Even in the seemingly dry world of money and economics, you can't get away from human psychology. Confidence levels (how they're feeling about the future) among corporate leaders determine investment spending and hiring. Indeed, between business reticence and consumer hesitance, we are quite capable of talking ourselves into a recession. One need only glance at the volatility and quick declines in financial markets earlier this year to know investors sometimes let fear and even panic direct their actions. We can keep improving technology and business efficiency, but human nature and psychology are tougher nuts to crack.
The brain and its relationship to money is at the heart of Money Talks: Candid Conversations About Wealth in America by Robert Koppel. Mr. Koppel has had a fascinating career that includes stints as a VISTA volunteer in the inner cities of America and as a hugely successful futures trader in Chicago who subsequently lost his fortune. Looking back at his roller-coaster financial ride, he writes: For me it [money] is both a responsibility and an obligation. I also am convinced that I needed to lose my money in order to find its proper role in my life. Money is not only a medium of monetary value, but an expression of personal values. In addition to his own briefly told money story, Mr. Koppel interviews a couple dozen people about their attitudes toward and relationship with money. He asks about their earliest memories of money, how it was treated in their families while they were growing up, and about their current attempts to put money in its proper place in their lives. The interview subjects inhabit a wide range of occupations. They are universally intelligent and honest about a subject not often discussed in public. They range from successful financial markets traders to a judge to an office manager to an art historian to a professional gambler. Some themes emerge from the interviews. There is a yearning for simpler lives. Most of the interviewees are not young people just starting out, so they have a sense of perspective about money and note that it doesn't have the power for happiness they may have falsely ascribed to it when they were younger. Read separately or together, the interviews and Mr. Koppel's conclusions offer interesting insights into the role of money in people's lives.
Cloe Madanes takes her shot at the connection between mind and money in The Secret Meaning of Money: How to Prevent Financial Problems from Destroying Our Most Intimate Relationships. The family therapist (with her brother Claudio Madanes as co-author) ranges widely in this book to show how money issues (broadly defined) can threaten marriages and parent/adult-child relationships. The authors write: Most people don't even think of consulting a therapist when they are plagued by financial conflicts. Yet probably more marriages break up because of disagreements about money than any other reason. The book is kept interesting by the use of case studies, often married couples in different stages of life. One of the book's recurrent themes is that monetary conflicts between loved ones are often symbolic of deeper issues, such as a parent's attempt to control a child or one spouse's attempt to control the other. Some of the therapist's suggestions for resolving problems seem unusual. For example, when discussing problems of young couples, this advice is given: A troubled spouse should blame his or her own parents. The authors write: "All behaviors that are not appreciated by your spouse can be explained as originating in your childhood. Nothing unites a couple better than to have a common enemy. Your parents can help your marriage by becoming the objects of your blame."
Psychology and self-worth are also central to The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism by sociologist Richard Sennett. He's concerned not so much with money, but with what we do with the majority of our lives in order to obtain it work. Mr. Sennett presents an intellectually challenging picture of the downside of the new economy. Flexibility and nearly constant change are replacing the old rules of single-company employment and coherent careers. The professor of sociology at the London School of Economics and New York University ranges far in this enlightening and sometimes complex book. There are references to 18th-century French philosophers as well as intriguing here-and-now profiles of workers and managers. If the new economy can be summarized in the phrase no long term, the author posits, it spells trouble for the long-term human values most of us still hold dear; namely, loyalty, trust, and commitment. It is the time dimension of the new capitalism, rather than high-tech data transmission, global stock markets, or free trade, which most directly affects people's emotional lives outside the workplace, he writes. He finds the freedom promised by flexible work elusive if decentralized; multi-function work groups are still expected to meet ambitious financial goals set by a central authority. One particularly interesting part of the book details the author's trip to a Boston bakery 25 years earlier (which he wrote about in a different book). A quarter-century ago, the bread-baking was hard, sometimes dangerous work done by a unionized group of Greek immigrant men. Now the baking is computerized. The work force is polyglot and includes part-timers and some working on flex time schedules, but the workers now are not bakers. They do not know how the computers that bake the bread work. They only know how to manipulate the icons on the computer screens to operate them. Their relationship to the job is superficial. It is quite easy to walk away. Mr. Sennett writes, The work is no longer legible to them, in the sense of understanding what they are doing. The new economy is characterized by the need to constantly change with the shifting fates of companies, whole industries and occupations. Some people can and have thrived in this atmosphere (Mr. Sennett uses Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates as the poster boy for those who have mastered the new economy). But risk and historical discontinuity present significant psychological obstacles for many others. The author writes: An apprehension is an anxiety about what might happen; apprehension is created in a climate emphasizing constant risk, and apprehension increases when experience seems no guide to the present. Many writers have extolled the freedom and opportunity inherent in a more flexible, changeable economy. Give Mr. Sennett credit for running a bit against the tide and provocatively detailing the psychological costs of constant change.
All would agree the rules governing work and the economy are changing. Direct marketing consultant Dan S. Kennedy goes further, knocking down whatever behavioral shibboleths remain standing. His book is called No Rules: 21 Giant Lies About Success and How to Make It Happen Now. This lively book is filled with contrarian advice on how to succeed. Kennedy debunks the importance of creativity or finding a business idea that is unique. On the latter point, Mr. Kennedy writes, Comparatively few successful businesses are built or fortunes made because of the true uniqueness and inherent power of the product itself. Instead, it is the careful assembly of a collection of product, 'story,' advertising, marketing, and distribution factors. Basing much of the book on his own interesting experiences in marketing, Mr. Kennedy advises, among other things, You cannot afford to be humble.
Neal Lipschutz is managing editor of Dow Jones News Service.