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Tuesday, December 14, 2004

In the "holy smokes" category

Wow. The Google-organized project to digitize library materials is breathtaking in its ambitions (NYT, 12/14/04, A1, C3; WSJ, 12/14/04, D1, 4). And what a boon for historians in search of primary sources, since only works on which copyrights have expired will be available in their entirety.

No appreciable snow in sight here in Madison, Wisconsin. This reminds me of Decembers when I was growing up on the farm in Minnesota and worried that we wouldn't have snow in time for Christmas. The temperature this morning reminded us with all the crystal clarity of a sunny-cold morning (11.4 F--"bitter cold" in NY/NJ televison parlance) just how spoiled we've been so far this fall.

Signs of a new era of capitalism?

Noteworthy in the New York Time this morning: Adam Cohen's piece on the editorial page (NYT, 12/14/04, xxx) about efforts to return to the pre-1937 state of regulation in the U.S. Advocates, he reports, refer to the U.S. Constitution before 1937 (by which he means, I assume, before the 1937 Supreme Court decision upholding the Wagner Act) as the "Constitution-in-Exile."

In my last lecture of the semester this afternoon, I talked about some of the changes in the world of American business since the 1970s that strike the eye of a business historian. Regulation is one of several arenas in which, it seems to me, one can discern fundamental discontinuities, radical departures from the patterns of change that have prevailed since the late nineteenth century. The subject of Cohen's article is a piece of that history.

Also of note: the German stock exchange (Deutsche Boerse) is proposing to buy the London stock exchange (NYT, 12/14/04, B1?). The concept of nationality may be losing its meaning faster in the world of business than anywhere else; certainly the best evidence of globalization is to be found in the world of finance. Or we may discover that the nationality of ownership has little to do with political nationalism. Or that corporations have become extremely skilled at disguising their nationality.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Good and poor quality business reporting

Nice article by Steve Lohr this morning in the New York Times on the IBM-Lenovo deal. Just as I thought: "I.B.M. Sought a China Partnership, Not Just a Sale" (NYT, 12/13/04, C1, 6). Too often the graphs that accompany business reporting cover such a brief period of time that it's difficult or impossible to discern the long-term trends. This story offers a nice exception: a chart of the sources of IBM revenue that actually covers 20-odd years (1982-2003). It shows clearly a relative shift away from hardware between 1988 and 1994.

Now if the chart had only presented the data in real as well as current dollars. In current dollars, it shows IBM's total revenue increasing 159% (from $34.4 billion in 1982 to $89.1 billion in 2003), which averages out at 7.57% annually. But in 2003 dollars (deflated with the CPI), its 1982 revenue stood at $65.6 billion, so in real terms its revenue increased only 35.8% or 1.7% annually over the twenty-one year period. Rather a different picture.

Maybe I'm just a bit sleepy this morning but I cannot figure out what Andrew Ross Sorkin's article, "Icahn Accuses A Hedge Fund Of Stock Manipulation" (NYT, 12/13/04, C1, 2), has to do with buying shareholder votes. It refers to the allegation twice, mentioning it in the third paragraph and ending the article with this: "But there has been a long debate about whether shareholder voting rights must be tied to shareholder ownership." But the article never makes explicit how this issue relates to Icahn's dispute with the companies in question.

Last item of note: M.I.T.'s Technology Review has been revamped once again (NYT, 12/13/04, C4). As the reporter, Victoria Shannon, notes, the last go-around in 1998 "injected a cheerleading breathlessness into its coverage that left some academics cold." Its rah-rah approach to technology reporting certainly left me feeling frigid. But what is that at the end of the article? "'The earlier Technology Review was more likely to look at the social and political dimensions of science and technology.' [The Review's editor] Mr. [Jason] Pontin promised a grounded approach this time. 'We want to be skeptical.'" Maybe Pontin was quoted inacurately, but if not, how could he possibly equate attention to "the social and political dimensions of science and technology" with a lack of skepticism? Mr. Pontin clearly needs to spend some time talking with the faculty in M.IT.'s own Program in Science, Technology, and Society. (Is a disclaimer called for here? I'm an alum of the program.) For more balanced coverage, I prefer Wired.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Sunday morning reading + viewing tips

Recommended reading in the New York Times (national edition) this morning and some viewing tips:
  • Peter Applebome, "Our Towns: How a Working Man's Money Went Into a Closet and Came Out of Fortune," NYT, 12/12/04, 33,
    • on the soon-to-be-auctioned-off currency collection of Malcolm A. Trask (1901-1889), New York subway motorman. The story includes a photo of a $10 note issued in 1878.
    • For more images of currency and coins, try the American Numismatics Association's Virtual Museum.
  • Timothy L. O'Brien and Larry Rohter, "The Pinochet Money Trail: A Dictator's Mysterious Cash at Riggs Bank," NYT, 12/12/04, Sec. 3, pp. 1, 12.
    • Of documentaries on multinationals, producer Larry Adelman's "Controlling Interest" (California Newsreel, 1978) is exceptional for the interviews that he conducted with MNC executives in the mid-1970s.