The Deals That Made the World: Reckless Ambition, Backroom Negotiations, and the Hidden Truths of Business

April 19, 2018


Jacques Peretti looks at the world we live in today through the lens of ten business deals that "have ramifications far beyond business," and have been "especially crucial in shaping modern society."

Jacques Peretti's new book, The Deals That Made the World (published in March by William Morrow), makes a claim that some will find audacious, and others may find obvious, though well argued. The argument is that "the locus of power has shifted" away from governments to industrialists and entrepreneurs—that it isn't the decisions of politicians, but business deals, that most shape our world. Some may say it's always been so, but it does seem that business has taken on an ever greater role recently as the size and wealth of multinational companies rivals that of most countries on Earth. F.S. Michaels great 2011 book, Monoculture, argues that economics dominates human culture in a way that religion did in Medieval times, and science did during the Enlightenment—that it is the economic concern that has come to dominate the stories "about who we are, where we come from, and where we're going." It is, perhaps, why management thinking seems to seep into nearly every facet of our lives and society, from how we manage the affairs of state, to how we market our "personal brand." All of this is perhaps why, as Jacques Peretti writes: 


Every night, approximately one in ten of us will wake to check our email. Once we’ve woken properly in the morning, half of us spend more time checking work email than eating breakfast. It’s hardly any surprise therefore that throughout the day, seven out of ten of us check our mail every hour, and one in ten every ten minutes. The fact we are not even surprised by these statistics is proof in itself of the degree to which we have embedded work into our lives.


Jacques Peretti looks at the world we live in today through the lens of ten business deals that "have ramifications far beyond business," and have been "especially crucial in shaping modern society." 

The following excerpt comes from Chapter 5, which helps explains how this new reality came to be, and the transition of… 


WORK: From What We Do to Who We Are 

Work is a key ingredient of well-being. Roman philosopher Seneca listed work, home and love as the three elements that constitute a basis for happiness. We need, Seneca said, to have at least two in place for a modicum of happiness to be achieved. But for many people, work is connected to all three of these aspects. It provides money to live and creates a home away from home, where we may spend more time with our coworkers than with our real family. And work can provide fulfillment and a sense of purpose. In preindustrial times, people were defined by where they came from; today, they are defined by what they do.

So how did work come to define us?


The Invention of Efficiency

In 1888, a jeweler in Auburn, New York, named Willard Legrand Bundy invented a time clock. The Bundy clock did not simply tell the time, it allowed employees to punch in the exact times they arrived at and left work, “clocking” in and out.

Unlike previous time clocks, the Bundy time recorder had individual keys for each employee, so no one could cheat the system by getting one person to mass-punch a bunch of cards. But to understand the need for such a thing, why Bundy—a jeweler, not a visionary—was merely filling a niche that employers sought, we have to go back a decade earlier to Frederick Winslow Taylor.

In 1878, Taylor, a law student accepted at Harvard and from a wealthy family, left school to become a machinist at the Midvale Steel Works in Philadelphia. Thanks to his eagerness (and his family connections to the owners), Taylor rose quickly from machinist to middle manager. Then, one day, Taylor approached his bosses with a plan.

He had noticed that his colleagues were not working as hard as they might. In order to maximize efficiency, Taylor suggested a “scientific evaluation” of their work rates with a view to identifying the slackers. Over the next six months, Taylor was a blur of activity, racing around the steelworks with a clipboard, frantically making notes and using a stopwatch to measure the productivity of the workers. The Midvale management was impressed with Taylor’s findings: he supplied “time studies” (later to become “time and motion studies”), exact calculations for the optimal length of shifts and breaks; he even analyzed the most efficient way to use a shovel. Taylor had a forensically detailed breakdown of every task of the labor force, including an efficiency evaluation of toilet breaks. There was only one problem. Taylor had falsified his data. He had worked late into the night drawing up charts to give “scientific” credence to his findings.

Taylor is now widely credited with inventing “scientific management.” But at the Midvale Steel Works, he had already applied the first rule of management consultancy: tell the client what they want to hear. Taylor knew that Midvale was keen on making cost efficiencies, which is why they hired him. After months of “scientific” evaluation, Taylor gave them the efficiencies they were looking for. If he’d come to conclusions at odds with their aims, would he have been listened to? Would we still be talking about Taylor today?

Taylor’s real talent lay in using science to justify a plan already being implemented. But this was crucially important: by claiming the conclusions reached were scientific, the management had evidence that the workers could not dispute. Management could blame the expert, who could in turn point to the science. In this way, decisions appeared to cease being made by humans at all, but by an objective, God-like arbiter called data.

In spite of Taylor’s falsification of data, he is still widely considered to have created the founding stone for scientific management. His revolutionary approach was to find patterns in seemingly random and disparate forms of work and put them under an umbrella “system.” This was a completely new and transformative way of looking at work—and highly seductive to businesses looking to run more efficiently.

Following his triumph at the Midvale Steel Works, Taylor was hailed a genius and became the world’s first management guru, thanks in part to his friendship with prominent Boston lawyer Louis Brandeis. Taylor’s book, The Principles of Scientific Management, became a bestseller, and in 1911, he toured America to packed houses explaining his science of efficiency and how it would change the world.

The public lapped it up eagerly. Science appeared to be able to solve anything. In 1886, Charles Darwin had used science to explain evolution; Freud had used it to decipher the subconscious mind. Taylor followed in their footsteps. American industry was soon lining up at Taylor’s door: coal, banking and the railroads all sought his expertise. He became a multimillionaire and one of America’s richest men.

In 1913, he was invited to brief the government on how to implement his ideas for the benefit of America. But in 1908, when President Theodore Roosevelt said in his address to the first Conference of Governors at the White House that “the conservation of our natural resources is only preliminary to the larger question of national efficiency,” he was already channeling Taylor. A consultancy deal with the government would have cemented Taylor’s place at the heart of power and pocketed him a further fortune. But in 1915, Taylor died suddenly. He never got to see his grand “science of management” take over the world. But that is what it did.


Excerpted from The Deals That Made the World: Reckless Ambition, Backroom Negotiations, and the Hidden Truths of Business by Jacques Peretti.
Published by William Morrow, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 
Copyright by by Jacques Peretti.
All Rights Reserved.



Jacques Peretti is an award-winning investigative reporter for the BBC and a journalist for The Guardian. His television series include The Men Who Made us Fat, The Super Rich and Us, and Britain's Trillion Pound Island. He studied economics at the London School of Economics and lives in London.


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