When Empires Fail: 3 Books That Predict The Crash

Feb 23, 2012
Originally published on February 23, 2012 5:10 pm

It begins with a political leader or a businessman who hits on a powerful new idea, one that puts him miles ahead of everyone else. It could be a new innovation, like the financial derivative, or a new way of doing business, like Microsoft selling software. It could be something destructive, like Hitler's blitzkrieg, which ran over France in two months. No matter the specifics, it leaves everyone else flat-footed and looking foolish.

Our man (it's usually a man) is now indestructible and untouchable. With nothing in his way, he is, for a while, an irresistible force.

Until he takes one step too far. You can usually see it coming. And then things start to collapse, often with profound or humiliating consequences. It's like a good disaster movie — the crash is the best part.

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Politicians and masters of business beware: with great wealth and power often comes a great temptation to overstep. Author Tim Wu recommends three books on people who just didn't know when to quit. It's for our series Three Books, where authors talk about three books on one theme.

TIM WU: It begins with an idea. It could be a new innovation like the financial derivative or new way of doing business, like Microsoft selling software. Our man - it's usually a man - is now indestructible and untouchable until he takes one step too far. "When Genius Failed," by the great business writer Roger Lowenstein, is a modern classic in this genre. It's the story of Long Term Capital Management, founded in 1994 when a bond trader named John Meriwether recruited the smartest academic economists in the world. Soon, they were gobbling up cash like Pac-Man on steroids.

This, of course, is when they should have all gone back to academia. Instead, they reinvested much of the money, and borrowed billions more. They kept going until the autumn of 1998. That's when the Russian financial crisis broke their mathematical models and began a chain-reaction that in polite circles is called a "flight to liquidity."

"The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," by Yale history professor Paul Kennedy, reads like the textbook of imperial overreach. The leaders always make the same mistake. Hitler can't stop after conquering France and Western Europe. He has to go and invade Russia. Japan, unsatisfied with its conquest of China, decides to pick a fight with the United States. It's not like I'm rooting for the Spanish empire, but the moment when it all starts to crumble is painful.

"Master of the Game," by Connie Bruck, is the story of the original 1970s tuxedo-wearing, big media-mogul Steve Ross, who built Time Warner Inc. He borrowed money and went on a wild merger binge. The decline of Time Warner doesn't come until after Ross dies - and after the end of the book - when the firm goes still further, buying AOL and spinning completely out of control. I recommend these books for anyone in your life who might be in need of a cautionary tale.

CORNISH: Tim Wu is the author of the book "The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires." He is also a professor at Columbia's law school. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.