Industries rise and fall, as do nations. Successful capitalism requires decline as well as creation. All this carries cost, as real people sometimes are lost in all the stopping and starting, the ending and renewal. But it seems that very dynamism and freedom to change is what allows economies to grow. Steel gives way to computer software, railroads take a back seat and Internet commerce is born. And so on.
Few, for instance, would have a couple of decades back imagined the significant role legal gambling now plays in our economy. The industry likes to talk about gaming, not gambling, and Las Vegas bills itself as a fun destination for the whole family. Come on, bring the kids along. And for a lot of people all of it's true. Legalized gambling offers a distraction, entertainment, a night of excitement, whether it involves a trip to a casino, a bingo hall or even the exploration of the still-developing world of cyberspace gambling. But as New York Times reporter Timothy L. O'Brien ably demonstrates in his wide-ranging survey of a growth industry, gambling is still different. It depends upon and profits from the ineffable longing people have to change their lives in an instant, as if they were rubbing a magic lantern. Amid all the competing data and studies introduced by casino gambling's critics and proponents is the fact that gambling can be an enormously destructive force in many communities and in many lives. O'Brien's book, due in October, is Bad Bet: The Inside Story of the Glamour, Glitz and Danger of America's Gambling Industry (Times Books, $25, 0812928075). The author starts with a description of gambling's newest frontier: the Internet. The legality of U.S.-based gambling cyberspace sites hasn't yet arrived, but there already are sites with offshore homes. Like much commerce in cyberspace, gambling is in its infancy, perhaps not even that far along. But consider the potential: relatively anonymous gambling without ever having to leave the glow of your personal computer. Until your credit card limit is hit, of course. If Internet gambling ever becomes widespread, it has huge implications for American society.
From there, Mr. O'Brien takes us on tours of Las Vegas, Atlantic City, the horse racetracks of Kentucky and Wall Street, among other venues. (It's to the author's credit that he acknowledges that some of the activity on what is generically called Wall Street namely, securities investing can bear a striking resemblance to gambling, regardless of socially acceptable defenses about capital formation for growing businesses.) Whatever the locale, Mr. O'Brien provides interesting historical context as well as present-day reality. His traditional reporting is interspersed with first-person life stories from some whose lives have been overtaken by gambling. After detailing the pluses and minuses of legal gambling in Atlantic City, once seen as a way to rejuvenate a depressed city, Mr. O'Brien concludes: But twenty years into its waltz with gambling, Atlantic City is still a dour, troubled town. He chronicles the rise of state-inspired gambling (lotteries) and details the decline of gambling at the racetrack, that erstwhile sport of kings. The problem with the track, in essence, is that things move too slowly. Today's gamblers can find a lot more action at a slot machine. Mr. O'Brien has produced a well-researched and cleanly written guide to a big business that still leaves many Americans ambivalent. That may always be the case. The reporting is strong, but the book would have benefited from a bit more analysis and point of view based on the plethora of facts.
The growth of gambling is one example of our increasingly post-industrial economy. Sure, someone has to build slot machines and card tables, but gambling is at least a kindred spirit to that increasing number of economic sectors where no one actually produces anything. There's been a ton of books published in the past few years about the increase of brain-powered jobs, the growing gaps in income and prestige between people who mainly use their heads at their jobs and those who mainly use their hands. If you take this trend to its logical conclusion, you have Joey Reiman's new book, Thinking for a Living: Creating Ideas That Revitalize Your Business, Career and Life (Longstreet, $20, 1563524694). Mr. Reiman runs what he calls an ideation company, a group of thinkers who create advertising and marketing concepts. They eschew the actual execution of those ideas (ad placements, etc.), which is usually a big part of the job of traditional advertising agencies.
Reiman's overriding point in this book is a good one, and a hopeful one, in this increasingly competitive economy: original thought still matters. Yes, things are digitized and computerized. Apparent advances in production or services are matched after an ever-smaller cycle of advantage, more and more businesses seem interchangeable, but ideas still can matter. Or as Mr. Reiman says in his always upbeat, inspirational style, Today currency is the idea, but tomorrow ideas will be the currency. Mr. Reiman tells his own story, interwoven with broad ideas and snippets from the unusual and progressive policies at his current company. He was a traditional advertising executive, now he's the head of BrightHouse, the ideas company. No penny for your thoughts at this firm. A thorough ideation session from BrightHouse can cost a client $450,000, with some contracts exceeding $1 million for thinking, Mr. Reiman writes.
Even if you're not going to start an ideas company, Mr. Reiman's points are well taken. At a minimum, you've got to keep thinking about your own career in a work world where the options are plentiful and the guarantees are few. Which brings us to Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions (due in October from Harvard Business School Press, $22.50, 0875848575) by John S. Hammond, Ralph L. Keeney and Howard Raiffa. Readers are taken step by step through methods of reaching good decisions on matters both business-related and personal. In a fast-changing world, a systematic approach to making decisions is essential.
This book would have been quite helpful to the people profiled in Disconnected: How Six People from AT&T Discovered the New Meaning of Work in a Downsized Corporate America by Barbara Rudolph. Ms. Rudolph takes an in-depth look at otherwise ordinary individuals who in the 1990s became casualties of the waves of downsizing at AT&T. These people had to live the mantras of the new economy, which for many of us are still only buzzwords: loyalty is dead; manage your own career; serial assignments; don't invest too much emotional capital in your job.
All the subjects were quite open with Ms. Rudolph, who delves far beyond the business realities to seek the connection between the professional and the personal, the non-financial value of work to a person's sense of worth. For so many years AT&T was a monolith, a unique American entity that more than most commercial concerns projected the illusion of permanence. After all, it was the phone company. Ms. Rudolph writes, The essential paternalism of the institution extended to both customers and employees. Join our family, and we will take care of you. In the end, most of Ms. Rudolph's subjects did just fine. They forged successful post-AT&T lives, helped by a vibrant economy even in the face of the downsizing trend. Ms. Rudolph wisely doesn't draw conclusions from her six. They are individuals, but even as each story is unique, they combine to provide a human face to the downsized waves who confronted the realities of our new economy.
While it is wise to realize that there is little guaranteed permanence in the work world, that you should always have a contingency plan, keep your skills up to date, and so on, these new trends are also a little sad. If we maintain a detachment on the job, a place where we spend so much of our lives, there becomes significantly less time and fewer places to express the positive ranges of our humanity.
Neal Lipschutz is managing editor of Dow Jones News Service.