Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is not only one of my favorite holiday stories, it's one of my favorite stories period. I've seen it on stage a dozen times. Even played Ebenezer Scrooge myself once in high school. It's the perfect mixture of Christmas magic, winter horror, and moral lesson.
Sadly, the lessons taught to us by A Christmas Carol seem to be lost on a surprising number of Americans in this day and age. As we celebrate what is supposed to be the most giving and reflective range of the calendar, I thought a refresher course might be in order.
5. We Are Responsible for All the World Around Us: Our story opens with a perfectly descriptive scene of our hero, Scrooge. In the course of just a few pages he only grudgingly offers a day off for Christmas to his clerk Bob Cratchit and dismisses two men that come seeking alms for the poor by declaring his entire social obligation fulfilled through his taxes that pay for workhouses and prisons.
It's not until he is taken by the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future to visit the Cratchit family that the mass and lot of lesser men is brought home to him in a real way. No matter what, the entire fortune of his clerk's family hinges fully on the pittance that Scrooge pays Cratchit. The result is malnutrition and inadequate healthcare. Yet they are grateful for even that.
That is a direct example, but just as Jacob Marley told Scrooge in his visit, "The common welfare should have been my business". Not a man among us is better than the hungriest child we allow to exist in a country overflowing with plenty. Money can buy you distance from their groans, but it can never absolve each of us the responsibility that we owe the day we assume enough means to give more than we take. Too many simply cannot move a single step forward without our help, and to deny that is to admit that the idea of people dying in the streets simply doesn't bother you.
4. Lack of a Safety Net Has Horrible Repercussions Even for the Rich: Scrooge's defining characteristic is the fact that he is a miser. He hoards every single shilling he can, and considers paid time off for a holiday akin to having his pocket picked. Money is dearer to him than even his own comfort.
There's more to it than greed, though. Far more. You have to remember that in the time that Dickens wrote the story there was simply no means for a destitute old person or an incapacitated one to take care of themselves. What you made while working was all you had, especially if you didn't have a family to help and rely on. That's why America took up Social Security in the first place. We had the elderly living in chicken coops.
It's also why you see figures like Scrooge in stories. People of his era knew that what you saved was all that stood between you and the street. That sort of ingrained fear doesn't go away with material success. In fact, it simply increases proportionate to the size of your hoard. Suddenly, you're sitting on a pile of gold still stuck in the mindset that every coin is precious and must be preserved. Paranoid fear becomes miserliness, and costs society any aid from members most able to eliminate the cause of that fear in the first place.
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3. If You Sacrifice Everything for Money That's What You End Up With: Scrooge's passion is making money. He left his childhood sweetheart behind because she failed to understand that passion, and considered his late business partner Marley to be his only real friend. He takes little notice of his nephew, offers no familiar relationship with his sole employee, and lives in an empty house alone.
There's nothing wrong with making money at all. Nothing. I love capitalism with all my heart. It allows some people the chance to succeed regardless of starting class, and while you're more likely stay poor than strike rich the theoretical possibility keeps more than one person going.
Speaking as someone who typically works 70 hours a week, I can tell you this... work will not buy back a single day missed with your loved ones. It will not purchase a moment of quiet introspection and relaxation. It will never love you save for what pride you take in the work itself and for what you can produce for it. Money can afford you much, but...
2. Money is Worthless if You Do Nothing With It: The saddest thing about Scrooge is that he might as well be a fraction as rich as he is for all he does with it. He doesn't even pamper himself with his fortune. He lives like a poor person crashing in a rich man's house.
Do you know why people adore Bill Gates and Richard Branson and thought Mitt Romney was a sleaze? It's because Gates and Branson do things with their money. Gates could start his own space program if he wanted to. That's how much money he has, and he's dedicated a huge amount of it to helping others. He pays someone to give his money away because why wouldn't he? What more could he ever possibly want to buy with it that he doesn't already have? Hell, he even plays secret Santa with random reddit users just for the sheer awesome hell of it.
As for Branson, he lives like Tony Stark, and no one ever gives him a hard time about it because that's what most of us would do with his sort of cash. Commercial spaceflight? You go boy. At least you're not sitting on a pile of houses working full time on paying as few taxes as possible. That's not just greedy, it's boring and pointless. At some point money simply becomes meaningless to your own happiness, and that's when you need to decide how you want the world to see you.
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1. Investing in the Common Welfare Does Not Mean You Can't Be Rich: Remember how at the end of A Christmas Carol Scrooge gave all his money away and became just like everyone else? Of course you don't because it didn't freakin' happen. Scrooge finishes off the story a fraction of a percent less wealthy than he started it.
The last time Forbes included Scrooge on their list of the top 15 richest fictional characters in 2008 he was estimated to have a net worth of $8 billion. Even if that was an exaggeration, you can see a pretty good example of his feminine real-life counterpart Hetty Green, who left an almost an identical life with around $2 billion adjusted for modern inflation.
It cost Scrooge damn near nothing to immediately and substantially improve the lives of almost everyone around him. He remains completely on the top of the social ladder. The distance between his financial class and Cratchit's closes not a single iota.
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That's the lesson that we need to address most in this country where the wages of the top two percent have gone up like a home run and everyone else's flies like a line drive to the center fielder. You can actually make the place you live in a lot better by paying people more, and still be dozens or hundreds of times more well off than them.
To call Mitt Romney back to mind for a second, remember when he said 47 percent of people were a drain on the country because they didn't pay income taxes? What no one ever seemed to mention was that a person that worked for companies full of employees stood in a room full of other men who also employed people and completely abdicated responsibility for paying those employees enough money where they would even owe income taxes.
This Christmas, please remember Scrooge, and what saved his soul at the end of a long life full with the cold comfort of currency. Pay your taxes, give the man on the corner enough for a sandwich, find someone to improve the lot of, and if you still have enough left over to exist the same as you did before then you have spent your money very, very wisely indeed.
If not, hey, just think of how nice everything will be when that annoying surplus population is reduced and all that is left is millionaires.