Friday, December 23, 2011

Thoughts on Ebenezer Scrooge

Added December 27: 
 Is the story of Ebenezer Scroggie that follows too good to be true? See follow-up post on December 27 at Ebenezer Scroggie: Urban Legend

Original post follows:

The story goes that Charles Dickens was visiting Edinburgh to give a public reading of his work in 1842, and spent some time looking around the Canongate church graveyard. He saw one grave that made him shudder. The name on the grave was Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie--mean man." According to Peter Clark, a British political economist who seems the starting point for this story, Dickens misread the inscription. It actually said "Meal man," because Scroggie was a corn merchant.

But Dickens was shocked by the inscription, and apparently noted it in  his diary. A geneology website reported Dickens's comment this way in 2010: "[T]o be remembered through eternity only for being mean seemed the greatest testament to a life wasted." In a 1996 telling, Clark reported the comment from Dickens diary in this way: "How bleak to have one's shrivelled soul advertised forever. It made me shudder. It made me feel for the flesh corrupting beneath me." Shortly afterwards, Charles Dickens published "A Christmas Carol," with a main character named Ebenezer Scrooge, and the plot revolving around what it would be like to be forever stamped as a "mean man," when there was still time to change your ways.

Apparently Ebenezer Scroggie was about as far from his fictional namesake as one can get. A "History of Leith, Edinburgh" website reported in 2010: "In life, Scroggie was apparently a rambunctious, generous and licentious man who gave wild parties, impregnated the odd serving wench and once wonderfully interrupted the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland by grabbing the buttocks of a hapless countess." However, for those seeking to link Ebenezer Scrooge more tightly to the heartlessness of economics, it may be comforting to know that Scroggie was apparently a cousin of Adam Smith. A 2004 article in the Scotsman newspaper reports: "Scroggie was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife; his mother was the niece of Adam Smith, the 18th century political economist and philosopher." There is now some talk in Edinburgh of erecting a monument to Scroggie, although his actual gravesite was apparently removed for redevelopment of the port back in the early 1930s.

Each Christmas you can find an economist or two taking the contrarian position that Ebenezer Scrooge was an unpleasant person, but in economic terms a useful contributor to society. For a good example, here's Steven Landsberg's 2004 half-serious, half tongue-in-cheek riff on the theme: "What I Like About Scrooge."
"In this whole world, there is nobody more generous than the miser—the man who could deplete the world's resources but chooses not to. The only difference between miserliness and philanthropy is that the philanthropist serves a favored few while the miser spreads his largess far and wide."

I like thinking about Scrooge in various roles: consumer, employer, and man of business.

As a consumer, Scrooge is famously a miser. He likes darkness, because it's cheap. He eats gruel. He uses microfragments of coal. All this is just fine with me. People get to choose how they want to live. Those who save also make a contribution to the economy. Of course, if Scrooge had not been miserly all those years, and instead had been greatly in debt from high living, he wouldn't have had the resources to help Bob Cratchit's family and Tiny Tim at the close of the book

As an employer, Scrooge is more harsh than necessary--and he knows it. When the Spirit of Christmas Past asks whether Fezziwig, where Scrooge was apprenticed, really deserves much praise. Scrooge describes Fezziwig as an employer in this way: "He [that is, Fezziwig] has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count 'em up ..." In more modern terms, an employment relationship is more than a trade of hours for pay. Scrooge at the beginning of the book makes Bob Cratchit's life more difficult than it already is, and if Scrooge had been willing to use modest nonmonetary rewards like speaking pleasantly, their work relationship might well have been more productive on both sides.

Being a "man of business" is often an epithet in Christmas Carol, so it's worth noting that the book includes examples of men of business in the book who are clearly meant to be admirable characters--with Fezziwig leading the way. But  to me, one of the most grim passages in the book is when Scrooge is visiting with the last of the Spirits, and nearly broken by what he has seen, he says to the Spirit: "If there is any person in the town, who feels emotion caused by this man's death ... show that person to me, Spirit, I beseech you!" The Spirit takes him to a room where a mother and children are waiting for a husband to arrive. When the husband arrives, his face has an odd look: "There is a remarkable expression in it now; a kind of serious delight of which he felt ashamed, and which he struggled to repress." He has learned that Scrooge has died, and the man and his wife are grateful to hear of this, and ashamed for being grateful. The wife asks: "To whom will our debt be transferred?" The husband answers: "I don't know. But before that time we shall be ready with the money, and even though we were not, it would be bad fortune indeed to find so merciless a creditor as his successor. We may sleep tonight with light hearts, Caroline!"

To me, this passage suggests that Scrooge had moved well beyond the category of being an unloved but tough but essentially fair businessman. Just as he had abused his power as an employer over Cratchit, and enjoyed it, he was abusing his power as a lender. Scrooge wrapped himself in the comforting rhetoric of "man of business" as a self-justification for his actions. A lot of other misanthropes and predators over time have used "man of business" as justification for their actions, so the acid in the term stings. But working in business doesn't require these traits; indeed, one might argue that true "man of business" perceives and pursues all sorts of opportunities for adding value, while Scrooge was actually practicing a machismo of self-congratulatory greed and surliness.