The Liberation of Ebenezer Scrooge (and possible liberation of Jamie Dimon)

The Liberation of Ebenezer Scrooge (and possible liberation of Jamie Dimon) December 22, 2011

The Consumerist brings us the latest in a wave of recent stories about a mystery benefactor bringing holiday cheer to strangers in need.

Call it holiday cheer or call it the best bandwagon we’ve ever seen, but yet another kind-hearted consumer has plunked down cash to make the season a bit brighter for his fellow humans. A man in Laguna Beach, Calif., shelled out almost $16,000 of his own money to pay for layaway items of 1,000 Kmart shoppers.

[The donor] called up the store last week and asked if they would kindly tally up the items on lawayay that cost less than $100, reports L.A.’s local CBS news. He proceeded to send a check to the store for $15,916.61 to pay for all of the gifts on that layaway list.

The store manager had the fun job of calling up customers over the course of four days and revealing that their item was on layaway no more, thanks to the generosity of a stranger.

Even more strangers joined in the giving, donating an additional $8,000 to the Kmart to pay for more layway items.

This rash of generosity really is wonderful to see. An anonymous woman in Iowa City paid overdue water bills for 17 families. A mystery donor gave a cancer patient $10,000 to continue her treatments. And anonymous benefactors have been paying off layaway accounts at discount stores from coast to coast. This has been happening so much lately that the trend has even gotten a name: “layaway angels” or “layaway Santas.” (I like what Shane Claiborne calls it — “holy mischief.”)

This is a beautiful thing.

But then you don’t need me to tell you that this is a beautiful thing. You don’t need anyone to persuade you to admire these generous acts, or to explain to you why they are admirable, delightful and good. We all agree on that.*

We love these stories. They remind us of another story we love, a story we tell and retell year after year: the story of Ebenezer Scrooge.

At the beginning of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is the archetypal Dickens villain: a grasping, greedy rich man and a cruel, miserly employer. By the end of the story, Scrooge has become the archetypal Dickens hero: a joyful, generous rich man and a kindly, benevolent employer. A great many of Dickens’ stories begin the way this one does, with the heartless rich man spreading all sorts of misery. And a great many of his stories end the way this one does, with the good-hearted rich man swooping in as a deus ex machina to make everything right again. The magical thing about A Christmas Carol is that in this story, they’re the same person.

Old Ebenezer’s contagious, uncontrollable joy at his own transformation — his redemption and liberation — wins us over year after year.

What does it say about us that we love stories like this? They all have one thing in common. The hero of all these layaway-angel, secret-Santa, holy-mischief and Christmas-Carol stories is a good-hearted rich person.

We like good-hearted rich people. We like them very much.

So when Jamie Dimon, “the highest-paid chief executive officer among the heads of the six biggest U.S. banks,” babbles about our supposed hatred of the super-wealthy, he’s clearly misreading and misunderstanding the public. Bloomberg’s Max Abelson reports on Dimon and other super-rich men like him fighting back against this perceived hatred:

“Acting like everyone who’s been successful is bad and because you’re rich you’re bad, I don’t understand it,” the JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO told an audience member who asked about hostility toward bankers. “Sometimes there’s a bad apple, yet we denigrate the whole.”

Dimon, 55, whose 2010 compensation was $23 million, joined billionaires including hedge-fund manager John Paulson and Home Depot Inc. co-founder Bernard Marcus in using speeches, open letters and television appearances to defend themselves and the richest 1 percent of the population.

Poor confused, self-pitying Jamie Dimon is only looking at one end of the story — probably because that’s the only part of the story he’s familiar with.

It’s certainly true that we don’t like Ebenezer Scrooge at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, but that dislike has nothing to do with the fact that he’s rich or that he’s “been successful.” We hate the Scrooge we meet at the beginning of the story not because he’s rich, but because he’s a cruel, selfish, greedy miser enriching himself from the toil of the employees he mistreats.

And you know who else really hates Ebenezer Scrooge at the beginning of the story? Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s one of the most miserable, joyless, wretchedly unhappy figures in all of literature.

Scrooge tries to comfort himself by telling himself that he’s just a cool-headed rationalist who sees the logic of greed. He tries to make himself feel better about his abuse of poor Cratchit by thinking of himself as a “job creator.” It doesn’t work. It can’t work. He’s miserly and, therefore, miserable.

That’s why I call this a story about the liberation of Ebenezer Scrooge. He is the one constant victim of his own heartless greed. But in the end he is set free.**

Can someone like Jamie Dimon also be set free from his selfishness and self-pity?

Joshua Brown thinks so. As the title of his blog — “Reformed Broker” — suggests, Brown knows firsthand about the liberation that Ebenezer Scrooge experienced, and he hopes that Jamie Dimon might learn about it too. So in response to Dimon’s comments in Abelson’s article, Brown has written a letter:

I am writing to profess my utter disbelief at how little you seem to understand the current mood of the nation. In a story at Bloomberg today, you and a handful of fellow banker and billionaire “job creators” were quoted as believing that the horrific sentiment directed toward you from virtually all corners of America had something to do with how much money you had. I’d like to take a moment to disabuse you of this foolishness.

America is different than almost every other place on earth in that its citizenry reveres the wealthy and we are raised to believe that we can all one day join the ranks of the rich. The lack of a caste system or visible rungs of society’s ladder is what separates our empire from so many fallen empires throughout history. In a nation bereft of royalty by virtue of its republican birth, the American people have done what any other resourceful people would do — we’ve created our own royalty and our royalty is the 1%. Not only do we not “hate the rich” as you and other em-bubbled plutocrats have postulated, in point of fact, we love them. We worship our rich to the point of obsession. …

When Steve Jobs died, he did so with more money than you or any of your “job alliance” buddies – ten times more than most of you, in fact. And upon his death the entire nation went into mourning. We set up makeshift shrines to his brilliance in front of Apple stores from coast to coast. His biography flew off the shelves and people bought Apple products and stock shares in his honor and in his memory. Does that strike you as the action of a populace that hates success?

… So, no, we don’t hate the rich. What we hate are the predators.

What we hate are the people who we view as having found their success as a consequence of the damage their activities have done to our country. What we hate are those who take and give nothing back in the form of innovation, convenience, entertainment or scientific progress. We hate those who’ve exploited political relationships and stupidity to rake in even more of the nation’s wealth while simultaneously driving the potential for success further away from the grasp of everyone else.

That’s strongly worded, but it seems quite gentle compared to the words and sights it took to loose poor Ebenezer Scrooge from his chains.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* OK, yes, I’m sure that even now some annoying little “contrarian” or “freakonomist” is attention trolling by taking “the other side” on these stories. May I propose that we all make it a New Year’s Resolution to ignore these half-clever, half-honest, SEO-driven hacks in the year to come?

** Charles Dickens’ outlook could be a bit naive and limited, overlooking any role for structures or institutions and focusing only on, as George Orwell wrote, a “change of heart”:

It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane, and his attitude is sufficiently summed up in that remark about Strong’s school being as different from Creakle’s ‘as good is from evil’. Two things can be very much alike and yet abysmally different. Heaven and Hell are in the same place. Useless to change institutions without a ‘change of heart’ — that, essentially, is what he is always saying.

If that were all, he might be no more than a cheer-up writer, a reactionary humbug. A ‘change of heart’ is in fact the alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the status quo. But Dickens is not a humbug, except in minor matters, and the strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny. I said earlier that Dickens is not in the accepted sense a revolutionary writer. But it is not at all certain that a merely moral criticism of society may not be just as ‘revolutionary’ — and revolution, after all, means turning things upside down — as the politico-economic criticism which is fashionable at this moment. … Two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. … ‘If men would behave decently the world would be decent’ is not such a platitude as it sounds.

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  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Tangent: is anyone else with me in hating how the salary + benefits of obscenely rich people are increasingly called “compensation”?

    Dimon, 55, whose 2010 compensation was $23 million

    It’s really awful how you have to live with your prestigous white-collar job; have $23 million to help make up for the damage it causes you.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Any of you guys on phinished? That board really helped drag me over the final submission line (ironically discovered while metaprocrastinating–browsing the web to read about procrastinating!)

  • Alicia

    That’s pretty old. Compensation has lots of meanings — it can mean damages in lawsuits, or someone’s pay, or worker’s compensation (which sounds like it means wages but really means money for workers who get injured).

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Yeah, I get that. But I’ve *never* heard of the wages or salary of someone on a 5-figure income called “compensation”. My beef is that there’s an emotively different word for obscenely high salaries. You get paid a wage, fine, it’s money for work. You get compensation – to me implies that the work you’re doing is so much more taxing on you, and you’re making so much more effort than the wage slave.

  • Alicia

    Oh, that’s a good point! I never really thought of it that way.

    I always thought that compensation in this context was just a generic word for your pay that incorporates wages (generally your pay/hour), salaries (pay/year?), and other benefits (health benefits, retirement/pension, bonuses stock options, etc.)

    If you only took into account his actual salary (as in his salary that doesn’t include all of the other aspects of his compensation/perks/whatever) it would probably only be ridiculously high rather than obscenely high.

    (Incidentally, that’s why a lot of these guys often make these grand gestures, such as cutting themselves down to a salary of one dollar a year — it’s not as generous as it sounds because their salary isn’t necessarily the biggest part of their full compensation package. They’re still up for bonuses and/or collecting dividends or stock buybacks and other forms of compensation above and beyond their actual *salary* that makes their huge sacrifice look almost inconsequential.)

  • FangsFirst

    I sometimes just have visceral, intuitive sort of reactions to words (and sometimes they’re wrong!) but I think I see what the Sergeant’s heart means.
    I hear “compensate” as a synonym for “make up for.” And I guess it could then make up for simple things, but when we have worker’s comp (for lost pay) and that sort of thing…it tends to lend weight to that usage.

    Never realized it was being used for high earners…
    Though I would like it if your idea was right–a way of terming the collective. That would be okay, though maybe a different word wouldn’t be a bad thing all the same…

  • P J Evans

     Where I work, the bonuses are labeled ‘incentive compensation’ (and get all the usual deductions). It can be a pretty respectable part of the annual pay – but everyone from the bottom up has to meet the goals set at the beginning of the year for it to be the maximum value.

  • For some reason, bonus pay in Canada is subjected to some ridiculously high marginal tax rates. Someone I know was granted $650 in bonus pay and literally, half of it vanished in taxes. This person normally earns income subject to a 22% + 10% (ish) combined federal/provincial marginal tax rate in the top bracket.

  • At my job, the bonus is called an “Incentive Program.”  There’s a target amount, which is a percentage of your salary, but how much you actually get depends on your individual performance and the overall performance of the company.  It’s a complex calculation I don’t fully understand that’s weighted to favor your individual performance – I think it’s a 75/25 split – so if you hit your performance target (meaning you’re rated as “Successfully Met Expectations,” or whatever it’s called), you’ll get at least 75% of your target bonus amount, and then some percentage of the remaining 25% based on the company’s performance.

    It gets confusing – for me at least – because it’s based on percents of percents.
    Historically, the company has done well enough that, if you hit your individual performance, you’ll actually get more than 100% of your target bonus (typical bonus payouts, since I’ve been there, have been 125 to 150% of the Incentive Program target).

    Once you get to a certain paygrade, it can become a very substantial amount of money.

    However, at around mid-year, your bonus target for the year is locked in, and if you get promoted after that point, and get the attendant target increase, you have to wait another year before you see the increased bonus.

    For example, I was promoted in 2010, and my target went up to 10%, but at bonus time (in early 2011), I still received my pre-promotion target of 6%.

    I was promoted again recently, and got bumped to 15%, but when/if I get my bonus for 2011 – there’s always the possibility that they won’t pay out bonuses at all, but so far that’s never happened –  in March of 2012, it’ll be 10%.  So I won’t see the 15% until 2013 (if at all – there is some speculation that 2013 will be the first time that bonuses aren’t paid).

    However, the actual “merit increase” to your salary is pretty minimal, generally hovering at around 2.5% for anyone rated under “Exceeded Expectations.”  Very few people actually get that rating, simply because there is a limit to the number of people who are allowed to receive that rating.

    So far every year I’ve been there, each of my bosses has put me in for Exceeded, but each of them was told that I wasn’t allowed to be rated that way.  (The justification last year was that I was “promoted out of cycle” and that getting promoted was my recognition for my performance.  I suspect the same thing will happen again.)

    Of course, last year it didn’t matter, financially, anyway, because my boss successfully pushed for me to get the 3.5% “Exceeded” increase, even though that wasn’t my official rating.

    Please note that I don’t intend for any of this to come across as whining – I realize that I’m very fortunate to have a job at all, and while it’s likely that in a better job market I could make a lot more elsewhere (potentially with a lot fewer frustrations), the fact is that I am doing very well.

    The bonus is paid out separately from your regular paycheck, and seems to be taxed (proportionately) the same as a regular paycheck (I don’t think they deduct 401k or insurance from it).

  • Anonymous

    Re. Dr. Burzynski – you’d be surprised how many direct communications I have seen expressing furiousness about our ‘suppression of a brilliant man’.  It’s really quite depressing what a fan club he has, and how virulent and toxic they get in defense of him.