The most Dickensian moment of 2015 came in November, when the Republicans who would be president gathered to debate in Milwaukee.
Outside the debate hall, crowds of actual working people marched for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and union rights.
Inside, moderator Neil Cavuto asked billionaire Donald Trump, “As the leading presidential candidate on this stage.… are you sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, since a $15 wage works out to about $31,000 a year?”
“I can’t be, Neil,” responded Trump.
With “wages too high,” the billionaire complained, “we’re not going to be able to compete against the world.”
“I hate to say it,” said Trump, “but we have to leave [the current $7.25-an-hour minimum wage] the way it is. People have to go out, they have to work really hard and have to get into that upper stratosphere. We cannot do this if we are going to compete with the rest of the world. We just can’t do it.”
Cavuto asked if Trump was really saying, “Do not raise the minimum wage.”
“I would not do it,” responded the billionaire.
In fairness to Mr. Trump, he is rather proud of his personal charity. Give the billionaire his due for that—and for asserting that he really did “hate” to deny working Americans a living wage. In further fairness to Mr. Trump, it should be noted that several of his fellow Republican contenders were at least as hard-hearted as the wealthiest man on the stage. Dr. Ben Carson, a millionaire many times over, peddled the fantasy that paying working Americans a living wage would create unemployment. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who rarely shows up for his own day job, announced that a federal living-wage guarantee would be “a disaster.”
Trump was simply saying, as one of the richest men in the world, that he was not ready to embrace the ancient principle that a fair day’s work ought to be compensated with a fair day’s pay. Like so many of his Republican compatriots, the billionaire cannot muster the generosity of spirit—and economic common sense—required to support modest policy changes that would extend a measure of equity to Americans who work full time but still live in poverty. For these political misers, policies that might improve the lot of the poor are not their business.
Charles Dickens wrote about such sentiments.
In seeking to inspire and extend the humanity of his countrymen, the author wrestled in his Christmas Carol with the impulse to wealthy men to dismissed the poor as a burden and the unemployed as a lazy lot best forced by hunger to grab at bootstraps and pull themselves upward.
Dickens captured the essence of the argument when he imagined a visit by two gentlemen—“liberals,” we might call them—to a certain conservative businessman.
It was an awkward encounter that Dickens described:
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
After allowing Scrooge to establish that poorhouses and prisons were still options for the destitute, Dickens continued his story:
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. 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.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.”
“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.
“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned.
So Dickens began A Christmas Carol, a story very much in keeping with the radical tenor of a time when the world was awakening to the truth that poverty and desolation need not be accepted by civil society—or civilized people. The language employed by Scrooge was not a Dickensian creation; rather, it was a sort of reporting on the political platforms and statements of those who opposed the burgeoning movements for reform and revolution, which were sweeping through Europe as the author composed his ghost tale.
Ultimately an optimist, Dickens imagined that spirited prodding from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future would change Scrooge—just as there are those today who imagine that a bit more enlightenment might cause even the most rigid Republican to reconsider his disdain for the unemployed, the underemployed, and the never-employed.
In Scrooge’s case, a little otherworldly pressure did the trick.
After his unsettling Christmas Eve, the formerly conservative businessman hastened into the streets of London and rather too quickly for his own comfort came upon one of the two liberals:
“My dear sir,” said Scrooge, quickening his pace, and taking the old gentleman by both his hands. “How do you do. I hope you succeeded yesterday. It was very kind of you. A merry Christmas to you, sir!”
“Yes,” said Scrooge. “That is my name, and I fear it may not be pleasant to you. Allow me to ask your pardon. And will you have the goodness”—here Scrooge whispered in his ear.
“Lord bless me!” cried the gentleman, as if his breath were taken away. “My dear Mr. Scrooge, are you serious?”
“If you please,” said Scrooge. “Not a farthing less. A great many back-payments are included in it, I assure you. Will you do me that favour?”
Dickens tells us Scrooge was frightened into such humanity that he now thanked the gentleman who asked him to open his wallet in order to “make idle people merry.” The poor were suddenly the miser’s business.
Unfortunately, the poor are still imagined as a burden by today’s political misers.
The debate about how to respond to poverty continues to this day—in much the same language Dickens recalled more than a century and a half ago. The poor are still with us, as are the Scrooges.
We’d best bless them all, with hopes that the ghosts of Past, Present, and Future will again visit those who are in need of some seasonal prodding.