Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, September 14, 2009 9:48 pm

Updating the classics

Filed under: We're so screwed — Lex @ 9:48 pm
Tags: , , , ,

I’ve started re-reading “Les Miserables” because I hadn’t read it since high school and it just felt like time. Starting on page 50 of my battered paperback edition, I found this passage:

HISTORY OF AN IMPROVEMENT IN JET-WORK

… From time immemorial the special occupation of the inhabitants of M—— sur M——- had been the imitation of English jets and German black glass trinkets. The business had always been dull in consequence of the high price of the raw material, which reacted upon the manufacture. At the time of Fantine’s return to M—— sur M—– an entire transformation had been effected in the production of these “black goods.” Towards the end of the year 1815, an unknown man had established himself in the city, and had conceived the idea of substituting gum-lac for resin in the manufacture; and for bracelets, in particular, he made the clasps by simply bending the ends of the metal together instead of soldering them.

This very slight change had worked a revolution.

This very slight change had in fact reduced the price of the raw material enormously, and this had rendered it possible, first, to raise the wages of the laborer — a benefit to the country — secondly, to improve the quality of the goods — an advantage for the consumer — and thirdly, to sell them at a lower price even while making three times the profit — a gain for the manufacturer.

Thus we have three results from one idea.

In less than three years the inventor of this process had become rich, which was well, and had made all around him rich, which was better. … he had drawn a fortune for himself, and a fortune for the whole region.

Ask yourself how many of today’s CEOs would behave in such fashion, rather than having measuring contests with one another over how many multiples of the lowest-paid worker’s salary they can pay themselves. Oh, sure, there are some out there, don’t get me wrong. (And Warren Buffett at least tries to make money for other people, although at $98,750 a share as of today’s close, his Berkshire Hathaway stock ain’t exactly priced for the little guy.) But are such CEOs common enough that we see them portrayed routinely in our news and entertainment media?

No, they’re not. And any CEO, real or fictional, who publicly tried to do what Victor Hugo’s fictional CEO did — or even what Henry Ford did — would, in today’s financial world, be mocked by the pundits of CNBC as a sucker.

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3 Comments

  1. You reading the abridged or unabridged version?

    Comment by Gerald — Tuesday, September 15, 2009 9:45 am @ 9:45 am

  2. Pretty sure it’s abridged, but I never actually checked. (This is not the same edition I read in HS, which was unabridged.) I’ll check tonight.

    Comment by Lex — Tuesday, September 15, 2009 10:47 am @ 10:47 am

  3. Read it in French as a HS senior. Recently watched the excellent 1952 movie with Michael Rennie, one year after he was Klaatu in The Day the World Stood Still, on TCM.

    Comment by Fec — Tuesday, September 15, 2009 11:47 am @ 11:47 am


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