line between funny and forced. “Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living,” he says. “True, I suppose. But the overexamined life is not worth living, either.”

That comment would make a fitting epigraph for Lutz’s book, “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters.” Here, in outspoken detail, the former vice chairman of General Motors Co. describes how executives armed with master’s degrees in business administration drove America’s biggest automaker into the ground by being “too clever by half,” as the Brits say.

GM’s Flaw

Yes, union demands contributed to GM’s ignominious skid into bankruptcy protection. Government meddling didn’t help, either. Then there’s the murderous cost advantage Japanese and European carmakers hold: Their health-care expenditures are nonexistent or minimal thanks to universal medical coverage funded by taxes on society as a whole, as Lutz reminds us.

Yet GM’s fatal flaw was more insidious, Lutz suggests. The outfit that spawned both sleek Camaros and tinny Vegas became mired, he says, in “the deliberate intellectualizing of a very simple task: creating and selling a meaningfully superior product or service to the public.”

This deep dysfunction became clear to Lutz just weeks before he rejoined the company in 2001. Sitting on a patio with chief designer Wayne Cherry, he flipped through binders containing photos of cars under development.

“It was a horror show,” he writes, recalling the parade of clunky clay models.

GM’s product-development system, it turns out, was giving powerful senior executives, not designers, the final say on how a car would look, he says. The execs were understandably preoccupied with quantifiable objectives, such as assembly time, warranty costs, percentage of reused parts and speed of execution. This MBA-driven process, however well intentioned, produced “perfect mediocrity.”

‘Mob Rules’

If number crunchers are choking your enterprise, take tips from what Ferrante calls “the longest-running corporation in history,” the Mafia. A self-professed former associate of the Gambino family, he presents 88 management lessons in “Mob Rules: What the Mafia Can Teach the Legitimate Businessman.”

His topics range from confidence building (“why a mobster makes his son pull the trigger”) to networking (“it’s good to go to a funeral as long as it’s not yours”). What we get is common sense dressed up as parables about executions and how to avoid ending up in a car trunk.

Ferrante, who wised up after doing time in prison, closes the book on a cautionary note about the risks of surrendering to our most primitive instincts. You should read Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” he advises, only to learn “how low your competitors may stoop, and then rise above the muck.”

“Rush” is published by Hudson Street (304 pages, $29.95). “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters” (241 pages, $26.95) and “Mob Rules” (248 pages, $25.95) are both from Portfolio/Penguin.

To buy these books in North America, click here for “Rush,” here for “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters” and here for “Mob Rules.”

(James Pressley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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