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The Company: A Short History of a…

The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea (2003)

by John Micklethwait, Adrian Wooldridge (Author)

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The history of the company. I liked the first, historical parts best.
Share risks and rewards. European monarchs created chartered companies to pursue their dreams of imperial expansion." Ex east India Company, Virginia Company. Limited liability was key. "[T]he three big ideas behind the modern company: that it could be an "artificial person," with the same ability to do business as a real person; that it could issue tradable shares to any number of investors; and that those investors could have limited liability (so they could lose only the money they had committed to the firm)."
Violent history, now different. Slavery, war, etc.
Merchants and monopolies. State monopolies inefficient. In Europe at least internal competition.
Unlimited liability. De Medici innovative-separate partnerships and profit sharing arrangements.
Northern Europe: copies much from Italy,but most imp contribution was guilds and chartered companies. Corporate bodies started, immortal. Towns, guilds, etc.
Royal charter-exclusive trading rights. Joint stock company. Start to buy shares, and limited liability. East India company troubled initially, but managed. Exclusive rights to sell tea in the American colonies-Boston tea party. Monopolies, criticism from Adam Smith. Courts. Government of big organizations and many people.
3. A prolonged and painful birth 1750-1862
Reinvigorate the idea of the company. Partnerships most common, but unlimited liability a problem. State competition to have the least regulation in order to attract companies. Railways changed things.

Recommended for the historical parts. ( )
  ohernaes | Dec 22, 2014 |
too brief, too concise history of corporate business form; too focused on very recent (mid to late 20th cent) ( )
  FKarr | Oct 6, 2012 |
A very useful summary (short) of the emergence of the modern corporation. Authors are blind to the blemishes of their subject. ( )
  onogur | Dec 23, 2008 |
Micklethwait and Wooldridge provide us with a brief and often illuminating look at the history of the limited-liability joint stock company. Their story begins in the 16th century and ends with some ruminations about things to come in the 21st. The book is slightly less than two-hundred pages. From these two details it should be clear that the scope of the project is wide and detail is often exchanged for brevity and economy of expression. Sometimes this works, other times it does not.

For an example of the latter, the authors, at times, use slightly technical economists' terminology without defining their terms. That's appropriate practice in many cases, but not in an introductory history aimed at the educated layman.

However, I must say that the writing is mostly quite good and the authors manage to tell the story of corporate growth and evolution in a compelling way. The book covers mainly the U.S. and Britain, with some discussion of France, Germany, and Japan. They take an attitude that is generally pro-business and look at the corporation as a sort of paragon of what is good about the West. So this is, in many ways, a history written by the winning team.

Nonetheless, the authors do point to and analyze some instances in which corporate maleficence has been undeniable (such as the recent Enron and Worldcom debacles); they are, however, quick to suggest that such incidents are exceptions to the rule.

Anyhow, the history portion of the text, while necessarily cursory given the aims of the authors and the length of the book, is well-researched and well-written. That alone makes it a worthwhile read.

The evaluative portions leave something to be desired. While it is undeniable that large joint stock companies have been a force of change in the world and have unleashed an age of unprecedented economic growth, the authors are too quick to equate change and growth with "the good".

Many good things have been made possible only because of incorporation but what we should ask ourselves is this: on balance, have corporations made our lives better or worse? Although I tend to think they've made things better, I don't think this answer is obvious and there are still many serious questions to confront regarding the the relationship between corporations and the communities that they (ostensibly) serve. ( )
  NoLongerAtEase | Nov 7, 2008 |
A small book that packs a punch, the authors discuss the idea of the company in a way that is at once positive and apologetic. Unfortunately for me, the amount of information contained in less than 200 pages was a bit overwhelming and hard for my brain to manage. Without a business background, I had some difficulties understanding all of the terminology and ideas. The authors do a good job at explaining but the condensed format leaves a fair amount of information out that would have done much to explain exactly what they were talking about. Fortunately, the main crux of their argument has much less to do with the exactitudes of the company and more to do with how it fits in with society in general.

It begins in a time long ago, the first chapter covering 3000 B.C. – A.D. 1500 with the business dealings of families in Mesopotamia and quickly moves onto medieval organizations. They then delve into one of the first contemporary-type companies, the English East India Company. The interesting history of this company includes monopolies, state accountability, buying up national debts, and political interference with the countries England traded with and/or pilfered. Out of this, the Company Man was just under the surface and so was bureaucracy.

The book goes on to discuss the emergence of more modern day companies and the birth of management. All the while, the authors point out many of the positive contributions that companies have had on society. They do not necessarily neglect to show the pitfalls and negative impacts, but their main focus is to discuss how companies throughout history were not all bad. There has always been a power struggle between companies and government with regulations being set up and loopholes found. They have sped up social change and have evolved with time. The authors consistently demonstrate how companies do not necessarily work only for themselves and do have a sense of social responsibility for their actions and the changes to society that these actions have caused.

What I found most interesting in the authors’ arguments is their determination to seek out the positive side of the company. While I do not necessarily agree with them on all points, it has made me think a little bit differently about the company, its position at different points in history, and its place in modern times. My final conclusion is that the company’s main motivation is profit even when it guarantees equity in employment, benefits for workers, and grants for social problems. As soon as the company sees the bottom line, profit, eluding them, all of the help they have been to society is defenestrated. Not only are the promises to their employees and stock holders gone, but so are the social programs they have set up as well as the jobs themselves. No, companies are not all bad, but they are certainly not the long-term answer. They are not persons and are not as accountable, and it is the state’s own fault for relying on them too heavily.
  Carlie | Aug 3, 2008 |
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John Micklethwaitprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Wooldridge, AdrianAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
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(Introduction): On the evening of October 7, 1893, a new operetta opened to a packed house in London's West End.
Before the modern company came of age in the mid-nineteenth century, it had an incredibly protracted and often highly irresponsible youth.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812972872, Paperback)

Chosen by BusinessWeek as One of the Top Ten Business Books of the Year

With apologies to Hegel, Marx, and Lenin, the basic unit of modern society is neither the state, nor the commune, nor the party; it is the company. From this bold premise, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge chart the rise of one of history’s great catalysts for good and evil.

In a “fast-paced and well-written” work (Forbes), the authors reveal how innovations such as limitations on liability have permitted companies to rival religions and even states in importance, governing the flow of wealth and controlling human affairs–all while being largely exempt from the rules that govern our lives.

The Company is that rare, remarkable book that fills a major gap we scarcely knew existed. With it, we are better able to make sense of the past four centuries, as well as the events of today.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:04 -0400)

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"Economist editors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge reveal the company to be one of history's great catalysts, for good and for ill, a mighty engine for sucking in, recombining, and pumping out money, goods, people, and culture to every corner of the globe. What other earthly invention has the power to grow to any size, and to live to any age? What else could have given us both the stock market and the British Empire? The company man, the company town, and company time? Disneyfication and McDonald'sization, to say nothing of Coca-colonialism? Through its many mutations, the company has always incited controversy, and governments have always fought to rein it in. Today though Marx may spin in his grave and anarchists riot in the streets, the company exercises an unparalleled influence on the globe, and understanding what this creature is and where it comes from has never been a more pressing matter."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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