An Open Letter to Modern Capitalists From Ebenezer Scrooge

Illustration by John Leech for “A Christmas Carol”

Sirs,

Once again, I find myself in the hands of an author who has chosen to grant me a vision of the future. This time, however, it is not a matter of some sugar-coated ‘redemption’, of which I never stood in need, but simply to observe what has become of the world of business in which I once worked.

We did not, by and large, in my day, speak of ‘isms’ — words such as ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’ were not bandied about as they are in your time. I’ll allow I find myself puzzled by ’em, as they seem to apply as much to social customs and etiquette as they do to business -matters which we keep separate.

But this I will say of your world of ‘business’, using the word which Mr Dickens has forever stuck to my name. That word, gentlemen, is ‘humbug’!

For those of you, especially in the Colonies, who suffer from the creeping shrinkage of the once-noble English tongue, a humbug is a fraud, a deception, a hypocrisy. All things with which your so-called ‘businesses’ are riddled!

I am a moneylender, what you in your time would call an ‘investment banker’, though we seldom make such distinctions. I advance sums of money to individuals and companies, and also purchase shares in companies. I expect a due return upon my investment, of course. I also require debts to be paid, in full, with the agreed interest, upon the due date. That is the contract both I and the debtor agreed upon.

I deal in cash. Golden sovereigns and silver shillings. Currency that has a real weight, a real substance, and a value of its’ own. You deal in an idea, a notion that a piece of paper, a scrap of base metal, or worse, a bit of information in your computing machines, can have a value. This is not money, not a means of exchange, value for value, but a nothingness to which you can apply any value you see fit at any time. A fraud. A humbug.

I invest in mines, in factories, mills, canals and railways, shipyards and merchant ventures. Concerns that produce or transport goods, items of commercial value. I expect my investment to be used to expand the business. That in doing so, it will provide needed work for many is to the benefit of all. You, however, buy and sell shares as if they are a commodity on their own, without regard to the real value of a company or the work it does. Your ‘Stock Market’ is dominated by companies who produce nothing, have no concrete assets, but which exist only to purchase and sell shares, with no consideration of actual value. Thus some become rich while producing, or helping to produce. nothing, whilst hard-working, honest men and women are brought to ruin, not through their own improvidence or incompetence, but through the machinations of those who know nothing of real work or real value. Humbugs.

When I invest, I take note of the nature of the business, its’ assets, its’ profitability and the character of its’ directors and managers. If I buy dear, it is because the company is profitable and its’ stock guarantees a steady, long-term, income. If I sell cheap, it is because the company is on the road to ruin. I invest for my own future -a quick profit is of no value to me if it robs me of a steady income. Your opportunistic methods and luxurious living smack of the bad labourer, who will work one day and drink for three, then wail of his poverty while his sober fellow works daily and lives frugally, but securely.

They say of me that I abuse my staff. Mr Cratchit knew the terms of his position when he joined me. 15s a week, or £39 a year, if you will, is not a poor wage for a clerk in a small business, in my times. If he and his wife chose to have more children than his salary could support, if they chose to spend half a weeks’ pay on a single meal to celebrate the supposed birth of the son of a Hebrew carpenter, their folly and improvidence cannot be laid at my door. Even so, had Cratchit chosen to inform me that he was at charges for his daughters’ prenticeship, or that his youngest child was sickly and needed medical help, I would have raised his salary sooner. I value Cratchit, he is skilled and reliable. Besides, he is under no more obligation to me than any other employee. He is no bondsman or serf. He could have sought a position elsewhere, but the truth is that he could have found no better billet, and many worse. As to the fires in my office, better a small fire today than no fire, and no office, upon the morrow!

But here I see you making serfs and bondsmen of your workers. Your ‘zero hours’ contracts, your ‘long hours culture’. Honest working people kept in line by the threat of unemployment. Work being divided up into ever smaller tasks so that skilled men be no longer needed nor paid for their skill. Itinerant workers moved from country to country so that wages might be lowered at will. This, gentlemen, is not sound business, but a folly that will rebound upon you. Underpaying is even more improvident than overpaying. Such folly cost a French King his head when I was but a babe, and as a young man I saw the madness of the Napoleonic Wars that Revolution brought about. Your own times stand ever closer to such disaster as the rich grow ever more distant from, and oppressive to, the poor.

They call me a miser, but during the times of the war, I saw the insecurity of life. The failure to be provident, to watch for the changes of an uncertain future, brought many honest folk to the workhouse or worse. It made me watchful, careful, frugal. I spend little, so that I will always have something should a sudden change take form me the means of obtaining more. They say I am rich, and could live more comfortably, be more generous. But how would a great house, soft beds and chairs, and hospitable dinners serve me if all should come to ruin? So I live sparingly while I can work, and save for the day I no longer can! You spend as if your future were assured, live only for the present, and think yourselves invulnerable. But if your economy, built as it is on nothing of real value, should fail, or the governments you hold in thralldom should fall to the wrath of the people, what would you have then?

Business, when grounded in real things and conducted honestly, is of benefit to all who choose to work well and honestly. But when run on fantasy and based on quick profit without concern for the future, it becomes a great humbug. One that will eventually be seen through, with dire consequences.

I am, Sirs,

Yours faithfully,

Ebenezer Scrooge

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