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Bah! Humbug! What was wrong with the arch-miser

Everyone is familiar with the story by Charles Dickens entitled ‘A Christmas Carol’ featuring the character Ebenezer Scrooge, a miser who never celebrates Christmas, or anything at all until he is shown the error of his ways on Christmas eve by drastic spiritual intervention. In fact, as we shall see, the unreconstructed Scrooge is a good grumpy role model. His is, of course, a fictional character but one that everyone knows and so is a handy illustration of the point of the book. Scrooge had found his zen and there were people a lot worse than he was in London at that time, so why couldn’t Dickens have left him alone?

To know the unreconstructed Scrooge we can do no better than to quote Dickens at length.


Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.  A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge.  No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him.  No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty.  Foul weather didn't know where to have him.  The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect.  They often "came down" handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, "My dear Scrooge, how are you?  When will you come to see me?"  No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o'clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge.  Even the blind men's dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, "No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!"

                                                                                                                     A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 1843


A powerful description indeed, and one that always warms my heart. But having set the stage, Dickens does not impute any particularly foul deeds to this prototypical miser, or perhaps prototypical grumpy person. About all that he is ever accused of, throughout the story, is that he asserts his rights. If he lent money, he expected to be repaid. If he paid a salary to his clerk he expected that clerk to work. In asserting his rights he keeps within the laws and customs of the time. He gave his clerk the day off on Christmas day without loss of wages, as that was the custom, albeit with some grumbling.

“A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December,” he growls memorably.

Conditions at his counting house are grim with the clerk, Bob Crachitt, only allowed a tiny fire on a bitterly cold day, but then Scrooge treats himself little better. Crachitt is clearly of a different cast of mind to his employer, and would prefer better working conditions but there is no hint that he is about the leave Scrooge’s firm for another counting house. Perhaps Scrooge was not such a bad employer after all?  

In another scene in the story our prototypical grumpy person is asked to give to charity, and in response asks whether the prisons, or the treadmill, or the work houses, the last resort of the poor of his day, have stopped operating. When told that they were still operating he points out that they cost him money to operate, and cost enough as far as he is concerned. Although Scrooge could have given more to charity, his response has some resonance in modern times. Why should we, as individuals, make up for the failure of the government’s social policies? In modern times any individual in an advanced society can point to a very large tax bill paid to support government operations, and governments can do far more to fix the many problems we see around us, with co-ordinated, properly funded programs, than any individual.

The above point is a rather tricky, ethical question which is beyond the scope of this article. However, it can be said that Scrooge’s response is defensible, and that leads to the question of why this attitude had to be “corrected” by powerful, spiritual intervention? What right have we to condemn someone who chooses not to give to charity, or avoids having a good time at Christmas? Was the unreconstructed Scrooge unhappy, or had he merely struck a balance with his world? Most importantly of all he had made a choice.

To add another dimension to this argument, there are people of our time who are very generous to charities but go to considerable length to avoid taxes. Their excuse is that the money just goes to pay salaries for politicians and for political rorts, an excuse that ignores the vast sums that governments pay to schools, roads, orphanages, pensions and hospitals. Do those who avoid taxes then give what they save to charities, or do they spend it buying better Christmas presents for themselves and their families? Scrooge would seem to have paid his taxes. Grumpy people by and large pay their taxes, for reasons we will discuss in a moment, it’s part of the reason why they are so grumpy.    

Again this is not to say that Scrooge’s approach to the world around him was right, or moral. All we really need to know here is that it was his choice, and that his choice did not actively harm others. For he does not set out to attack anyone, merely insist that contracts entered into voluntarily be honoured. In that respect, Scrooge’s ethical attitude is far above many of his fellow countrymen of the time. For in the 1840s England had a vast empire filled with subject peoples, and was frequently fighting with other countries – often undeveloped countries. Shortly before Dickens wrote this story, England had concluded a conflict recorded by history as the First Opium war, which was largely about forcing China to accept the opium trade. No doubt the British opium traders of the time read the Dickens story and celebrated Christmas in fine style, having profited immensely from the misery of others.

But it is Scrooge who needs to be corrected through visits from the ghost of his former partner, and then the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future. Along the way we are shown his own unhappy past. As a result of this special, spiritual attention – a major ordeal - he is converted to the joys of celebrating Christmas. Instead of being a mean spirited employer he is kind to his clerk, and all but adopts Crachit’s son Tim. The extra attention and, presumably, money spent on doctors, saves the boy from an unspecified medical condition.

That may all very nice for some people, but grumpy people who say Bah! Humbug! At Christmas and mean it will point out that celebrating Christmass in style is hardly the answer to any social problem. Tim Crachit may be better off but what about everyone else? In one of his essays, English novelist George Orwell pointed out that Dickens’ never seemed to have a particular policy – no overall remedy - for fixing the many social ills catalogued in his books, except that people should be kind to one another. As we have seen, people can still be kind to one another and go out of their way to make millions of Chinese miserable. Why should grumpy people be singled out as in need of correction?

We have met a grumpy, uncharitable person supposedly so out of kilter with social norms that he requires major reform. Let us look at someone with a charitable disposition and a zest for life, this time a real person, the great American fraudster Bernie Madoff. Media reports after his arrest in 2008 stated that Madoff gave many millions to charity, including major donations to research into lymphoma and bone marrow cancer. He even had his own charitable foundation, the $19 million Madoff Family Foundation. The one flaw in this commendable generosity, and it is a big one, is that he was giving away other people’s money. Madoff’s investment business was discovered to be giant Ponzi scheme – a scheme where he took money on the promise of big returns, but simply used any new money that came in to pay returns to existing investors. Whatever was still in the kitty he used to pay for a lavish lifestyle, with some left over to give to charity. The scheme is supposed to have chewed up an astonishing $US65 billion, and was only discovered when Madoff ran out of new money to pay returns on the old money.

The good news is that Madoff believes in Christmas, although he is of Jewish descent. His office had a Christmas party every year of which he was reportedly the life and soul. The exception was the last one in 2009, which occurred only hours before he was arrested by the FBI. He was also very good to his staff, so it is said, and believed in holding big parties. No need for the shades of former partners to visit Madoff. The ghost of Christmas present would have been proud.

Plenty of corporate criminals in Australia knew how to party. One that comes to mind is that playboy of the West Australian corporate scene of the 1980s, Laurie Connell. Perhaps not readily remembered now, even in his stamping ground of WA, Connell’s parties were legendary, all paid for by depositors in his merchant bank (a form of bank for private investors of the time). Returning to America we can point to the disaster of Penn Square Bank in Oklahoma in the early 1980s, which racked up losses somewhere north of $US500 million. The principals of that bank, by all reports, were real party guys.  

Now ask yourself this, who would you prefer to have manage your money? Would you prefer cheerful bright Madoff and the senior executives at Penn Square, ever the life and soul of the party, or grumpy, miserable Scrooge who goes home to his small fire and plate of gruel on Christmas Eve? Whether Scrooge would have wanted to make a business of investing other people’s money is another question, but at least Dickens’ does not accuse him of dishonesty.

But how can we take any general rule from that, readers may ask, as only a few examples have been cited and one of those is fictional? For every John Wayne Gacy, the American serial killer who murdered 33 people in-between stints as a volunteer clown called Pogo – another party guy - there are likely to be a hundred serial killers who are grumpy. We can further confuse things by considering the cases of American tycoons John D Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, both young men around the time of the American civil war in the 1860s. They made enormous fortunes – Rockefeller in oil and Carnegie in steel - and then gave away a good deal of their money. Carnegie had little time for religion for most of his life, but had the outlook of a Presbyterian Scot (his family moved to American when he was young). He was not a guy to get down and party. Rockefeller was a devout Baptist who thought that card playing and dancing were the diversions of the Devil (now that’s grumpy for you), yet his targeted approach to philanthropy made a real difference in medicine, education and science. There have been allegations that Rockefeller gave money to divert attention from his undoubtedly sharp business practices, but a recent biography refutes this, saying that even as a poor clerk Rockefeller gave as much money as he could to charitable causes. It was in his character. That same biographer also notes that, underneath it all, the tycoon had a sly sense of humour. He is a good grumpy role model.

So refusing to dance, or play cards, or grunting at people because they try to talk to you before you’ve had your first cup of coffee for the day does not prevent you from being either mega-rich or a serial killer, or perhaps both. But where is the evidence that a grumpy person is any more honest than one who celebrates Christmas in style? The short answer to that is that is none, but cheerful bright people can do considerably more damage, and don’t have to be very good at their jobs to get by. The cheerful, bright person may have multiple convictions for fraud and have been banned from acting as a company director for life, but he or she seems so nice that you hand your money over and walk away, convinced that it is not only safe but will earn very high returns. In fact, Madoff used a combination of charm and exclusivity. He made it hard for people to invest with him, so his services were actively sought.

A curmudgeon may also want to take his client’s money and run, but he is generally unable to do so because he is not going to be trusted. As a poor dinner guest with no small talk and no interest in the sport or emphemera like celebrity gossip, curmudgeons are not going to put anyone off their guard. Grumpy people are, by definition, not the life of the party. They are not charming and bright. They cannot dassle with witty comments and, in business, will not have a plausible answer for every question investors are likely to ask. They do not radiate confidence as they know, through experience, just how wrong they can be and are willing to admit it. This does not mean that, when they do give an answer, they are more likely to be right than confident people who sound plausible, but it does mean that the listener is likely to judge the answer on its merits. Clients will check the socially inept person’s credentials and history, and perhaps even turn them away, simply because they lack charm. That means grumpy people who want to remain in business must have something to offer besides grumpiness, and that means they are usually (note I say usually) a better bet.

More importantly, a grumpy person cannot use charm to evade questions from the police, or the tax authorities. Con men may charm millions out of clients and still have time to fly to a tax haven where those millions have ben transferred, despite repeated complaints from investors. In contrast, a single complaint about a few dollars missing from an account held in trust by an ill-favoured person (the grumpy peson or curmudgeon) will result in the aforementioned grump being hauled into a windowless police interrogation room for a good working over. The missing money may later be found to be a miscount, but by then the charming con man is long gone and the authorities are desperate to convict someone to prove that they haven’t been asleep on the job. So any tiny transgression discovered in their atack on the curmudgeon will become a hanging offence.

In other words, a grumpy person is not necessarily better informed or more intelligent or even more often right than a charmer, but they know they will be held to account for even tiny errors so they may be more careful. They certainly don’t get sympathy from anyone and don’t get any leeway in bending the rules – trust me.

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