Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Problem With Business Books

David Thomas Roberts, UnEmployable!: How To Be Successfully Unemployed Your Entire Life

Near the beginning of this book, Texas entrepreneur David Thomas Roberts includes this spurious rhetorical question:
What is the Gig Economy?
Essentially, it’s the proliferation of a new generation of Micro Businesses.
No. The Gig Economy describes economic transactions based on short-term or one-off engagements with independent contractors. Über drivers and AirBnB hosts are the most visible examples. Some people enjoy the relative independence such jobs provide, but critics deride how gig economics shifts overhead costs onto workers, while profits drift upward to service aggregators. As in other parts of life, truth probably resides somewhere between the extremes.

This symbolizes my problem with Roberts’ business guidebook. When he discusses broad entrepreneurial theory, I keep thinking he knows his business (pun intended). But whenever he gets down to brass tacks, he shows himself elementally misinformed, blinded by hindsight bias, confused between anecdote and fact, or flat damn wrong. His words became difficult to read without lapsing into outright anger, because he never realizes his own inherited preconceptions.

Like, for instance, his claim that people are poor because they choose poverty. Because they’d rather work for somebody else than go guerilla; because they’d rather finance a car than have money; because they’re “financially illiterate.” Maybe some actively choose this. But he’s describing the situation of poor people everywhere, who need money first, live further from their jobs, and have fewer opportunities to learn fiscal skills.

David Thomas Roberts
Or Roberts’ claim that “most young Americans believe they deserve the same lifestyles that may have taken their parents twenty or thirty years to achieve.” They said the same about my generation. But in 1992, it took a new, white, male entrant into the workplace seventeen years to achieve the level of financial independence workers achieved in four years in 1972, because of weakened labor laws, stagnant wages, and the end of post-war exuberance. It probably takes longer now.

Or his claim that college education is riddled with “leftist propaganda” that churns out “little Communists.” Roberts is right that MBA programs produce good corporate suits, not entrepreneurs; aspiring start-up operators should probably study math anyway. But Roberts’ understanding of educational culture hasn’t advanced since 1977. As rhetorician Gerald Graff reports, English was once the go-to major of future independent businessmen.

It’s very difficult to stick with Roberts, because he mistakes subjective impressions for objective facts. Besides the above examples, he also disparages his stepfather for toiling in a corporate superstructure for trivial rewards. But I’d bet my paycheck, if we unpacked Roberts’ financial history, we’d find his stepfather’s labors gave Roberts enough financial footing to venture out fearlessly. Like Donald Trump, few “self-made men” grew up really, really hungry.

Even his claim that entrepreneurial failure is a mere launchpad toward future success bespeaks well-connected urban preconceptions. (Roberts’ professional life has centered on Houston, where simply being white confers certain advantages.) Business failures are badges of honor in Manhattan, East Texas, and Silicon Valley. Not so much for poor people. When farmers, inner-city storefront operators, and rural dwellers experience business failure, it’s usually permanent. That’s where WalMart greeters come from.

Roberts situates this book as an entrepreneurial how-to. But chapter after chapter, he writes an autobiography. Finally, I realized: he thinks his success is portable, and we should simply imitate him. But the old saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data. There’s no longitudinal analysis of business trends, or comparisons between successes and similar failures, or even any understanding how America’s economy has changed since Roberts was twenty-one.

Evidence suggests Roberts doesn’t even understand his own situation. Early on, he claims: “For years now, my wife and I have been in the top 1/10th of 1 percent of incomes in America. We have reached a seven-figure net worth.” Except, according to Bloomberg, reaching the top point-one percent requires a minimum net worth around $20 million—eight figures. Like many Americans, Roberts believes himself richer than he actually is.

Sociologist Duncan J. Watts of Microsoft Research describes what he calls “creeping determinism”: the tendency to assume what happened was inevitable, because it happened. That’s my problem with Roberts, and business books like his. He presents his career as a progress from success to success; even failures are successes in fetal form. It’s not analysis, and therefore not useful to aspiring entrepreneurs like me.

I’ve given warm reviews to business books on this blog before. But the longer I review, the harder that becomes. I’ve grown aware of the problem with business books, that they avoid analyzing their own accumulated preconceptions.

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