Bailing Out Dombey

I’ve been thinking lately about the last Dickens book I read—Dombey and Son. The news brought it to mind.

Dombey is the head honcho of Dombey and Son. He thinks this makes him a Great Man, and just to make damn sure he’s out to suppress all threats to his Greatness. This can get time consuming. See, all you actually have to do to threaten Dombey’s Greatness is contradict him. So Dombey spends half the 900 page epic picking up sycophants so oily you could run a Hummer off their bodily secretions, and the other half methodically alienating anybody who cares enough about him to tell him the truth.

The truth is: Dombey is a moron.

That name, “Dombey and Son?” Our Dombey’s the son. He’s like the third or fourth generation of son. He didn’t build the business. His dad didn’t build the business. Everything he has, he inherited from somebody else who also inherited it. Dombey and Son started without him and continues through inertia while he warms the chair in the big office. And he has no idea how to run it. He has no idea, for example, that sycophant numero uno Carker has for years been using shady accounting to siphon off gobs of funds. And when Carker runs off with the cash, Dombey has no idea it might be time to do something differently. He has no idea he could do anything differently. He’s Dombey, dude! The top of the heap is Dombey’s natural place. That’s how the world rolls. So he coasts placidly along as he always has, and bankrupts the firm.

This is where the news comes in. And as our fearless leaders discuss handing a $700 billion blank check of taxpayer money over to the guys who created this interesting situation, I can’t help but remember what happened to Dombey.

He, himself, personally, went bankrupt.

This was not an oddity in Dickens’s time. It was standard operating procedure. Business owners in 19th century England were personally liable for business debts. (It was a better deal than ordinary debtors got. They ended up in prison. See Little Dorrit.) But Dombey’s attitude is striking:

‘The extent of Mr Dombey’s resources [says Mr. Morfin, one of his middle managers] is not accurately within my knowledge; but though they are doubtless very large, his obligations are enormous. He is a gentleman of high honour and integrity. Any man in his position could, and many a man in his position would, have saved himself, by making terms which would have very slightly, almost insensibly, increased the losses of those who had had dealings with him, and left him a remnant to live upon. But he is resolved on payment to the last farthing of his means. His own words are, that they will clear, or nearly clear, the House, and that no one can lose much. Ah, Miss Harriet, it would do us no harm to remember oftener than we do, that vices are sometimes only virtues carried to excess! His pride shows well in this.’

The vices of our current class of economic honchos are probably not virtues carried to excess.

I don’t mind bailing out the little guys. If this $700 billion were going to rescue struggling people who got suckered into crazy mortgages, I’d consider it money well spent. But before we hand our tax money over to these companies? I’d like to see their CEOs and boards of directors sell off a few private planes and summer homes. Then we’ll talk.