As the free market economic machine ascends ever higher, through the rubble of Communism and the default of Russia, despite the Asian financial crisis and in the face of the Internet craze, we approach a crossroads. The big question can be boiled down to this: Are we on the right path? Is an ever more open market economy, based on the American model, the proper road toward world prosperity and even human happiness? Or are we headed for corporate domination, enfeebled national governments, and the easy exploitation of the planet's workers and resources? It's amazing how differently the same set of circumstances can be interpreted. It all depends on who you talk to, or, in this case, what you read.
Two new books nicely represent vastly divergent views on where we should be economically headed. We'll start with a book that wants us to do what we're now doing, only more so. In The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise and Progress, author Virginia Postrel argues essentially that the less we try to control and limit the economy, the more it will bring us. The incentives, flexibility, and serendipity of an open society and economy will allow individual genius and innovation to bring us consistent material gains. To hijack a phrase often heard during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, Ms. Postrel, editor of Reason magazine, would let the economy be the economy.
This is an excellent book. It is clearly written, well argued, and broadly sourced. It is a dynamist manifesto that makes the case for letting people, each in his or her own way, invent the future for themselves. No grand plan, and as few limits as possible on technology. Sure there will be failures and bad ideas, but the struggle will allow the right ones to win out. And they likely will be the unexpected ones. Who, for instance, predicted the Internet? The dynamist view is that a freewheeling human-dominated future holds the best chance to create broad-based prosperity and find cures for diseases. Postrel's description of how economic freedom helped the development of eyeglasses and then ever more convenient versions of contact lenses is quite telling.
Her optimism is captured in this passage: Progress does not mean that everyone will be better off in every respect. But under ordinary circumstances, for the random individual, life in a dynamist society tomorrow will be better, on the whole, than life today. David C. Korten doesn't see things the same way at all. In The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism, Korten, who taught at Harvard University and who spent decades as a development consultant in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, tells us why he thinks we are on a very wrong road. To his way of thinking, we are not even in a free market at all. He writes: "For those of us who grew up believing that capitalism is the foundation of democracy and market freedom, it has been a rude awakening to realize that under capitalism, democracy is for sale to the highest bidder and the market is centrally planned by global megacorporations larger than most states." In this latest book, Korten, who also authored When Corporations Rule the World, argues that we have gotten to the point where we have substituted money for life itself. He argues here, among other things, for stakeholder (rather than shareholder) control of companies. Those stakeholders include workers, managers, suppliers, customers, and members of the community where a company is based. Korten's plea is to bring economics back to a human scale and to infuse lives with more than material concerns.
We now journey from broad visions of the future to practical stock investing in the present tense. First, there's the newest offering from the brothers Gardner, David and Tom. They are better known as the founders of The Motley Fool, the popular finance and investing Web site that's now branched into a multi-media enterprise. With two top-selling books for the individual investor already under their belts, the Gardners are back with a third. Their reputation for clever writing and clear explanations remains intact. The new book, The Motley Fool's Rule Breakers, Rule Makers, is about picking stocks.
Plenty of financial services professionals will warn investors away from picking individual stocks, arguing that the broad diversity and professional management available through buying mutual funds is the better course. The Gardners beg to differ. They write: Our thesis for this entire book is that individuals will, on average, spend less time worrying about money, have greater control over their destiny, and substantially improve their results, if they choose common stocks over mutual funds. In addition to being no friends of mutual funds or stockbrokers, the authors don't think much of the financial press. In fact, while spelling out the criteria for rule breaking stocks, those securities likely to outpace the market, they say that discovering that the financial media thinks a stock is grossly overvalued is a good reason to like that very stock. For a stock to merit rule breaker status it must, among other things, be on top and a first mover in an important, emerging industry; it must have a sustainable business advantage; strong past price appreciation; smart management and good backing; and strong consumer appeal. Traditional measures of stock valuation don't fit into this admittedly more-art-than-science approach.
The second half of the book is devoted to identifying rule makers. Those are the companies that essentially have graduated (not all do) from rule breaker status to now dominate their respective industries. Numerical evaluations play a larger role here. Among the numbers the authors advocate you peruse to identify the true rule makers are net margins and gross margins and cash-to-debt ratios. Also, the authors write, these winning companies are focused on mass markets and lock out the competition by selling to the world's daily habits, generating enormous cash flows, believing that their dominance will only come over the long haul, and fairly representing their progress to shareholders. The Gardners offer plenty of examples of flesh-and-blood companies for both categories.
Technology stocks of all types have been high fliers of late. Every Investor's Guide to High-Tech Stocks and Mutual Funds, Second Edition by Michael Murphy is a thorough and thoughtful guide to every aspect of the technology phenomenon. Yes, there's a separate chapter on Internet stocks. Mr. Murphy is the editor of the California Technology Stock Letter and has been an observer of the technology scene for nearly two decades. He makes a strong case for how technology is taking over the economy (strong research and development coupled with falling prices). He also notes that despite all the attention nominally paid to technology, Wall Street professionals still spend a disproportionate amount of time analyzing traditional industries. In addition to doing a good job explaining the various sectors of technology and medical technology, Mr. Murphy offers specifics on investment techniques, individual stocks, and mutual funds.
Ah, youth. Just getting started in the business world? Wondering how to start? Here's a sampling of new books to get you going. There's Reality 101: Practical Advice on Entering and Succeeding in the Real World (Simon ∧ Schuster, $12, 0684846527) by Fran Katzanek. There's also Knock 'Em Dead 1999 (Adams Media Corp., $12.95, 1580620701) by Martin Yate, which boasts great answers to over 200 tough interview questions. And The Future Ain't What It Used to Be: The 40 Cultural Trends Transforming Your Job, Your Life, Your World (Riverhead Books, $14.95, 1573227188) by Mary Meehan, Larry Samuel, and Vickie Abrahamson. And a success story, The CDNow Story: Rags to Riches on the Internet (Top Floor Publishing, $19.95, 0966103262) by Jason Olim, with Matthew Olim and Peter Kent. The cover says it tells how two kids in a basement grabbed the online music business.
Neal Lipschutz is managing editor of Dow Jones News Service.