Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas Carol For The World

Is the Scrooge story still relevant to our modern society?  What can we as a race learn from it?

"In all places ...vagabonds and beggars have increased, and daily do increase in great numbers by the occasion of idleness, mother and root of all vices." King Henry VII
We have always been struck by the deep understanding that Charles Dickens had not only of the spirit of XMAS but also of the mindset of Industrial England of the 1840s.  We are well aware that Christianity is not the only religious tradition followed by our readers, indeed, many of your readers have no religion which they follow.  But we believe that the message that Dickens delivered is independent of any religion and deals with universal human needs and desires.

Ghost of Christmas Past
"Are there no prisons?  And the Union workhouses?  Are they still in operation?  The Treadmill and the Poor Lar are in full vigor, then?"
In its worst form the poorhouse and labor laws of the times, could be seen in this manner in an edict named The Vagabonds and Beggars Act of 1494,
"Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town. Every beggar suitable to work shall resort to the Hundred where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid."
Dickens himself understood just what kind of life awaited people in the workhouses.   He expressed his sentiments in his now classic novel Oliver Twist.  Indeed, he did not exaggerate a bit.  An article, describing how children were "sold" to factories states,
Employers liked cheap child labour. And every child a parish ‘sold’ into employment meant one fewer to feed and clothe in the workhouse. One of the most dangerous jobs was that of a chimney sweep. In Dickens’s novel, Oliver pleads with the magistrate not to apprentice him to a sweep. The work required very young or small boys, as their slight bodies could easily shin up the narrow, twisting chimneys. They were vulnerable to cancers caused by exposure to soot and often had accidents or suffered terrible burns. Some were choked by the soot pouring into their eyes and noses, and suffocated to death. Conditions in other workplaces were scarcely more humane. Children were often forced to live in dank, dirty spaces...
This article goes on to describe horrible conditions in these workhouses.
Workhouse apprentices were often treated like animals and fed on scraps. Many died of malnutrition. One boy, Robert Blincoe — who survived to tell his tale in a memoir and is often called ‘the Real Oliver Twist’ — was sent from his London workhouse to work in a Nottinghamshire cotton mill. Here, children were maltreated — flogged with belts and shaken violently. Pain was used to improve productivity: their teeth were filed and their ears were put in vices to make them work harder. Some died, others were maimed for life. There were, of course, a few humane workhouses run by decent, moral supervisors who used the money they received from the parish authorities to feed and clothe their charges properly. But in 1834 a new Poor Law was brought in, intended to discourage people from claiming relief in times of poverty and to force them to take any work they could, however low the pay. They could now only receive welfare assistance inside the workhouse. But these were to be made deliberately harsh, unpleasant places, so that people would strive to keep out of them.
At the risk of quoting too much we continue because the words can hardly be better expressed by us.
Unmarried mothers were put on a starvation diet to deter them from having any more bastard children. Families were broken up: children were separated from their parents and husbands from wives. All were forced to undertake hard labour. But it was the children — innocents like Oliver Twist — who suffered the most. In one workhouse in Hampshire, the supervisor — a former sergeant major — was given to whipping children as young as two if they cried. Another workhouse, in Tooting, South London, saw children kept in conditions that would have shamed even the brutal prisons of that era. The supervisor, Mr Drouet, siphoned off the money given by the parish for their food and clothing.
So it would seem that workhouses were not really for the purposes of "helping" the poor, but for using them (or abusing) them to increase "productivity."  Those who use these workhouses to show the evils of the "welfare state" miss the point.  The modern welfare state is despised (at least in part) because the corporate system cannot use it for its economic advantage like was possible with the workhouse system.  Yet, there is something both the workhouse system and the modern welfare state have in common.  Both systems feel that by establishing these institutions they have done their service to the poor.  Scrooge expressed this unfeeling attitude when he uttered the words,
"I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned--they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there."
When Scrooge referred to the poor as dying to reduce the surplus population, it was a reference to the population theories of Thomas Malthus. The article The Economics of a Christmas Carol, put is quite well,
The basis of the Malthusian doctrine is that the "population increases in a geometric ratio, while the means of subsistence increases in an arithmetic ratio." The human need for food, argues Malthus, like the human sexual drive, can not be controlled. Consequently, in time, because of limited supply, resources will be used up and life will come to an end. In a famous passage Malthus said, " A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature's mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he does not work upon the compassion of some of her guests." Scrooge's workhouse poor and his surplus population are not welcome at nature's mighty feast if they do not work. If they don't work, they starve and die.

"They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased."
In America as well as around the world these two children still exist.  Want of course, refers to hunger or the lack of basic needs.  Ignorance of course has to do with education.  Sadly enough, recent economic news in America and the world is discouraging.
Defined as individuals living at 50 percent or less of the official poverty level, 6.7 percent of the U.S. population — or one in 15 people — are considered to be the poorest of the poor. That’s the highest in the 35 years since the Census Bureau has tracked those figures, the wire said. Previous highs were in 2009 and 1993, when the poorest of the poor made up just more than 6 percent of the U.S. population.
We post these pictures from a November 2011 report produced by Wider Opportunities for Women.

Ignorance & Want

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Ghost of Christmas Present
"My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house--mark me!--in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!"
To us what appears the saddest is that many today do not see the relevance of the statements of Scrooge to our moden society.  The classic example is Edwin Messe III's comments made in December 16th 1983 concerning Ebenezer Scrooge at a National Press Club conference.
"Ebenezer Scrooge suffered from bad press in his time. If you really look at the facts, he didn't exploit Bob Cratchit." Meese went on to explain that "Bob Cratchit was paid 10 shillings a week, which was a very good wage at the time... Bob, in fact, had good cause to be happy with his situation. He lived in a house not a tenement. His wife didn't have to work... He was able to afford the traditional Christmas dinner of roast goose and plum pudding... So let's be fair to Scrooge. He had his faults, but he wasn't unfair to anyone. The free market wouldn't allow Scrooge to exploit poor Bob... The fact that Bob Cratchit could read and write made him a very valuable clerk and as a result of that he was paid 10 shillings a week." Factually Bob's wage according to Dickens was fifteen shillings a week not ten shillings...
It is fascinating to us that the words of Dickens are so twisted as to think that he intended to say that Cratchit was well off. We suppose this is why Dickens puts these words into Scrooge's mouth concerning Bob Cratchit's salary:
"my clerk, with fifteen shillings a week, and a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas. I'll retire to Bedlam."
Obviously Scrooge did not think that anyone making that amount should be rejoicing for any reason.

As to the salary there are conflicting elements.  In a 2009 article titled, Why is Bob Cratchit so poor? by David Morotta and Matthew Llilan is written:
His salary, we are told, is 15 shillings a week. The British pound was divided into 20 shillings, and each shilling was worth 12 pennies, or pence. So Bob Cratchit makes 180 pence each week, about the wage of a metropolitan police officer and well above the truly needy.
Not all agree on this.
Scrooge paid Bob 15 shillings a week, just 5 shillings short of a pound, or 39 pounds a year. Experts disagree on today’s dollar equivalent of the Victorian pound, but they consistently place the value between $20 and $200. That means that in the best-case scenario, Bob brought home just under $200 a week, while in the worst-case scenario, Bob earned less than $20 a week. Rent on a decent house would have been about 9 shillings a week, leaving just 6 shillings to feed and clothe a family of six. A loaf of bread cost about a shilling. So things were very, very tight for the Cratchits!
Some who in their heart of hearts wish that this novel would never have been written are honest enough and consistent enough to tell us what they really think of Cratchit and his family.
Bob Cratchit is a spendthrift. He has no cushion. He lives paycheck to paycheck. The impulse to spend every cent you make affects people across the socioeconomic strata. Those living below the poverty line spend to forget their circumstances. The middle class spend all they have to keep up with their neighbors, and the wealthy often feel compelled to spend on lavish vacations and frivolous purchases as proof of their success. Spendthrifts live for the pleasure of the moment. Eating out and boutique shopping are perceived as immediate pleasures for relatively small amounts of money. People do not realize that the purpose of budgeting and saving is to make sure they are spending money on what they really want and need instead of frittering it away. The impulse to get a “good deal” can lure even those who consider themselves thrifty. The Cratchits buy a beautiful goose and then admire it for its cheapness. The Cratchit family are typical spendthrifts when it comes to clothing. On Christmas, Bob Cratchit confers on his son Peter a shirt in honor of his apprenticeship. It was common in the day for the rich to go through the Parks to show off their finery. And Peter is amazed to find himself so gallantly attired that he too is anxious to show off his fashionable new linen in the park.
Above the gates of the Cleveland Street Workhouse was a statue of an old man pointing to the words: ‘Avoid idleness and intemperance.’
The beauty of this explanation to us is that it so clearly delineates the point of view of the typical corporate free market advocate as we have known them and a person like Dickens who only only saw how life was the poor around him but his own life as a child.

"Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

In a typical explanation of a the free market it is explained that "self-interest" is really a good thing.  Indeed as Howard Baetjer Jr., so succinctly puts it, self interest is essential for a capitalist society.
The widespread notion that free markets are corrupting is rooted at least in part in the innocent truism that for the market to work people must act according to self-interest. Without the motivation of self- interest, there would be no profit seeking, no price competition, no production and exchange. True enough, the market requires self-interested behavior.
Walter Rauschenbusch
But if we compare this statement to one that would seem to fly in the face of Adam Smith and traditional free market thinking we will quote the words of Jesus when he said, "honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself."  (Matthew 19:19)  This is not done to make larger profits.  It is not done for the purpose of better public relations or image.  Indeed, according to this dictate there is no self-interest.  A person is to love all of humanity as he would love himself.  Now there's a revolutionary statement.  It is a statement that, to us, requires a very different economic system if Adam Smith is right about what makes a free market work.

poor family in Paris 1844
The spirit of Dickens was taken on by a less well known religious figure Walter Rauschenbusch.  A Baptist minister in Rochester, New York in the late 19th century, Rauschenbusch saw a very vital connection between the way business was conducted and the essential values of Christianity.  We here highlight Christianity, not because it is more compassionate than any other religion, but because it was the religious tradition of Dickens.  As we have stated earlier, all religions have these dimensions somewhere in their traditions.  In a book titled Dare We Be Christians, he stated this about Christianity and business,
The severest test and the most urgent task of love today is in the field of business life.  Unless love can dominate the making of wealth, the wealth of our nation will be the ferment of its decay.  There will be no genuine advance for human society until business experiences the impulse, the joy, and the mental fertility of free teamwork.
This idea of free teamwork sounds awfully modern to us.  It sounds like the era of collaboration brought on by the Internet.  He goes on to say,
As long as industry is built on fundamental antagonisms and the axle of every wheel is hot with smothered resentment, there can be no reign of love and no new era of civilization.  Our age is asking the leaders of the business world to take a great constructive forward step and to found business on organized love.
via: jobsanger
"Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!"
Rauschenbusch very eloquently connects the view that corporations have of people with any pretensions it may have about being a force for the good of the world and humanity.
Whoever utilizes a man to satisfy his desire for wealth, without respecting his soul and his equal human worth, and without realizing the beating heart and hopes of his fellow, prostitutes him.  Whoever gives the consent of his mind to getting unearned gain, to getting more from his fellows than he returns to then in service, steps outside of the realm of love.
But what about a democracy and a church that allows these practices to go on?  Rauschenbusch pulls no punches.
If the law protects semi-predatory undertakings it involves all the citizens of a democracy in wrong-doing.  If the Church looks on injustice without holy anger it allows the institution of redemptive love to give shelter to lovelessness,  and is itself involved in the charge of hypocrisy.
Ghost of Christmas Future
"Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Scrooge. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.
In the end, this is a message of hope.  There is always something humanity can do, something you can do, something I can do to change anything.  It is up to us.  Perhaps technology can provide us with.  We quote from a fascinating CNN article by Douglas Rushkoff published in September of 2011.
We're living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That's because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, there is enough food produced to provide everyone in the world with 2,720 kilocalories per person per day. And that's even after America disposes of thousands of tons of crop and dairy just to keep market prices high.
The author goes on to contrast his view with the traditional communist view.
...we are attempting to use the logic of a scarce marketplace to negotiate things that are actually in abundance. What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff. The communist answer to this question was just to distribute everything evenly. But that sapped motivation and never quite worked as advertised. The opposite, libertarian answer (and the way we seem to be going right now) would be to let those who can't capitalize on the bounty simply suffer. Cut social services along with their jobs, and hope they fade into the distance.
His solution to the problem is rather radical.  It would no doubt require a paradigm shift in our thinking.  But was this not required of Scrooge in order for him to find happiness?
We start by accepting that food and shelter are basic human rights. The work we do -- the value we create -- is for the rest of what we want: the stuff that makes life fun, meaningful, and purposeful. This sort of work isn't so much employment as it is creative activity. Unlike Industrial Age employment, digital production can be done from the home, independently, and even in a peer-to-peer fashion without going through big corporations. We can make games for each other, write books, solve problems, educate and inspire one another -- all through bits instead of stuff. And we can pay one another using the same money we use to buy real stuff.
This idea has been brought up by others.  We post this video to give you their glimpse.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

We post this video as a thoughtful approach to a dream - to end world poverty!  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

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