Book Review: ‘Power Failure: The Rise and Fall of an American Icon’ by William D. Cohan

General Electric CEO Jack Welch in New York, 2000. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Newsmakers)

I have a pet theory about what’s really wrong with these United States: too many banks. Or, more precisely, too many bankers at too many institutions that aren’t banks but act like banks, abandoning their core missions to concentrate on banking or banking-adjacent activities. 

American Airlines stinks on ice in part because it isn’t really an airline at all—it is a credit-card company that owns some airplanes. While those planes may fail to take off or land on time 19 times out of 20, you can be sure that 27 times out of 20 the flight crew will turn up the volume on the loudspeakers and try to sell passengers some credit cards. The U.S. government at its worst is indistinguishable from a bank, trying to pilot society by remote control through subsidized credit for everything from college tuition to so-called green energy.

And then there is the sorry story of General Electric, as told by noted business journalist William D. Cohan in Power Failure: The Rise and Fall of an American Icon. (Cohan’s publishers must have real faith in the book: You’ll notice that the company’s name does not appear in the book title, and its logo appears on the cover only as 18-point shadow text.)

GE—the company that once boasted, “We bring good things to life”—helped bring to market world-changing products from the electric lightbulb to the jet engine. Yet it ended up being a company that mostly played with money through GE Money Bank, a subsidiary of GE Capital. And it did so with a genuinely spectacular level of incompetence.

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