Monday, December 8, 2008

fool's gold

Business! . . . Mankind was my business.

-- A Christmas Carol

A good man I know, who sold his business and retired to family life, argued once with his wife about how much he paid his workers. She thought he paid them too much, or himself too little. “Yes,” he said, “I let some of those guys earn more than I did. And that is why we’re rich today.” Teddy didn’t think the people who worked for him were liabilities. Though he did not own them, they were his wealth. He shared the rewards of work, and lo! there was plenty to go around.

Now it seems that workers are reduced to cost. Cheap as dirt, washed down the drain whenever capital markets need a gesture of due diligence. Every new management begins by firing people to show they are “serious.” (The old management were not serious, because they left people unfired.) A penny paid in compensation for the skill and care of others is a penny stolen from the profits. And the more people you fire, the higher soar the shares: your options turn to gold. It’s a model of scarcity, a less-than-zero sum game. If you find cheaper people, or make one do the work of two, you pocket more than what you paid the departed ones. The wheels are coming off the carriage, but you’ll be safe and gone before the passengers tumble in the ditch. It’s you or them. The less goes round, the more there is for you.

Every Scrooge gets to define his Cratchit as a criminal. Poor Bob picks his boss’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December. A day’s pay with nothing done. Where, shouts Moneybags, is his work ethic? How dare he consume my substance? For that matter, how dare he burn another of my lumps of coal?

Yet not even Moneybags can repress the memory of another business model. “Yo ho, my boys! No more work tonight,” shouts Fezziwig, curtailing labor to waste his capital on feast and drink, music and dance, laughter and family affection. Though Moneybags has the power to condemn his dependents, Fezziwig has the power to bless them, “to make our service light or burdensome, a pleasure or a toil.” The difference is “a few pounds of your mortal money.” The model of abundance. The more goes round, the more there is. Moneybags is envious. But he has had his revenge.

Scrooge is right. There is always a dark satanic mill and a frigid counting-house ready to put Fezziwig out of business. It isn’t good enough to do well; one must extract every last dime right now. So capital markets punish the generous impulse, the vision of future, the aspiration to quality, prudence itself. Not even the bottom line matters in the end – it’s all tomorrow’s stock price. Capital flows like water, enabling us to kill on Monday, sell on Tuesday and on Wednesday, when the bodies are found, lounge on a tropic beach.

Our current Scrooges know nothing of gruel and bare chambers. They can’t remember how many rooms they have prepared, or in how many mansions. They tilt the scales. They cannot lose.

“Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches,” cried the prophet Amos, “but are not grieved over the ruin.” Our lascivious Scrooges have sold fool’s gold to each other, and now there is no trust. Now we learn, in its disappearance, that solidarity has value. Now we learn that, where everyone has three jobs, a firm loses its reputation. Now we learn that a clerk with warm hands writes good accounts. Now we learn that a worker who can pay his mortgage is productive, a manager who can see her future makes good decisions. Nothing costs money like misery and terror. Bad faith makes us poor. We are learning.

The Fezziwigs of the world conduct the business of mankind and they are holy fools. The Scrooges are very wise but their wisdom killeth. Fezziwig’s apprentices don’t ask for much. In the world of solidarity, a few pounds’ expenditure, a few loaves and fishes can satisfy thousands. We hope our children learn the world’s wisdom; but sooner or later they must also learn the foolishness of God. As Scrooge learns, the wage of such folly is life itself.

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