An All Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America / One Market under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy

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An All Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America by Gary Cross. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 320 pages, hard cover.

One Market Under God. Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End ofEconomic Democracy by Thomas Frank. New York: Anchor Books, 2001. 436 pages, soft cover.

Corporate accounting scandals and reports of executive malfeasance have enjoyed wide coverage in the media and have led to a reevaluation of the role of business schools in teaching ethical behavior. With President George W. Bush calling for business schools to be "principled teachers of right and wrong and not surrender to moral confusion and relativism," the implication is that business schools are not doing enough to ensure that graduates who go out into the business world will conduct themselves in an ethically appropriate manner.

Struggling financial markets have created the impetus to determine why some executives behave unethically, and how to deter or punish ethical transgressions in order to restore investor confidence. Analyses tend to focus on greed as the cause of ethical lapses, and unethical behavior as the enemy of market stability. Although financial pundits readily acknowledge that greed has always existed, they suggest its rise corresponds to the availability of more sophisticated accounting means to pursue greed and hide wrongdoing and lax regulation and government oversight. (For an excellent discussion of this point, see John Cassidy, "The Greed Cycle," The New Yorker (Sept. 23, 2002), pp. 64-77.) Two recent books, An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America by Gary Cross and One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy by Thomas Frank trace changes in Americans' relationship with consumer-ism and the market. Their analyses of the changing values of consumers and investors go beyond the simple question of means and opportunity for executive wrongdoing to an examination of their potential motives. Although these books do not address the recent scandals and economic conditions in their analyses, their arguments could have predicted today's headlines. Both books emphasize how media and politics have served to shape beliefs and attitudes of American citizens concerning consumption and market participation. And both studies have important implications for returning confidence to the stock market and for the debate on corporate ethics and ethics curricula in business schools.

In One Market Under God, Thomas Frank traces the growth of the belief in "market populism." Populist revolts in the historical sense involved grassroots organization where individuals banded together to gain enough political representation to advocate on behalf of the "little guy" in the face of corporate power and influence. Those movements gained currency in the 1890s and led to various regulatory reforms. As resurrected in the late 20th century, "market" populism is the notion that financial markets respond to the will of the people. Accordingly, the workings of the market are seen as more legitimate than government in bringing about change and more effective in protecting the interests of the individual investor. According to Frank, the confluence of the shift away from industrialism and toward a New Economy and the growth of technology and the Internet created an American public exuberant and gullible in its belief that financial markets were now accessible to all with no end to the profits that could be made. Americans not only began to believe that "a rising tide lifts all boats" but were now certain that the tide would rise indefinitely and everyone had an equal chance to get his or her boat in the water.

In Frank's view, the market populism idea was developed and disseminated by corporations interested in gaining access to investor dollars and weakening government oversight. Frank makes a compelling argument of how media portrayals in the 1990's reinforced the notion of the market as suddenly available to the little guy without government or corporate interference. …