June 11, 2015
Interviews: Peter D. Kiernan on Business and Books
How can business and government become less adversarial and work together to boost the middle class? … The future leaders on both sides of the debate will be better servants of their electorate and their shareholders if the dialogue between them can gain greater depth.
—Peter D. Kiernan
We conclude our series with Peter Kiernan as we always conclude these series—by asking a few quick questions about business and books to try to get a glimpse of the author's mind, what has influenced them, and where they might be headed next.
Q: What is the one unanswered question about business you are most interested in answering?
PDK: How can business and government become less adversarial and work together to boost the middle class?
We need to move from the position today where business and government circle each other warily. A time will soon come where punitive measures against the banks and major corporations will abate. Today the two sides are too sensitive. And there are continuing examples still like the recent LIBOR foxing scandal where business clearly lost its way.
There may be longer term assessments whether the nation’s business schools and corporate cultures have spent enough time on introspection and renewal. At a minimum, both will have to gain greater sophistication with being more closely regulated.
But expecting political leaders who are cutting many of their own budgets to have a true facility for how jobs are created is simply asking too much. There will be no quality jobs recovery until business and government find ways to work together more effectively.
The government needs to become more of an asset and work allocator. It’s penchant for owning and operating all of the means of its production virtually guarantees that the mission will be less productively accomplished.
FDR brought many leading business professionals into his government to rebuild our economic fortunes and to, when the time came, put our peacetime economy on a war footing. The relations between business and government were hardly cordial at all times during this plowshares-into-swords period. But there was openness to discussion which seems missing today.
The future leaders on both sides of the debate will be better servants of their electorate and their shareholders if the dialogue between them can gain greater depth. Government must always maintain its role as regulator and scold, and business has a propensity to push the limits as it chases opportunity. But, between these forces and enthusiasms lies a more effective way for the economy to be coordinated and for jobs of the future to be created.
Q: What book has influenced your worldview and work the most?
PDK: My answer is more expansive than a single book. I subscribe to a line my old friend Peter Johnson of the Author’s Corner on Public Radio often quotes.
Muriel Rukeyser ventured that “ The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
I have been so influenced by the writings of Leon Uris—from QB VII to Trinity. Also Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City; James Clavell’s Shogun, Tai-Pan, and Noble House; Candice Millard’s River of Doubt, Gore Vidal’s Burr and Lincoln; David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback and 1776; and Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Another great one is The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger.
Q: What is the book you wish you had written (or admire the most) and why?
PDK: The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw. His gallant recounting of the people who fought so bravely in the greatest conflagration in history is a true contribution after all these years and so many books and movies on the subject. Brokaw found a way to make a significant addition to the dialog.
Q: What book are you reading right now?
PDK: Apart from my own, I am really enjoying Larry Sabato’s The Kennedy Half Century. His impeccable research is something I really prize—and it leads to new discovery even in a well-covered topic Like JFK.
Q: The previous four questions are ones we ask of every author, and I’ve never added one. But, I really enjoyed the unique approach you took with the book, beginning each chapter with an historical, usually an historic individual’s, perspective. (For instance, you begin the book with the story of an Austrian security guard failing to get the jump on Carlos the Jackal and Baader Meinhoff terrorists at a 1975 meeting of OPEC, which you use to illustrate “Paradise Lost”—the beginning of the end of America’s strong middle class.) It’s not only interesting because it adds a human feeling to the book (not many can trace the history of the middle class through the personal history of Janis Joplin so elegantly), but it also adds an element of storytelling that I haven’t come across in quite the same way before. Where did that idea come from, and do you do any other kind of creative writing on the side?
PDK: My very first book was written as a young man at Williams College some 40 years ago. Since those days I have tried to hone my weak-kneed writing into bolder and more compelling stories. As a frequent public speaker I use these creative passages every time I take the podium—God help my audiences.
And for the least seven or eight years I compose some part of story every day for use in my two more recent books and in several more that are still percolating inside me—God help my readers.
"I subscribe to a line my old friend Peter Johnson of the Author’s Corner on Public Radio often quotes … Muriel Rukeyser ventured that 'The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.'"
Go out and buy yourself a copy of American Mojo!
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.