by Luke Setzer
One of the most popular stories told during the Christmas holidays is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This tale weaves together the lives of Ebenezer Scrooge, a hard-working businessman, and Bob Cratchit, an employee suffering from self-inflicted troubles. Dickens would have us believe that Bob Cratchit started out as a "victim" of Ebenezer Scrooge's chosen values. In reality, the only "victim" in Dickens's story is Ebenezer Scrooge--unless, of course, you consider trespassing, kidnapping, and brainwashing to be "valid" methods of persuasion.
At the beginning of this yarn, Dickens shares some of Scrooge's business practices. Scrooge offered Cratchit market wages and benefits appropriate for that location and era. Cratchit apparently found those wages and benefits suitable in that context, or he would have sought employment elsewhere. Scrooge rebuked some unwelcome visitors who requested unearned funds to help others for whose misery Scrooge was not responsible. Scrooge also rejected the overall Christmas theme, a holiday tradition stolen from pagans and used to celebrate the birth of a fellow who allegedly became the savior of the world.
Dickens's envy of successful, focused, ruthlessly honest businessmen like Ebenezer Scrooge led him in fiction to punish Scrooge with visits from unworldly beings hell-bent on altering his character. Dickens knew that there could be no earthly ways of "fixing" Scrooge, so he resorted to supernatural intimidation to achieve his ends. Ghosts of Jacob Marley as well as Christmas Past, Present, and Future committed home invasions and kidnapped Scrooge to all manner of times and locations. After having been figuratively beaten about the head with these visions, Scrooge finally suffered an emotional breakdown and lost his dispassionate attention to numbers. In the end, he allegedly became the role model of all England for manifesting the "spirit of Christmas."
Dickens, of course, never offers us any hard figures, provides no accounting sheets, mentions no profit-and-loss statements. All he gives us is a mushy, good-sounding fable about the "softening" of a "hard heart." We never discover what eventually becomes of Scrooge, whether he ends up on the streets because of his foolish expenditures, or if he ruins his business because of his newfound maudlin altruism. For over one hundred years, A Christmas Carol has successfully promoted a myth. That myth condemns stingily saving one's money for one's own sake as less "good" that spending it on those who have foolishly squandered their own capital.
How would I have written this story? I would have completely restructured it to open at the time when Bob Cratchit was just beginning his employment under Scrooge and Marley. At this time, Cratchit would be pondering the possibilities of marriage to his beloved. He would seek wisdom from his older, more experienced, more successful supervisors. He would learn of Scrooge's breakup with his girlfriend over the money issue. Scrooge and Marley would warn Cratchit of the dangers of poverty and inform him of the joys of hard work and plenty that benefit the self-disciplined.
That night, three visions would have visited Cratchit in his dreams. These "spirits" would be clever metaphors for wealth of the past, present, and future. The spirit of past wealth would be a young piglet just beginning to grow into something wonderful. It would remind Cratchit of the hard work and dedication he had given to himself over his young life as he prepared for a career in the clerical and accounting fields. The spirit of present wealth would be a tender yearling showing signs of both strength and vulnerability. The spirit of future wealth would be an emaciated sow with dozens of freeloading piglets hanging off her teats and leeching her to death. She would represent the future of Cratchit's wealth if he did not adopt a new, empowering values system.
"Spirit," Cratchit would cry out, "is this the future as it must be, or simply as it might be?" At that point, Cratchit would awaken and joyfully realize that his future had yet to be written, and that the power of shaping his own destiny was in his own hands.
Pure, unadulterated accounting would drive Cratchit's life from that day forward. He would not allow himself the luxury of a single moment's evasion of the hard facts of reality. He would press onward with his marriage to the love of his life, but would make it absolutely clear where he stood on money and children. "Children," he would tell his wife, "are a nicety, not a necessity. It is absolutely vital that we limit the number we have to the number we can afford." Through the power of his accounting skills, Cratchit could determine well before his marriage what sort of lifestyle they could afford together given zero, one, two, or more children. He would also calculate what methods he and his wife could use to achieve sexual gratification without intercourse. Given the lack of reliable birth control in that era, such determinations would be of absolute necessity if Cratchit intended to maintain a proper balance between money earned and money spent.
The story would conclude many years later, as Cratchit rested comfortably in his home with his wife and grown child. He would be peacefully counting his gold coins and writing a thank-you note to his mentor and current partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, for the sage advice he had given him prior to his marriage.
Sticking with facts rather than feelings has not been terribly popular in the liberal arts, and "literary classics" such as A Christmas Carol have been no exception. These "heart-warming" tales might pass with flying colors in the English Department, but they get a big fat "flunk" in the Accounting Department. Perhaps we could start a new genre, an offshoot of science fiction. We could call it "accounting fiction," and could use that genre as a tool for inverting this upside-down world of fiscal misuse.