Friday, December 13, 2013

Scrooge vs. the Government

Scrooge vs. the Government! Its a UFC (UnFunded Conumdrum) smack-down event!  Get it now on Pay-per-view!


Ah, the spirit of Christmas!  Is that what Dickens' Christmas Carol was about?


Dickens was really concerned about the suffering of the poor in the era he lived.  The Christmas Carol story is about poor family that has trouble with the basics, including nutrition and access to health care.  It was a big problem for industrializing England.  It's also about an "upper middle class" guy, Scrooge, who makes a decent living on "Wall Street" - he trades stuff.  He has plenty of money and everything he needs and wants, although he is very conservative in his spending habits and his savings just pile up.

The core of the story is the redemption of Scrooge's soul - it's one everyone knows, but there are interesting tidbits.

Initially, Scrooge doesn't give to charity.  Why?  The sin of greed rules his life.  But, what does he offer for an excuse?  Essentially, "that's the government's job.  That's what I pay taxes for." ("Aren't there workhouses, prisons...etc.").  Thinking that way legitimizes holding the poor and needy at arms length.  It's neat and clean.

Scrooge treats Bob Cratchit as a rational agent in a labor market, as economists would say.  Both of them are free to walk away from their business relationship at any time.  Scrooge can fire Bob.  Bob can quit.  It's not personal. It's just business. This also keeps Scrooge free of messy entanglements of people's personal lives.  He doesn't even like the messiness of dealing with others even when he is on the receiving end.  Just keep it all neat and clean.

We all know what happens when Scrooge is "awakened".  He stops "storing his treasures on earth."  He gives to charity, he gets involved in the messy personal life of the people he knows.  He starts "storing his treasures in heaven", as the Bible puts it, and life is good.   It is worth noting how much and in many ways both the giver and the recipient benefit when this happens.

We have similar issues in 2013.  There is lots of noise about greed, and income disparity and "occupying Wall Street."  There are issues of people living below the poverty line and poor access to health care.

What's the solution?  I ask, "What would Scrooge do?"

Scrooge got involved.  He did what he could.  Did it solve the whole problem?  Of course not.  Did he sell all his stuff and donate everything to charity and move in next door to Bob?  Nope.

Was Scrooge wealthy?  Not really.  He was well off, but was certainly not in line for a Peerage.

Did he exhort the government to solve the problems?  No.  Not even once.

Did he demand the truly wealthy give "their fair share?"  No.  Not even once.

Why not?  Because, all the great things about being human are lost in that approach.  The giver and the receiver both gain from charity driven from gratitude.  That is all lost when charity is extorted and impersonal.

Bob Cratchit's family could have had a lot of their problems solved if the Parliament had simply extorted more taxes from Scrooge or started selling off the crown jewels and handed the proceeds to Bob's family, et. al.

While there is legitimacy toward "we the people" acting through our government to help solve really big problems, too often we want to do things that way because we are scared, like Scrooge was, to get involved in messy personal stuff.  We want to keep the problems at arm's length.  It's the easy, cowards way out.

Can we do things that way?  Sure.  But, nobody's heart would be changed.  In fact, it's likely people's hearts would get hardened.  You've heard of "class warfare", no?

Imagine "A Christmas Carol" that ends with the Cratchit family getting a government check. Warms the heart, doesn't it?

What if we all did what Scrooge did and just did what we could?

That's the Christmas spirit!

(full disclosure:  I don't practice what I preach very well.  It's okay to remind me of that.)