Edmans, Soukup, and Devine: 2021 Book Review Roundup

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We saw some great books on economics and politics published over the past year, and some excellent book reviews. Just this week, my colleague Ryan Young reviewed a few of fascinating new tomes: Keith Stanovich’s The Bias that Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking and (in a joint review) Ryan Bourne’s Economics in One Virus and Caleb Fuller’s There Is No Free Lunch.

I was also fortunate to have reviewed several fascinating books this year, and I thank the editors who published those reviews. I’ve pulled out a few excerpts to those reviews below, so enjoy this look back to the hardcover history of 2021 before we step boldly into the new year.

Alex Edmans, Grow the Pie: How Great Companies Deliver Both Purpose and Profit (Cambridge University Press). Reviewed in Law & Liberty:

Milton Friedman taught us that corporate managers should focus on profitable operations and building shareholder value, while enlightened globalists like World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab insist that we should all embrace “environmental, social, and governance” (ESG) theory. The latter demands that, in addition to seeking profitability, CEOs and managers should use their firm to address a long list of issues like climate change and gender equality.

Conventional analysis puts the traditionalists on the right politically and ESG advocates on the left, but a new book by Professor Alex Edmans of London Business School confounds that dichotomy. In Grow the Pie: How Great Companies Deliver Both Purpose and Profit, Edmans argues that “enterprises can create both profit for investors and value for society.” [Emphasis in original]

I also wrote up my reaction to Edmans’s remarks at an event in November sponsored by Indiana University and the European Corporate Governance Institute titled “ESG: Do We Need It and Does It Work?” My blog post “High CEO Pay Isn’t Making Anyone Poor” also referenced Edmans’s research and analysis on executive compensation.

Steve Soukup, The Dictatorship of Woke Capital: How Political Correctness Captured Big Business (Encounter Books). Review at the Foundation for Economic Education:

How did corporate America, long considered one of the most conservative American institutions, become a lead protagonist in a culture war over all manner of progressive activism?

We now have a routine spectacle of corporate social responsibility seminars and environmental, social, and governance—or ESG—conferences, where widget makers of all kinds commit to promoting climate activism, identity politics, union labor, and sundry other causes. Somehow, selling an honest product at a fair price seems like a secondary concern in a corporate America increasingly focused on an array of stakeholders with such diffuse boundaries as “the local community,” “the global environment,” and “society at large.”

How did we get here?

Soukup participated in a Competitive Enterprise Institute book forum in March that included myself and CEI President Kent Lassman. His book has received much praise since it was published, including being selected by The Wall Street Journal as one of top five politics books published in 2021.

Den Devine, The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order (Encounter Books). Reviewed at the Foundation for Economic Education:

Don Devine’s ambitious new volume is that rare published work that delivers an even larger and broader message than its title promises. A focus on the practice, history, and ethics of capitalism would itself be enough for several volumes, but Devine’s work is nothing less than a history of Western civilization, including the origins of human society, religion, and morality itself. Readers looking for a digestible survey of business ethics or a mere guide to socially responsible investing will quickly find themselves in over their heads.

As the title’s “tension”—and the cover’s bold half-orange, half-silver design—suggests, we are in for a study of dichotomies, in which twin opposing visions struggle for dominance. Starting his narrative in ancient times, Devine describes the early “cosmological” societies, like ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia, in which religious belief and civic life were seamlessly combined. These societies were challenged by the rise of Christianity, which emphasized the importance of individual belief and acknowledged the distinction, and occasional antagonism, between religious and civil authority.

CEI’s background with Devine goes back a long way. When the late Robert Novak wrote the introduction to our book Field Guide for Effective Communication in 2004, he said he had known Devine as “a brilliant political strategist” for 30 years. He’s only gotten wiser since then. See also Wayne Crews’s references to Devine’s work (and his classic 1991 book Reagan’s Terrible Swift Sword) in this Forbes column on Trump-era regulatory reform.