The Christmas Bottom Line

December 23, 2011

Although now gone, a gravestone in Edinburgh’s Canongate Churchyard marked the last resting place of Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie.  This grain merchant served as the inspiration for Dickens’s character Ebenezer Scrooge, and, by a strange quirk of history, was also a relative of Adam Smith.

The grave marker was lost during construction work at the cemetery in 1932, so it is not possible to verify what was written on the gravestone. Nevertheless, it became Dickens’s inspiration for the flinty businessman in A Christmas Carol.  Legend has it that upon visiting the graveyard, Dickens was struck by the epithet on Scroggie’s headstone, on which was engraved that he was a “mean man.”  Commenting later on this discovery, Dickens wrote that it must have “shrivelled” Scroggie’s soul to carry “such a terrible thing to eternity.”

Published in 1843, Dickens’s story has entertained millions and is a morality tale brought out at Christmas time to illustrate the redeeming power of the holiday spirit.  When we first meet Scrooge, he is the very epitome of a vile capitalist:

Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.

During the course of the night Scrooge is visited by three spirits: the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Christmas Yet to Come. These specters show Scrooge the consequences of his heartlessness and leads to his transformation.

Now, more than 150 years later, stereotypes of cold-hearted misers no longer appear as wizened old men with pointy noses, but as corporations that also have a history of persecuting their own Bob Cratchits. How many people are fired just before Christmas to save on holiday pay? In France, as Christmas approached, large department stores lobbied the mayor’s office to have beggars removed from popular shopping precincts so as not to put off customers indulging in an orgy of gift-buying. Both actions are worthy of Scrooge in his heyday.

In Dickens’s moral universe, there are good and bad people. Scrooge is lucky because, while he enters the story a villain, he leaves a much better person. When people talk about corporations, particularly bad corporations, they often betray a hope that those firms, too, can be redeemed. We like to project human characteristics on organizations, one of which is the ability to be reformed given the right encouragement.

There is a real danger in anthropomorphizing corporations. They are inherently designed to generate profits, not to serve the public interest (although they may do this accidentally). They do good things if there is a profit in it, and they distribute charity if it increases sales.  And they do bad things if they believe it will increase their share price and if it is not against the law.

To have any hope of redemption, one needs a soul, a uniquely human trait.  As one eighteenth-century wit observed, corporations have “no anatomical parts to be kicked or consigned to the calaboose; no conscience to keep it awake all night; no soul for whose salvation the parson may struggle; no body to be roasted in hell or purged for celestial enjoyment.”

Just remember that before a corporation shows any generosity, it usually has gone through a cost-benefit analysis.  And when a corporation does something bad, don’t expect it to be open to redemption once shown the errors of its ways.  The bottom line is that corporations are not like you and I and should not be treated in the same way.

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