On the first day of one of my accounting courses my teacher asked the class, "What is the purpose of business?"
We weren't idiots, we knew the answer to the question, the answer he was looking for anyway. But we kept silent. Maybe it was the first-day jitters, maybe some of us were ashamed of the answer.
"The purpose of business is to make money. There's nothing wrong with that," he continued, addressing our silence, "and it's nothing to be ashamed of."
Is this dude's house just really small, or is it half buried in dust? Famous Dust Bowl photo by photojournalist Arthur Rothstein that I stole from Wikipedia.
One of my favorite things about The Grapes of Wrath is how Steinbeck arranges the chapters: for each chapter of plot -- the story of the Joad family as they migrate west from their home in Oklahoma to a new life in California -- there is a brief, three or four page chapter that gives a broader context to the meat of the book. It's a sort of macro and micro view of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. (Steinbeck chapters out Cannery Row in a similar manner.)
In chapter five, one of those short, contextual chapters, Steinbeck explains the role of the banks and land companies during the Dust Bowl:
If a bank or finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank -- or the Company -- needs -- wants -- insists -- must have -- as though the company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time.
So when the crops failed and farming ceased, Dust Bowl farmers defaulted on their loans. And that insatiable monster took their land away.
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A few years after that accounting class, I remember discussing the differences between French and American work ethics in a French civilization and culture class (French was my undergrad minor).
My teacher -- who was French -- had a tough time understanding our American workaholic culture. It's not that she didn't want to, but coming from a country with a 35 hour work week and five weeks of mandatory vacation for full time employees, it must have been a hard concept for her to grasp.
As we talked, I remembered what my accounting teacher taught us on that first day of class. I offered an explanation, "The purpose of a business is to make money. When an employee is absent, the company makes less money."
It's a simple explanation, and it's also true, at least on paper.
"Seal my heart and break my pride, I've nowhere to stand and now nowhere to hide." Mumford and Sons' Grapes of Wrath-inspired "Dust Bowl Dance."
While I read chapter five of The Grapes of Wrath, as an accountant it was really easy for me to understand the position of the bank and land owners. Repossessions happen every day in our country: if you can't pay the loan, the bank takes the asset.
But what happens when that asset is your livelihood, your home? In the course of business, there are many types of gains and losses. But this kind of loss is one I never learned how to account for, how to quantify.