The Big Time

At regular five-year intervals after 1949, FORTUNE magazine ran features on the Harvard Business School graduates of that year. As these men approach retirement, Laurence Shames has written a book very much in the FORTUNE tradition about their lives and careers. In the end, Shames faults these managers for many of the ills of modern American business. In sum, the “Class the Dollars Fell On” (FORTUNE’s phrase) is also in part responsible for the precipitous decline of American industry.

The book has the strengths and weaknesses of an extended FORTUNE essay. The character sketches of the CEO’s and their activities since graduation are very nicely done. The author writes in a breezy, appealing, conversational manner, though this style sometimes interferes with his ambitions to serious analysis. To his credit, he does show that an inordinate concern with the next quarter’s bottom line, as opposed to the long-term quality of products, was a feature of the Harvard curriculum and that students practiced this principle with a vengeance.

The book’s weaknesses stem from a poor grasp of American history. Shames mangles American economic history and in so doing puts more blame on American managers than they deserve. Moreover, he ignores a fundamental question first raised in the 1950’s and still awaiting a conclusive answer today: To what extent is management the ruling class in America, and to what extent is it simply the servant of the elite? Indeed, when he criticizes the graduates for not becoming individual entrepreneurs, Shames appears ignorant of the reason for which institutions such as the Harvard Business School came into being (quite simply, to provide managers for large private organizations). Finally, the author makes an unconvincing connection between the “49ers” and today’s yuppies.