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In the Corporate World, Woke Is the Rage but Greed Is Still King

It’s been 14 years since Goldman Sachs was vilified as a “vampire squid” by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone. “Organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy,” he concluded then.

Goldman has since experienced some hard times, tarred by scandal (the looting of a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund) and forced to bail out of consumer banking. Big companies like Walt Disney are under attack not so much from the socialist left, but by conservatives for being too “woke.” Yet organized greed lives on, a seemingly intractable aspect of human nature, as three new business books make clear.

The age-old swing of the pendulum between greed, excess and regulation is the subject of TAMING THE OCTOPUS: The Long Battle for the Soul of the Corporation (Norton, 290 pp., $29.99), by Kyle Edward Williams, a history of efforts to temper capitalist excess through social responsibility, whether self-directed by corporations or imposed by regulators. Inevitably, greed and scandal breed regulation, which in turn provokes proponents of the free market to decry government overreach. Consider the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial banking from more speculative investment banking during the Great Depression only to be relaxed by the Clinton administration more than six decades later. The cycle then begins anew.

In Williams’s telling, the free-marketers may engage in tactical retreats but always re-emerge, perhaps because they can fall back on the rigorous logic of economics, divorced from the messiness of the real world. Though nowhere near as widely known as Milton Friedman and George Stigler, his fellow free-market apostles, Henry G. Manne, a co-founder of the law and economics movement centered at the University of Chicago, emerges as an important figure in this swing of the pendulum. (Manne may be best remembered for his belief that insider trading should be legal, on the ground that it helps create a more efficient market — a purist’s view rejected by the courts, which continue to uphold convictions for the practice.) Manne died in 2015, but his protégés are many and influential, ready to pounce at the next sign of reform.

Williams, a historian and editor, offers a brisk and evenhanded overview of corporate regulation, tipping his hand only at the end, when he comes down on the Rolling Stone side of the divide. He isn’t the first — and surely won’t be the last — to conclude that “the corporate octopus is an institution incapable of being tamed.”

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