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Easy Money: Corporate Scapegoat for Hire

Every company needs a scapegoat. When a business is reeling from federal indictments, creditors' liens or lawsuits from orphans, someone on the corporate roster should embrace the blame. Unfortunately, most executives, especially the guilty ones, lack the talent for self-sacrifice. They will deny everything, demand exorbitant "retirement" packages or squeal to the grand jury. The company, the media and the investors deserve a more obliging scapegoat.

I recommend me.

Yes, corporate America, I am your perfect dupe. Hire me as the blameworthy executive, then incriminate me at press conferences and stockholders' meetings. After I confess to your failures, I can be humiliated and fired. If the company is a Japanese subsidiary, I can also feign suicide. The public will love the spectacle, and it might even improve employee morale.

I will do all this for a fraction of what an MBA would charge. Furthermore, I can impersonate a whole repertoire of scapegoats. You want a culprit who is the embodiment of everything wrong with your company. I can offer a selection drawn from the biggest buffoons in history: two thousand years of incompetence for your every need. The magnitude of their ineptitude is guaranteed to make you look wonderful. Whether you want a sneering ass or a blithe idiot, I have the ideal scapegoat for you. Choose among these classic models:

  • Is your company a fiscal shambles, but the corporate headquarters wins architectural awards? Then, you want the Louis XV model. King of France from 1715 to 1774, Louis was handsome, charming and completely oblivious. France was the richest and most cultured country in Europe, yet its government was bankrupt of money and ideas. The Crown actually lost the treasury in the stock market. Of course, the government could have raised money by enacting new legislation, but that would have distracted Louis from his mistresses.

    Louis XV
    Source: Corbis/Bettmann

    The monarchy preferred to rely on an antiquated tax system that raised 14th-century revenue to meet 18th-century expenditures. To cover the inevitable deficits, the government raised loans and then raised more loans to pay off the earlier loans. These penurious circumstances went unnoticed at Versailles. Louis was very generous to himself and his mistresses; in fact, he let his ladies run the country. One of them, Madame de Pompadour, managed to start the Seven Years War , which France disastrously lost. In a rare reflective moment, Louis considered his abysmal reign and shrugged, " Apres moi, le deluge."

    For modern business, the Louis XV model is a welcome choice on your corporate board of directors, particularly as chairman of the executive compensation committee.

  • Is your company an affront to decency and common sense? Are you the corporation that everyone loves to hate? Then your ideal scapegoat is the Herbert Hoover model. History has blamed our 31st president for the Great Depression ; that seems unfair since Hoover barely noticed it. He was much more concerned about enforcing Prohibition , even as he drove people to drink. Hoover was never content simply to be inane, callous and offensive. He instinctively chose the worst time to say the worst thing.

    Herbert Hoover
    Source: Corbis/Bettmann

    As the nation plunged into Depression, we had a president who expressed this heartfelt conviction: "If a man has not made a million dollars by the time he is 40, he is not worth much." When 25% of the workforce was unemployed, Hoover offered this distinctly optimistic view: "Many people have left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples." Yes, Franklin Roosevelt did win by a landslide.

    With its brazen arrogance and shameless implausibility, the Hoover model makes a fitting vice president of marketing. A group rate is available to the tobacco industry.

  • Does your business worship a new "paradigm" each month? Are you chanting business-school mantras as an alternative to common sense? Then the scapegoat for you is the Julian the Apostate model. Ruling the Roman Empire from 361 to 363, Julian was the last pagan emperor and the first management consultant.

    Julian the Apostate
    Source: Corbis

    Since 312, the Empire had been operating on a new managerial system called Christianity. The prototype of Total Quality Management , Christianity provided the benefits of monotheism without circumcision. It also offered eternal retirement benefits, which proved very popular among the meek. Julian, however, decided that Christianity had the wrong incentives program. The idea of Heaven might spoil the work ethics of Rome's subjects and slaves. To save the Empire, Julian tried to reinvent Paganism.

    But as a graduate of the best schools in the Empire, Julian felt that Paganism needed intellectual dignity: fewer orgies, more seminars. So the Emperor preached Neo-Platonism, a unique combination of philosophy and animal sacrifices. His religion would appeal to the masses' minds rather than to their fears and hopes. Unfortunately, Julian did not have a chance to promote his metaphysical, synergized paradigm. While leading the Roman army against Persia, he was killed in battle. We still don't know by which side.

    Today, Julian the Apostate could be the patron saint of business schools. Arrogant, deluded and incoherent, he makes the perfect scapegoat for corporate planning.

  • Is your company insufferably smug -- a complacent monopoly that presumes an immunity from laws and markets? You need our Pope Leo X model. Reigning from 1513 to 1521, Leo was a caricature of the Renaissance Church: cultured, pompous and corrupt. As a member of the de Medici family, Leo unfortunately felt St. Peter's Church did not meet with aesthetic standards. But one can't have a Renaissance on a medieval budget. To raise the money, Leo authorized the mass marketing of indulgences.

    Pope Leo X
    Source: Corbis/Francis G. Mayer

    Indulgences -- pardons from Purgatory, bought from the church -- allowed the purchaser to bribe away his sins while subsidizing the work of Michelangelo and Raphael. Who could resist that bargain? In 1517 Martin Luther did, but Rome just ignored the complaints of an obscure German professor. In 1520 Raphael died, and the pope finally noticed that there was a Reformation. By that time, however, the Church had already lost its market dominance in Northern Europe. Many people preferred the superior German design and engineering of Protestantism. What's more, Luther's Heaven had a lower overhead than Rome's.

    The Leo X model is perfect for any lumbering conglomerate that never imagined that there could be competition. It has traditionally suited executives in the American automobile industry and could be easily updated for New Economy behemoths such as Microsoft (MSFT).

  • Embracing innovation, seizing the initiative -- and then having no idea what to do next: If this is your company's problem, my Comte Charles d'Estaing model can be your dynamo of disaster. He is one of the mercifully obscure figures of the American Revolution. In 1778, Comte d'Estaing was appointed the admiral of the French expeditionary force to America.

    Unfortunately, d'Estaing was an army officer and unfamiliar with water. But the outstanding feature of his career was the number of times he was captured by the British.

    He set sail for Rhode Island and went to the West Indies. The following year, he succeeded in landing a French army in Georgia. Taking command of the troops at the battle of Savannah, d'Estaing did everything necessary for the British to win. This time, however, he was careful not to be captured.

    For his role in losing Georgia to the British, d'Estaing was discreetly reassigned as naval attache to Spain, where presumably incompetence went unnoticed. In 1793, d'Estaing culminated his career by appearing as a defense witness for Marie Antoinette; he managed to get himself guillotined, too.

    The Comte d'Estaing model is ideal for such special occasions as reorganization, restructuring, downsizing and other forms of corporate transition or -- as the case may have it --self-destruction.

So, corporate America, when you next confront scandal and calamity, don't issue a cheerful press release. Give the public the scapegoat they deserve -- the best that history has to offer. Louis XV, Herbert Hoover, Julian the Apostate, Pope Leo X and Comte d'Estaing can take the blame for you. Andersen Consulting can't match that.

Eugene Finerman is a humorist and speechwriter. He probably is joking about being a professional scapegoat, but make him an offer and see. In keeping with TSC policy, Eugene does not have any investments in the French monarchy or paganism. Although he cannot provide you with specific financial advice, he will tell you how much he won on Jeopardy!

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