The Man Who Broke Capitalism (2022) by New York Times columnist David Gelles contends that the pernicious greed spawned by former General Electric CEO Jack Welch is exceptionally responsible for exposing the structural failings of capitalism in the recent decades.
The danger inherent in any ideology grows stronger when it starts to thrive because it swiftly morphs into temptation—a voracious appetite for ever better “returns” in the present case. Welch was surely the most visible catalyst and a much-imitated champion of brutal capitalism. But Gelles’s narrative draws his book’s long subtitle (“How Jack Welch Gutted the Heartland and Crushed the Soul of Corporate America”) excessively, thrusting ad nauseam the well-founded thesis against Welch’s ploys and “the personification of American, alpha-male capitalism.” See my previous articles (here, here, and here) about how the faults of Welch’s strategy become evident many years after his retirement.
Gelles does an agreeable job of outlining the socioeconomic paradigm that has made modern western capitalism’s shortcomings ever more apparent. Starting with influential economist Milton Friedman’s decree in the ’70s that the one and only social responsibility of a business is to maximize profits, Gelles explains the revering of Welch’s “downsizing, deal-making, and financialization” strategy. Without balance, it provided short-term benefits for shareholders, but the long-term well-being of corporations and society lost out. What is most pertinent to the power of capitalism is a sense of restraint.
Capitalism isn’t irretrievably bound to fail, as Gelles rightly argues, but it needs to be rethought. It’s morally incumbent upon the social order to inhibit the embedded incentives that create powerful tendencies towards short-termism. Gelles offers no more realistic, objective insights than the familiar solutions prescribed by our career politicians.
On the whole, Gelles’s pro-Fabian polemic falls short of a fair-minded assessment of the epoch’s economic forces. Indeed, many of Welch’s tactics were timely and necessary, but he pushed them farther and longer. Too, Gelles fails to study counterexamples of many corporate leaders who’ve thoughtfully copied Welch’s playbook and helped their businesses and communities prosper, not least because they were restrained enough to avoid Welchism’s blowbacks.
Recommendation: Speed Read The Man Who Broke Capitalism for a necessary reappraisal of the legacy of Jack Welch. There isn’t much eye-opening here, but author Gelles affords a relevant parable about the power of restraint and the time- and context-validity of ideas.