Two Tales from the Front Lines of Capitalism

Two things that appeared on the radar.

Ian Frazier in 2010 Photo by Larry D. Moore via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve noted the skinny on Sandy Frazier before.  Well, he’s added to his repertoire in the February 6 issue of The New Yorker. In a piece entitled Out of the Bronx, he looks at the impact of private equity. Specifically he looks ta the acquisition of  Stella D’Oro, a longtime maker of specialty baked goods, by a private equity firm, Brynwood Partners.

The business press allows for a limited number of hatchet jobs, usually on agreed-upon miscreants. That makes sense–readers don’t like to be told what they’re interested in is bad, wrong, evil–and publishing is a commercial enterprise. But that leaves a lot of ground uncovered.

Frazier does not have his hatchet out. He does have a keen reportorial eye, though, and he lets the facts as he encounters them speak for themselves. In this context, the relative openness of the workers and small town politicians stands in stark contrast to the monolithic silence of the PE investors and corporate managers.

That makes the matter of fact reporting of profits, returns and bonuses all the more damning. As a snapshot of how the economy benefits some groups while others just don’t see improvement,  it provides a human perspective on what’s all too easily dismissed as creative destruction or a dynamic economic system. I would say that maybe Frazier is a business writer, too, but he’s really just a great writer. (The New Yorker site is subscriber only but the abstract gives a good flavor. It’s worth finding the issue or downloading it to your iPad.)

Meanwhile, it’s prognostication week at The Atlantic and the subject is education. More specifically, the subject is what becomes of post-secondary education if MIT‘s distance learning, which issues certificates for course completion, proves successful. The author claims no special ability in this area and even admits that there are powerful forces working to preserve education as is. She then proceeds to subject the entire question to an analysis based on major disruption.

There are probably quibbles to be made with any of the 12 enumerated and explicated points. Two and a half days after posting the piece has already received 550 comments. But what struck me was the view behind the exercise in the first place. As I’ve come to expect from the MBA crowd the view is narrow and bottom-line focused.  So we hear that liberal arts are hard to test efficiently, lower financial burdens for graduates will generate investment and  risk taking which is “great for everyone,” research will “have to strike someone with lots of money at their disposal as relevant,” and my favorite “I tend to think that it almost always is [good for society] when things get cheaper.”

I’m not wise enough to handicap this one. I do recognize an all too familiar view of education in which the desired outcome is defined as an input to the economy. I’m far too romantic about education–not the “four-year, debt-financed semi-vacation” alluded to here–to not demur. To me, a cramped narrow worldview in which the relevant yardsticks are all economic describes the worst possible outcome of an allegedly educational process. But I’m a lot clearer now about Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World.

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One thought on “Two Tales from the Front Lines of Capitalism

  1. Pingback: What’s in a Name? | An Honest Con

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