LET’S GET MEDIEVAL
The BEAST explores CEO punishment options
Frustrated with the sluggish official response to the latest corporate scandals, the BEAST decided to call John Swain, a history instructor at the Medieval Institute of Western Michigan University, to seek out more satisfying corporate policy options:
Swain: You want to do what?
BEAST: Basically, what we’re trying to do… you’ve been following this whole mess with the various imploding corporations–Tyco, WorldCom, Rite-Aid…
Swain: Rite-Aid, too?
BEAST: Yeah. They inflate profits by $1.4 billion. Excuse me, $1.6 billion.
Swain: Huh. I didn’t know.
BEAST: Anyway, given that most of the CEOs who are responsible for all of this are probably never going to go to jail, we were wondering if you could help us speculate as to what the punitive options might have been for people like this in, say, 15th-century Portugal, or England.
Swain: Huh. That would probably have depended on who they were back then.
BEAST: Let’s just say we threw someone like former WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers back in time, suit and all, and he was to lay something like what he did on everyone there.
Swain: Are we talking England?
BEAST: Sure, let’s say England.
Swain: Well, in 15th century England, you had a very busy time. I mean, you’re fighting the French, you’ve got the War of the Roses…basically a nobleman, a gentleman, if he were to go really off the deep end there, if he’s caught, the most serious thing he’s probably going to face is a heavy fine from the Crown. Remember, the important thing back then is that the Crown needed money to fight all of these wars.
BEAST: Okay, right, but let’s say the King just…let’s just say he really, really wanted to punish this person, for personal reasons… what options would he have open to him then?
Swain: Well, if he really wanted to get the guy, for personal reasons, what he’d probably do is accuse him of heresy, and, you know… well, he could be burned at the stake.
BEAST: Was burning at the stake peculiar to England?
Swain: No, it was pretty popular everywhere. Sort of a universal thing.
BEAST: If a person like Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski were to be accused of heresy and burned at the stake, how would they do it? Would they leave his tie on?
Swain: I’m not sure. I’d have to look into that.
BEAST: What about other techniques? There are some famous ones: the Iron Maiden, the rack…
Swain: Actually, the Iron Maiden was more of a modern device. It wasn’t really used in medieval times.
Swain: Yeah, you’d think it was a medieval thing, but unfortunately, it actually came later, in a more advanced period of history. Actually, from where you’re coming from, maybe that’s fortunate, not unfortunate.
BEAST: Maybe. What about the rack?
Swain: Well, you had the rack, you had thumbscrews, you had hanging by the thumbs… but these were devices that were mainly used to extract confessions. So if you’re looking to get them to confess, that would have been one way.
Swain: (brightening) But you know, now that I think about it, there was one very popular method of punishment, one you don’t hear a lot about, but was nonetheless very widespread, and that was crushing a person under a large stone.
BEAST: A large stone?
Swain: Yes. They actually used that one in Salem, it was a very common thing for witch trials and things of that sort. I’m sure it would work for CEOs, though.
BEAST: So what did that entail? You take your CEO, push his lawyers away, and put him on the ground, and you get four or five guys to lift up a big rock and drop it on him?
Swain: Oh, no, we’re talking about a much bigger stone than that. I’m saying you’d take your guy and chain him to a slab or a table, and then the stone would be hoisted by chains using a huge pulley, and you’d have a lot of men pulling it, and then there would be people to guide it over the person, and at the given moment, they’d just drop it.
BEAST: And he’d die?
Swain: Oh, God, yes. Totally.
BEAST: Do you think a large stone would be an effective deterrent to corporate malfeasance?
Swain: (after a long pause, sadly) No, probably not. Greed is a powerful motivator. Remember, you’re only punishing the people who get caught, and a characteristic of these people is that they don’t think they’re going to get caught.
BEAST: I see.
Swain: Well, that’s just an opinion.
BEAST: Are you enjoying your summer vacation?
Swain: Oh, yes, very much.
BEAST: That’s great. Well, thank you.
Swain: Thank you.