"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"
Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”
Many years ago, in a wrongful termination case, I took the trouble to ask each of the defendant’s corporate witnesses to give me a short list of the important elements of a company, the stuff management fretted over, that went—as they say—to the ‘bottom line.’
“Earnings before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization.”
One after another, the executives took the stand, warily contributing to a running list I kept on a blackboard over the puzzled objection of opposing counsel. At closing, I reminded the jury of Jacob Marley’s injunction, delivered on Christmas eve during a transformative decade in the Victorian Age, in 1843 by a mature Charles Dickens, a man who, at age twelve, had seen his father jailed for debt and who could not avoid daily contact with the gin soaked casualties of capitalism littering the streets of London.
Notably, none of my opponent’s witnesses had ventured that “people” were an asset worthy of the short list. My client, the defendant’s former Human Relations Vice President and a whistleblower, whose efforts to expose fraud and share manipulation were rewarded by a firing, received vindication and a satisfactory judgment. Years later, he remains a true believer in American Corporate Culture and he has certainly earned that right. For most of my clients, though, downsizing, rightsizing, off shoring, produce tectonic shocks that go right down to fundamentals: assumptions about being a “team player” and effort and merit being justly rewarded.
As we enter what increasingly appears to be a jobless recovery from the worst recession since the Great Depression, we have an unprecedented opportunity to look at the basic structures that form the very fabric of our lives: corporate governance, at will employment, our sentimental preference for organic versus government sponsored change, the maldistribution of income and, most importantly, how we got here and why it was not and is not inevitable nor a reflection of natural laws.
Writing in the Telegraph, American philosopher Janet Daley reminds us that:
Properly speaking, capitalism is not a system at all…it is just the human condition in economic form. As such, it contains all of the common vices—greed, selfishness and, as the current crisis demonstrates, a peculiarly unattractive mixture of ruthlessness and recklessness. But it also embodies some of the finest human traits: creativity, courage, intellectual inventiveness and adaptability. Indeed, it was precisely the need to suppress those invaluable traits—arguably the ones that are most characteristic of human independence of spirit—that made communism untenable.
We are at low tide, an interval during which we can at last venture out and examine what has long been hidden to us. It is within our power to change things but, in order to do this, we must see with new eyes and jettison old prejudices.
Dickens prefaced A Christmas Carol (which sold poorly) with these words:
I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.
In future installments I propose to outline, in terms that are accessible to most readers, how American Corporate law and culture developed, the origin and importance of “finance” and the creation of the “employment at will” doctrine, a peculiarly American Institution that may owe its birth to the death of chattel slavery, why “joblessness” can be a good thing, and the need for change in the institutional labor movement. Along the way we will examine the emerging notion that human freedom and happiness are a better measure of prosperity than, say, GNP.