Crony Capitalism: There Is Nothing New Under the Sun

I recently watched Nicholas Nickleby (2002), based on the Charles Dickens novel of the same name, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It is a very light-hearted drama, or perhaps a comedy with dramatic touches -- I am not quite sure how to describe it.  I was sufficiently touched by the film to read Dickens’ novel, published as a serial in the 1830s.

I am only a little ways in, but I have already found a very interesting aspect to the story that did not make it into the film -- and I think I can see why: It is a reminder that there is nothing new under the sun. The villain is Ralph Nickleby, and in the film we learn only that he is engaged in some sort of speculative financial activity that has made him very wealthy -- and which requires him to associate with some really sleazy but wealthy people who are intent on becoming more wealthy.

Exactly what that speculation is, we never learn from the film, but clearly it is something a bit questionable.  As both novel and film explain, a previous round of this questionable practice meant, “A mania prevailed, a bubble burst, four stock-brokers took villa residences at Florence, four hundred nobodies were ruined….”

In reading the novel, I find myself delighted with how Dickens explains how the villain is making his money. Today, Ralph Nickleby would likely be a bundler for the Obama re-election campaign. In chapter two, we learn that Nickleby and his unindicted co-conspirators are promoting — in the public interest, of course — a startup called the “United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company.” Nickleby and friends intend to get rich by taking the company public, and immediately selling their founder’s stock.

Okay, this does not sound so terribly nefarious: they are starting a company that satisfies a public need.  Well, not quite. Ralph Nickleby and friends organize a public meeting at which various figures speak of the horrifying social problems that the existing competitive system of bakers and independent delivery contractors create: how the poor were “destitute of the slightest vestige of a muffin”; how “drunkenness, debauchery, and profligacy” were the state of muffin-sellers and the poor “who ought to be muffin consumers”; that the “unhappy youths” who delivered muffins and crumpets to customers at all hours suffered because of bad weather and traffic accidents.

The purpose of the public meeting is to sway emotions of the crowd so that they will sign a petition to Parliament chartering this new corporation -- and oh yes, two members of the board, who are M.P.s, will sponsor the bill granting the charter.  The charter, of course, does not simply create a corporation.  It will abolish “'all muffin (or crumpet) sellers, all traders in muffins (or crumpets) of whatsoever description, whether male or female, boys or men, ringing hand-bells or otherwise'.”