Monday, December 21, 2009
Cratchit and Scrooge are alive and well
The art you see here is Maxo Vanka's The Capitalist, a 1941 mural that can be found in the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh, Pa. If you've been reading this blog, you know my fondness for Vanka's work. He was a Croatian artist whose murals fill the interior of this fascinating church. They depict the struggles of immigrants like himself in the USA, their backbreaking labor in the mines and mills. This mural features a wealthy "capitalist" going over his stock report while his black servant brings him dinner. In the background you find a crying angel and a hand reaching out from hell. Scrooge beware!
OXFORD, Miss. – A yuletide tradition for me is to watch A Christmas Carol, the classic 1951 film version with Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. I just love entering Charles Dickens’ world where the joy of redemption and rebirth ultimately overcomes miserly greed, grinding poverty and ghost-haunted nights.
One particular scene resonates this year. It’s when Scrooge is finishing work at his cramped office on Christmas Eve and admonishes his clerk Bob Cratchit for wanting the next day off. “Tis only once a year, sir,” Cratchit says.
“That’s a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December,” Scrooge grouses.
When Cratchit explains that his wife and children “put their hearts into Christmas,” Scrooge responds, “And their hands into my pockets.”
A lot of people these days feel like Bob Cratchit. They’re working harder than ever with little to show for it. Scrooge is alive and well, too, the old, unredeemed version.
Statistics show how hard people are working. Productivity is at its highest in six years, rising 9.5 percent between July and September after an earlier 6.9 percent increase.
Yet most folks, including most Mississippians, are earning less, particularly when those earnings are adjusted for inflation. Labor costs fell 5.2 percent during that July-September period. The Huffington Post’s Misery Index shows how jobless rates don’t fully portray what’s going on in the nation. Joining 15.4 million unemployed are 9.2 million underemployed plus millions more who’ve lost their homes, health care benefits, and credit rating. It adds up to nearly one-third of all Americans.
Things aren’t nearly so miserable for the fortunate folks at the top. The average CEO today earns about 275 times what the average worker earns. A CEO in 1965 earned just 24 times his average worker’s wage.
I hear a lot of angst out there--whether it’s from barbers, industry workers, government bureaucrats, journalists, or college professors. People are working harder for equal or less pay and benefits, made to feel lucky they have a job, and increasingly suspicious that the boss is taking advantage of the recession to push them around.
It’s the old speed-up or stretch-out that assembly line workers know only too well. It goes something like this: “Put your nose to the grindstone, buddy, because if you don’t there are plenty of others out there who’d like your job.”
People are getting angry. Fifty-seven percent of Americans say, “Tax the rich to pay for health care reform.” Conservatives don’t like that idea, of course. Let’s not have what they would call “class warfare.” Didn’t conservative Ronald Reagan declare that war a quarter century ago with his supply-side, “trickle down” economic policies?
Here in Mississippi, the recession and state budget crisis have offered conservative leaders a wonderful opportunity to take a much-coveted whack at certain government programs, seen in plans to close 10 mental health treatment facilities at a time when homelessness is growing and many of the homeless have mental health problems.
During President Obama’s recent jobs summit in Washington, a Goldman Sachs economist warned that high unemployment may be long lasting and it will be due in part to the fact that long-jobless people lose their skills and work ethic and thus become unemployable. As writers John Russo and Sherry Linkon point out, this view, shared by others at the summit, “is the most absurd, cruel version of blaming the victim.”
Near the end of that scene in A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit, his clothes threadbare but his spirits high, wishes Ebenezer Scrooge a “Merry Christmas!” The old miser turns in disgust to the poor man. “You, a clerk on fifteen shillings a week, with a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas.”
Scrooge laughs with a sneer and walks out into the snowy streets of London. We all know what awaits him when he gets home—a very rough night but also a bright and shining morning full of hope, repentance and overdue love for fellow human beings who aren’t as fortunate as he.