AOL Babies and Scrooge

AOL Babies and Scrooge

I’ll admit that I’m an emotional guy. “Passionate” probably is the word I would choose, to put the right “spin” on my tendency to speak with intensity, hug those who need hugging, and, yes, choke up and even shed a tear or two when the particular “passion” is a form of deep sorrow or great joy.

My passion probably shows on these virtual pages, as it does when I speak in public.  I do what I do (write, speak, teach, counsel) because I am passionate about life and about creating paths of understanding and opportunity for each of us to live a life of hard work, of hope, and of joy.

Professionally, however, I try to keep my passion in a box of sorts, within the confines of what I consider propriety in the particular context and occasion.  I don’t usually choke up when I speak in public. And I usually restrain my comments, here and elsewhere, in acknowledgement of the respect due others, even those with whom I passionately disagree, and the humble certainty that I sometimes get things terribly wrong.

All that is to give you, dear reader, a sense of how hard I am working right now to use appropriate language on the topic of corporate greed (oops!) and humane concern for others.

If you haven’t heard or read about the extraordinary rationalization offered by AOL’s CEO, Tim Armstrong, recently as he announced cuts to AOL’s contributions to his employee’s 401Ks, you can read about it, and other curious “mistakes,” here.

The centerpiece of Mr. Armstrong’s Malthus-inspired defense of protecting AOL’s bottom line by increasing employee financial risk and stress was a claim that AOL had to find a way to save money this year because, last year, “We had two AOL-ers that had distressed babies that were born that we paid a million dollars each to make sure those babies were O.K., in general,” (according to a transcript provided to the press by an AOL employee).

In other words: “Dear employees, because a couple of you suffered the tragedy of giving birth to profoundly ill infants, we’re going to stick it to all of you.”

Is that an invitation for the creation of a mob enforcement mechanism? To protect their retirement accounts, shall teams of employees monitor the situations of pregnant women and urge upon them “cost-saving measures”?

Oops . . . I slipped again.

There are innumerable things wrong with what Mr. Armstrong said. By identifying the medical issue (distressed babies) and the number (two), Mr. Armstrong arguably violated the privacy of a couple of AOL’s employees (who knew that the critical care of these little ones cost a million dollars each?). He also turned families going through an incredibly difficult period (remember, these births were last year, so even if the kids are doing great now, the emotional healing process is still ongoing) into scapegoats for management’s decision to take benefits from employees in order to protect the corporation’s bottom line. This wasn’t the only solution (as is proven by the fact that Mr. Armstrong reversed himself in response to the heat his comments generated), it was just management’s preferred solution. Take money from employees; give it to Wall Street.

I’m not suggesting that AOL didn’t face some challenges because of the added costs of health insurance the company may be facing in light of expensive cases (and the Affordable Care Act, according to Mr. Armstrong). I am suggesting (because I am containing that passion, I’m suggesting) that Mr. Armstrong’s justification for taking retirement security from his employees smacks loudly of exactly what is wrong with the contemporary debate about the economy. (It’s a bipartisan deficiency, by the way.) Decisions are being made by corporate and political leaders that are so focused on dollars, debt and dividends that the human realities of employees/citizens, and their (wait . . . our) children are being forgotten.

Whether one is on the right or the left, or somewhere out there on another dimension, this should be troubling (shouldn’t it?). Isn’t it troubling to think that Wall Street’s interest in profit has become so important, and the expectation of substantial returns so high, that corporate executives can work themselves to a place where they are comfortable taking thousands upon thousands of dollars from lower- and middle-class families in order to satisfy the computer models that drive the investment of capital.


This is, in a nutshell, the heart of the debate we should be having. What human price is acceptable for profit? What human price is acceptable for political gain?

That we face such choices, I’ll admit. Everything has a cost, and not everything is affordable.

But really, Mr. Armstrong?

I seem to recall a certain financier (his first name was Ebenezer, I believe) who, upon a particular Christmas morning, found his way to make amends for the horrible things he said about the poor (something about hurrying up and dying, I think). Despite the personal embarrassment and the personal financial cost (which was substantial), he gave a vast sum to ameliorate the suffering of the poor . . . deserving and undeserving, by the way . . . and saw it simply as first installment in his new investment plan.

He was right, was Scrooge. And it should be troubling that we, as a society, find ourselves more “Scrooge-like” than old Ebenezer himself.