Monday, April 21, 2008

Extraordinary Circumstances. A Book Review

Cynthia Cooper was one of the three whistleblowers Time named as the Persons of the Year in 2002. Now she has written a book: Extraordinary Circumstances on her time in WorldCom (where she ran the internal audits department) and what went on in the firm before the revelations you may still remember about the shoddy accounts and outright fraud the firm had employed.

The book provides a fascinating glimpse at the utter emptiness of what was behind the WorldCom success story, up to the minute of its final collapse, and it's worth reading for that. I suspect you need some familiarity with business or economics to get the most out of the tale, but even someone quite unfamiliar with those might notice that all Bernie Ebbers really did was to buy firms like someone suffering from an unsatiable hunger, and that the reason the firm grew so very rapidly was that simple fact. There was very little evidence of any of the purchased firms providing good business opportunities, over and above the kinds of opportunities that a new industry always initially offers. Yet almost everyone seemed to be blind to this fact, most certainly including the banks and financial companies which both funded these adventures and which also seemed to help the firm along. Of course, any expansion caused by such a buying spree must stop at some point. And that's when the difficulties started.

I found the odd interplay of Christianity and ruthlessness fascinating. Almost everyone in the book goes to church all the time and gets advice from a minister. Yet some of them commit pretty serious crimes, and the dissonance appears invisible even to the author. Perhaps this is a cultural difference and not something that other readers might notice. But the combination of faith and murky business thinking came across as rather nauseating to me.

Those who seek information about being a woman in a male-dominated industry don't get a lot from the book, at least from the point of view of someone who has read in feminism. Cooper includes a few anecdotes of the gentle kind of sexual harassment and a few meditations on the difficulty of being a working mother, but these are not central to the book. Neither is there any analysis of the wider labor market or corporate culture and how those affect the treatment of individual woman workers. Still, it's possible to read a little bit more between the lines than Cooper perhaps intended.

I'd imagine that this book would be useful for someone who wants to delve deeper into that whole business ethics scandal of the early 2000's. Isn't it funny how we have already forgotten most of it?