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Interest rate rises, galloping inflation, supply chain disruption, white-hot post-pandemic labour markets, and a backdrop of geopolitical and environmental crisis: the titles longlisted for this year’s Financial Times Business Book of the Year shed new light on some of the most pressing business issues of the moment.
The 15 books, filtered by FT journalists from nearly 600 entries, include histories, polemics, investigations and analyses of the challenges facing the global economy and some of the world’s best-known corporate names, from General Electric and Boeing to Tencent and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company.
Several heavyweight histories are vying for the £30,000 prize. They include J Bradford DeLong’s forthcoming Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century, which analyses the years from 1870 to 2010. “By the standards of all of the rest of human history, [this period was] much more marvellous than terrible,” writes DeLong. But still, despite the extraordinary increases in material wealth, the “long century” did not fulfil utopian expectations.
From a different perspective, Gary Gerstle’s The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in the Free Market Era traces how the western world embraced “neoliberalism” and the creed of free trade and free markets in the closing decades of the 20th century. A broad spectrum of politicians — from Ronald Reagan to the leaders of the New Left — unleashed the power of capitalism, triggering some of the unforeseen consequences the world is now experiencing.
Helen Thompson’s well-timed Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century addresses the tensions that exploded at the start of this year with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She weaves together domestic, economic and geopolitical strands of recent history, against the volatile backdrop of energy politics, to show how energy still drives some of the most powerful and disruptive political trends.
Another historical angle is taken by Edward Chancellor in The Price of Time: The Real Story of Interest, a polemical attack on the credo of low interest rates that has prevailed in recent years. Whether you agree with his take or not, his message coincides with the efforts of big central banks to wield the monetary tool to curb rising inflation.
Three longlisted books delve into some of the tensions behind that inflationary surge.
Direct: The Rise of the Middleman Economy and the Power of Going to the Source, by Kathryn Judge, examines the sometimes dangerous growth of “powerful middlemen and long supply chains”, from banks, to retailers, to real estate agents. Judge points out how the benefits also bring outsized power and makes the case for a return to more direct exchange, which improves both accountability and resilience.
Chris Miller’s Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology, out in October, directly addresses one of those long supply chains, the complex and increasingly fragile network that builds and assembles semiconductors, the “new oil” on which many digital and electrical products and services, from kettles to electric cars and nuclear power stations, now depend. Tension around Taiwan has revealed global dependency on a few manufacturers.
The fierce war for staff is one contributor to economic stress. From interviews to incentives, Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World, by Tyler Cowen (longlisted in 2019 for Big Business) and Daniel Gross, is a highly practical guide to identifying and recruiting such people, while at the same time ensuring that hirers spread their net wide enough to ensure they assemble a diverse and innovative team.
This year’s corporate blockbusters include former winner William D Cohan, who took the prize in 2007 with The Last Tycoons, about Lazard Frères. In his forthcoming Power Failure: The Rise and Fall of General Electric, he tackles the extraordinary reputational and financial fall of the conglomerate, once a seemingly impregnable bellwether for the US industrial and corporate sector. Cohan himself calls it “a cautionary tale about hubris, blind ambition, and the limits of believing — and trying to live up continuously to — a flawed corporate mythology”.
Peter Robison takes on another US corporate icon — Boeing — in Flying Blind: The 737 Max Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing. It is the story of the tension between profit motives and engineering excellence that, in Robison’s account, led to the fatal crashes of two 737 Max 8 aircraft in 2018 and 2019 — an outcome blamed in part on Boeing’s adherence to the efficiency-led strategies of GE’s former chief executive Jack Welch.
On the other side of the world, the rise of Tencent, developer of China’s “everything app” WeChat, is the subject of Lulu Yilun Chen’s Influence Empire: The Story of Tencent and China’s Tech Ambition. She traces the career of its founder, the media-shy programmer Pony Ma. Chen also explains how he and his creation fit into the Chinese technological and entrepreneurial revolution, in addition to playing their part in the politics and politicking of modern China.
Another former winner, Sebastian Mallaby (whose biography of Alan Greenspan, The Man Who Knew, triumphed in 2016) makes another appearance on the longlist with The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Art of Disruption. It is a deep dig into the roots of the venture capital industry that underpinned the rise of Silicon Valley. Mallaby attempts to answer the question “Did the VCs create the success, or did they merely show up for it?”
UK venture capitalist Kate Bingham is the co-author of another longlisted book, The Long Shot: The Inside Story of the Race to Vaccinate Britain, with Tim Hames, due to be published in October. They take readers into the heart of the fight against coronavirus, drawing on Bingham’s experience after the government rushed her into place as head of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce. Under her it made an audacious and successful bet on development of the first vaccines, in the face of criticism and under immense pressure.
A less savoury view of the UK’s entrepreneurial nous is taken by Oliver Bullough in Butler to the World: How Britain Became the Servant of Tycoons, Tax Dodgers, Kleptocrats and Criminals, his polemical take on how the country deployed its post-imperial institutions into the service of the corrupt super-rich. Bullough’s richly colourful contention is that London not only launders the dirty money of bad people, but also enables them to dodge the rules and make more of it.
The central tale of Dead in the Water: Murder and Fraud in the World’s Most Secretive Industry, by Matthew Campbell and Kit Chellel, also takes place in London, as a fascinating court battle unfolds over what happened to the Brillante Virtuoso, a tanker attacked by armed men and set on fire just off Aden in Yemen in 2011. In what is more than a simple whodunnit, Campbell and Chellel use the emerging courtroom revelations of fraud and unsolved murder to shed light on the role of the UK in shipping finance.
Finally, Gaia Vince’s soon to be published Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval paints a bleak picture of encroaching disaster due to unavoidable climate change, but also outlines radical solutions involving migration to the further northern and southern reaches of the globe. Vince lays out how governments, businesses, and individuals can — and must — prepare for this “species emergency”, if they are to lay the foundations for the eventual recovery of the planet.
Additional research by Lily Willis
The winner of the £30,000 prize will be the book that offers the “most compelling and enjoyable insight” into business issues. The shortlisted titles will each receive £10,000. The shortlist of six titles will be announced live, via Twitter, on September 22. The winner of the award, and the winner of the £15,000 Bracken Bower Prize (for business book proposals by an author aged under 35) will be announced on December 5. Read more about the award at www.ft.com/bookaward. Consult a complete interactive list of all the books longlisted since the award began in 2005 at https://ig.ft.com/sites/business-book-award/.
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