In Print : The King Rat and His Court - A broadside against greed
"The King Rat and His Court: Lessons in Corporate Greed," William Arthur Bruno, illustrated by Eduardo del Rio. BookSurge Publishing, online. 238 ppg. $15.99.
Anyone who's commuted on MetroNorth or driven the daily commute to corporate hell can tell that author William Bruno has done some serious time in corporate America.
In "The King Rat and His Court: Lessons in Corporate Greed," Mr. Bruno delivers 238 pages of angry exposition, pointed at the suits that he believes have put us in national economic hot water and the elected roundheelers who've helped them loot the public sector treasury.
Mr. Bruno's thesis is short: "Our leaders have jeopardized the financial well-being of all Americans."
His questions are simple: "Why is there no backlash for the incompetent and fraudulent actions of such leaders and why are unsavory behaviors allowed to perpetuate?" And, "What has happened to the character, substance, wisdom and grace of those gaining wealth and power in our society?"
His book compares the behavior of modern corporatistas with clinically documented parasitic rat behavior as well as the popular notions of dirty, rotten, sneaky behavior. While the continuous rat analogy wears on the reader, do not be misled.
The rats get the attention, but Mr. Bruno has done the research. He has the chops to back his assertions. An energy scientist and engineer with a degree from Cornell and an MBA from Stanford, he's spent 30 years in corporate suites and boardrooms, more recently as a consultant to business and government.
The book particularly resonates on the Island these days, serving as a reminder of the value of prudent behavior: witness the careful Island banks whose practices saved them and us from the recent mortgage banking meltdown.
Then too, frequent Vineyard visitor and White House compensation czar Kenneth R. Feinberg, speaking this past week at a Times forum, highlighted ongoing Obama administration efforts to rein in corporate executive cake (see page 1).
Mr. Bruno, a Vineyard Haven and Connecticut resident, uses the work of behaviorists like B.F. Skinner, philosophers such as William James, and business icons such as Warren Buffett to make the case that the republic is literally at risk from systemic, psychotic behavior in the corporate corner office, behavior that has been gaining momentum since the early 1980s.
To confess a bias, this reviewer shares Mr. Bruno's concerns, based on close association with a variety of CEOs of billion-dollar enterprises, several of whom were loony and others small-minded beyond belief.
Mr. Bruno's description of the real behavior of corporate executives and staff will ring a bell with most people over 40 who have worked in large companies. Here's a question: do you remember when employees actually trusted Human Resources because they believed the department cared about them?
Mr. Bruno asserts that corporate America and its co-opted lawmakers have not moved our cheese: they have stolen it.
He describes a marketplace where untrammeled greed has brought us to our financial knees because the nation's culture changed to allow and embrace greed in the workplace. CEOs found guilty of wrongdoing of that sort received 800 percent more compensation than CEOs of companies with better stewardship.
"In pathological organizations, King Rat and his Rodent Resources ... sew a culture of destruction," Mr. Bruno writes. He provides a 50-question list for readers to measure dysfunction in their own organizations. Each chapter also includes a useful "Rat Patrol" summary on the chapter subject that includes tips on how to find and handle corporate abuse.
The book brings to mind the expression "It's not personal, it's just business," used countless times in business to justify behavior that brought horrific personal consequences to others. "When cheating and unethical behavior become the norm," he writes, "(whether it be steroids in baseball or insider training among chiefs), ethical individuals and ethical companies will not be able to compete. Any dishonest person can be a free-rider on the fairness of others, and such behavior can be very profitable ...."
Quoting business ethicists, Mr. Bruno says, "Individuals with ethics have only three choices: Bend the rules; act ethically and accept the consequences; work to change the incentives for unethical behavior. King Rat's real dilemma is when you choose the third option."
Jack Shea is a regular contributor to The Times.