Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Freeman Essays--VI--Dickens' Scrooge and the Modern Counterpart

I have always been amazed at the remarkable popularity of Charles Dickens' Christmas Story, "A Christmas Carol". Almost every year sees a new version either on television or in the movies. Many of these hang around for several years so we normally have the choice of at least 3 or 4 versions on television. In addition several of the local theaters do their own versions of the story.
One reason for the popularity of Scrooge, I believe, is that almost everyone can enjoy feeling superior to him. Few American are misers in exactly the sense that Scrooge was. That is, few Americans seek to build ever larger stockpiles of money which they hide physically under a mattress or in a box buried in the ground. Of course, stashing away real money,e.g. gold coins, was, until fairly recently, illegal, and stashing away the coin and currency of the realm has in all my lifetime, the lifetime of my father, and most of the lifetime of my grandfather, made no sense whatsoever because of inflation.
In the typical production of Scrooge, we see him returning home to a ramshackle apartment, eating dry bread and thin soup, and dressed worse than any of the beggars to whom he returns only his famous "bah humbug" in exchange for their pleas for assistance. In a word, he leads a miserly existence--an existence that makes even less sense to most of us than it did to Scrooge's nephew, Fred, who in Dicken's story delights in pointing out to his friends that Scrooge gets no real enjoyment from his money. Of course, there are people like Scrooge, but, in today's world, I suspect, they are rare. We, like Scrooge's nephew are determined to use whatever we can lay hold of to live "the good life". But I believe that the motivation that prompted such miserliness is still there--if anything, stronger today than in Scrooge's day. To understand why we must ask ourselves why Scrooge was such a miser at all.
In the various plays I have seen of Scrooge, the impression is given that the "new and reborn" Scrooge has given up nothing by exchanging his old miserly self for his new person. If, of course, his new-found generosity and geniality results in an increase of business for his loan company, this will possibly be true. But what Scrooge perceived he would be giving up was income and security. Giving generously from his private stock of capital left him less money for making loans and also because his reserves would be reduced he would be more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the future.
In the reluctance to let go of that security, Scrooge is not far behind most of us. Most of his contemporaries simply could not stockpile the amount of capital necessary to hedge against every possible trouble, so they relied heavily on the more informal network of support--friends and family, and ultimately, private charity, especially, the Church. I am sure however, that many of them, just as many of us, had Scrooge-like tendencies in some of their dealings. This includes Dickens himself, who, according to his biographers, could be as tight-fisted with his publishers and other business associates as ever Scrooge was with his clients.
But Dickens was very generous with friends and family and in charitable works. Part of this was, no doubt, his nature, but much came from the observation that those who are generous in times of success are more readily helped in times of trouble. This was almost the universal feeling of Dickens' day and accounts, I believe, for the great appeal of his story upon its first appearance.
In our own day, however, men have turned away, by and large from friends, family, and small local charities such as the local parish as a source of security and now look to large collectives--insurance companies, corporate annuities, and, above all else, the government. This frees us to be--or at least to appear to be--much less the misers. Most Americans live like Scrooge's nephew, Fred. Scrooge looked on Fred's lifestyle as irresponsible because he was making no hard cash provision for his future. Modern American audiences identify with Fred because almost no one in America does either. We are hopeful that it will be unnecessary to do so. At the same time, most Americans make little "friends and family" provision for their futures, either.
Whatever can be brought against the miserly Scrooge, it must be said in his favor that he was making provision for himself. Of course, the new, reformed Scrooge was a much better man, but a great deal of that stems from the fact that he gave up some of his trust in hard cash and placed a great deal more of his fate into the hands of friends, family, and ultimately, God. To really identify with the "reborn" Scrooge, a person would have to do the same. Instead, most of us who enjoy viewing his change continue to spend our cash on the "good life", confident, if some uncertainty lays us low that we deserve to be taken care by government.
The other thing that can be said for Scrooge, the reason I find myself sympathizing with him on occasion, is that, although not inclined toward charity himself, we do not find him suggesting that others should be forced to be charitable. His uncharity ended with himself. There are, in our society, a growing number of what I call, the "new Scrooges". I was reminded of this the other day when I was looking through some old magazine articles I had clipped. I am going to use the example below, not because I think the Alan Blinder is the archetype "new Scrooge"--they are legion--but he certainly belongs to their number. Principally, I chose him because he so clearly put his "Scrooginess" in print, but he did it enough years ago that the issues of a specific political campaign have ceased to be strongly emotional.
In an election year article in Business Week, Mr. Blinder, a Princeton economist and guest columnist for that magazine, suggested that everyone should vote for Michael Dukakis. To support his reasoning he used the example of the problem of homelessness. This is a problem of sufficient magnitude that Mr. Blinder felt it was somewhat beyond solution with his resources alone. He felt, however, that he would be willing to put $100 toward that end. He felt confident that if everyone else in America were also so generous, that the problem would be solved. His great concern was that his neighbors might not be so generous unless forced to contribute their fair share. Mr. Dukakis, he felt would be more likely to force everyone to pay his $100 share.
Let us put this argument in terms of Scrooge's day. Considering that Mr. Scrooge's hard-pressed clerk, Bob Crachit, had an annual salary of about 750 shillings, one hundred dollars is to Mr. Blinder--assuming an annual salary of between $38,000 and $75,000--the "Crachit equivalent" of a shilling or two. Since Scrooge clearly shows contempt for Bob Crachit's salary, it would be safe to assume that $100 for Alan Blinder is the equivalent to Scrooge of 3 or 4 pence or pennies. Scrooge could easily have said, "I will gladly contribute a few pennies if my even stingier neighbors are forced to contribute their pennies first."
I suspect that Mr. Blinder would counter that Scrooge would say something like that as a mere ploy to get out of paying his fair share, while he, on the other hand, had worked very hard to see to it that everyone was indeed forced to pay that fair share. In his mind, I am sure, not only is he no Scrooge, but he is doing all in his power to see to it that everyone else is "unscrooged" too.
What Mr. Blinder and the army of fellow "new Scrooges" always fail (or refuse) to recognize is that not everyone's perception of the problem is the same. This is particularly true when it gets down to calculating the "fair share". And , unfortunately, it is the very people who are best able to pay their "fair share" who are most inclined to use every means, fair and foul, to see to it that they don't have to. In fact, Mr. Blinder, in a highly amusing article written around April 15, essentially admits that he is among their number. In that article, he informs us that he wishes to take advantage of a new tax law to provide himself with the best advantage possible, but that the form for doing so is so difficult to understand that in spite of three degrees in economics, he is having a hard time. While those in the "lower middle class" and below will take their lumps with the 1040, Mr. Blinder makes it clear that, with his three degrees and an extended summer vacation, he plans to grasp every advantage the tax laws allow.
And thus we see why the "new Scrooges" are so very much worse than the original. For while the new Scrooges loudly and fervently demand that everyone be forced to pay his "fair share"in all kinds of charitable works, it is typically the Bob Crachits of the world that end up paying it. The tragedy is, of course, that just as $100 to Mr. Blinder or a few pennies to Scrooge is of little consequence, to Bob Crachit it is a real sacrifice. Being forced to pay a few shillings for the homeless, may bring him and his family dangerously close to that condition themselves.
I suppose the sum of the matter is that as we witness Scrooge repent again for the umpteenth time, that we remember that for him to have a really joyous Christmas, he must increase in faith what he has given up in cash. And if that is not possible for us, we should at least with all our mights, struggle against the temptation to become "scroogier" than Scrooge by suggesting that people be forced to be charitable.
1. Blinder, Alan "An Issueless Campaign? Take a Closer Look" Business Week, Oct. 24, 1988 Pg. 18.
2. Blinder, Alan "Could the New Tax Forms be as Bad as Everyone Says? Trust Me" Business Week, April 11, 1988 Pg. 22.

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