Scrooge: Generous to a fault?

Actor Tommy Steele poses as Ebenezer Scrooge in the stage version of 'Scrooge' at the London Palladium on October 27, 2005 in London, England.

In the basement of a West London church, actors rehearse a scene we all know from “A Christmas Carol." Scrooge and his clerk, Bob Cratchit, sit in a freezing office on Christmas Eve. The year is 1843, and Cratchit tries to warm himself with the heat from a single lump of coal.

At one point, Scrooge, played by Tony Bell, turns to Cratchit and says, “You’ll be wanting the whole day off tomorrow, I suppose?”

“If it’s convenient,” replies Cratchit.

“It’s not convenient, and it’s not fair,” says Scrooge. “If I was to deduct half a crown for it, you’d think yourself ill-used. But you don’t think me ill-used when I pay a day’s wages for no work.”

Scrooge is the epitome of the bad boss. He keeps the thermostat low. You have to beg for a day off. And don’t even think about an office holiday party.

At least, that’s the standard interpretation. But Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a political scientist at New York University, and the author of "The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge", says we have Scrooge all wrong.

“If you read the actual hard economics in 'A Christmas Carol,'” says Bueno de Mesquita, “Dickens portrays Scrooge as a man who was generous to a fault.”

For example, he claims, Scrooge paid Cratchit more than the going rate in mid-19th century London.

“A lot more,” he says. “Bob Cratchit was paid, according to 'A Christmas Carol,' 15 shillings a week. The average clerk in an accounting house was paid 11 shillings, 6 pence a week.”

So, although Dickens portrays the Cratchit family as poor, de Mesquita says just compare Scrooge’s lifestyle with Cratchit’s.

“Bob Cratchit owned a home. The Christmas feast that the Cratchits had was quite expensive. They had a bowl full of oranges, which were the most expensive imported fruit in London in the winter 1843. And Bob Cratchit had enough money to have 15 rounds of gin punch, and enough goose to feed the entire large family,” says de Mesquita.

“Ebenezer Scrooge, on the other hand, lived in a run down flat in a run down neighborhood,” he says. “And, as little coal as Bob Cratchit had for his fire at the office, Scrooge had less.”

And to save money, Scrooge works by the light of a single candle and eats nothing but a bowl of thin gruel. One might say he’s a perfect example of how to live on a budget.

Bueno de Mesquita says, at any time, Scrooge could have replaced Cratchit with someone cheaper. The classified ads in London were full of clerks looking for jobs.

“But Ebenezer didn’t fire Bob. He kept him on. He was a very good man,” says de Mesquita. “He’s misunderstood.”

Of course, Dickens might take issue with that interpretation.

Florian Schweitzer of the Dickens Museum in London says if the author had wanted to make Scrooge a model employer, he would have done so.

Schweitzer says there’s no doubt that Scrooge is a miserable, penny-pinching businessman, but “Scrooge is the embodiment of somebody who can change.”

And change he does. Back at the rehearsal, Scrooge throws open his window after he’s visited by three spirits and yells down to the street below.

“Merry Christmas to everybody! A Happy New Year to all the world!” shouts Scrooge in the theater production.

Then, he sends a boy to the poultry shop to buy the largest turkey in the window.

“We’re going to send it to Bob Cratchit,” says Scrooge. “It will be such a surprise. It’s twice as big as Tiny Tim.”

Scrooge even gives Cratchit a raise. But what happens to Scrooge and Cratchit’s employer-employee relationship after Christmas?

Sarah Skwire, a fellow at the Liberty Fund who writes about Dickens, says Scrooge’s generosity can only last so long.

"In January, Scrooge and Bob Cratchit are going to have to go back to the office,” says Skwire. “And they’re going to have to come to some sort of meeting point between where Scrooge was previously – the light of one candle and a bowl of thin gruel – and where Scrooge is on Christmas morning – handing out geese like there’s no tomorrow – because there is going to be a tomorrow.”

She says Scrooge would do well to balance his newfound enthusiasm for charity with his insatiable propensity to save.

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I’m impressed, I must say. Really rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. Your idea is outstanding; the issue is something that not enough people are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy that I stumbled across this in my search for something relating to this.


I hope Santa brings the first three commenters a sense of humor tomorrow.

This is the dumbest segment I've ever heard on your show. Really sad. So Scrooge, according to this story, shouldn't change how he does business. What a clueless crock. Your substitute host creates a terrible show. Can't wait for Tess Vigland to come back. Oh, I forgot she said she was leaving. You need a much better replacement. She and Kyle Risdahl run intelligent shows, which even when I disagree, I can respect for the most part, that they did a reasonable job with the journalism involved. This new host is terrible. Bad segments, biased nonsense. It's an insult to your listeners.

Given how radio works, it's entirely likely that Ms Viglund vetted the segment weeks ago...in any event, an interim host doesn't have the control you seem to think such would have.

Public radio has a tendency to be very 'comfy'; we listeners of it are terrible at dealing with changes---the main 'Marketplace' programme were very smart to use David Brown when David Brancaccio left, since beside his other qualifications, his voice was very similar---and I'll freely admit that the rebranding as 'Marketplace Money' over the former, still-funny pun of 'Sound Money', still rankles. Factor in that (buried lede alert!) that Americans (all kinds) tend to biased against African-American-sounding voices telling them how to handle their money---I know that _I_ am, as devoutly as I'd wish not to be so---and I'd say that Mr Cox deserves a good shot at the permanent position...if only to irritate Jane Christo (NPR joke).

Shakespeare had a witch say, 'We all know Security/Is mortals' chiefest enemy'; I'm not as clever, and will just say that getting too comfy can be dangerous.

Mr de Mesquita is in this doing little more than trolling, and expectedly so given his association with an institution dedicated to stroking the feelings of the grasping wealthy. For one thing, he has not pinned-down the date of the story's setting a generation or so previous to its publication; it is entirely possible that rates were higher then than in the mid-{Nineteenth Century}---though I don't know this to be so, the point is that Mr Mesquita didn't seem to even really care, the attitude Harry Frankfurt pinpointed as characteristic of those peddling what radio rules require me to trim down to "B.S.". Dickens perhaps used the going rates of the year of publication in order to make his parable intelligible to its original audience.

Mr de Mesquita also states that Cratchit owned his own home when this is not established in the text---but in order to further his point's argument, Cratchit suddenly is an home-owner. (If only all the work done by the host of the Hoover Institution were to such an end.) All other evidence aside, that Tiny Tim dies without Mr Scrooge's change but lives with it is evidence that wages adequate to his care (and supplemented by at least one sibling) were not being paid to Mr Cratchit, unless of course we are to believe that Cratchit is a monster of some sort---but then again perhaps he is...he is, after all, not a rich man, a sure sign of his moral unfitness!

Worse, Mr de Mesquita introduces the _entirely_ extraneous matter of Mr Scrooge's abstemious lifestyle: the _choices_ a rich man makes are irrelevant to the decency of his treatment of others, saving that (as one rabbi put it) 'If a rich man lives on meat, he will remember that the poor need bread; if he lives on bread, he will think that the poor can live on stones.'

I will take Mr Dicken's his word on Scrooge in this: 'Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, 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. ' I for my part will try to think more kindly of religious fanatics' Invisible Friends---as opposed to their fan club at the Hoover and elsewhere---and give a tentative weight to to Christmas Present's saying of such, 'There are some upon this earth of yours,' returned the Spirit, 'who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all out kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.'

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