A Very Planet Money Christmas Carol Charles Dickens wanted to pick a fight with economists. So he invented Ebenezer Scrooge. But did he get it all right? Also: If you want to support our show, head over to donate.npr.org/planetmoney. We appreciate it.
NPR logo

A Very Planet Money Christmas Carol

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/679216398/679318528" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Very Planet Money Christmas Carol

A Very Planet Money Christmas Carol

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/679216398/679318528" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Professor Eckel, can you hear us?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Hey, we're up and running.

Catherine Eckel runs a behavioral economics program at Texas A&M University, where she studies the many reasons people donate money.

ECKEL: So suppose that you really like PLANET MONEY, but along comes somebody who says, I'll just pay for PLANET MONEY. Then, someone who only cares that PLANET MONEY exists would reduce their giving because PLANET MONEY doesn't need it as much anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: That's the rational thing to do at that point.

ECKEL: But part of the motive for giving seems to be they don't just care that PLANET MONEY exists. People want to be the one who's doing the supporting.


ECKEL: And that's the warm glow.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The warm glow, as in, like...

ECKEL: Like, how I feel.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Like an actual thing they're getting from giving the money.

ECKEL: An actual utility.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: OK. I'm going to make, like, a little commercial just reminding people that warm glow exists.

ECKEL: Sure.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And that they could have a piece of it, too.

ECKEL: You could try it.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I think there should be some angel voices in it, though. Like, that feels like warm glow to me.

ECKEL: (Laughter) Or a beating heart.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Yes. We're going to throw everything into it. Thank you so much, Professor Eckel.

ECKEL: My pleasure.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: All right. I've got a commercial to work on. In the meantime, you can support PLANET MONEY by donating to your local NPR station. Just go to donate.npr.org/planetmoney. They will know you're giving because you listen to PLANET MONEY. Again, that's donate.npr.org/planetmoney.


Keith Romer.


Sally Helm.

HELM: You went on a trip. Tell me about it.

ROMER: A couple weeks ago, I went to Branford High School in Branford, Conn., to watch a play - an adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." And I want to say, first things first, they treat you right in Branford. The play's director met me at the school door. The culinary arts class cooked me dinner.

HELM: What'd you have?

ROMER: Ham, scalloped potatoes, green beans, side salad, lemon scone.

HELM: Yum.

ROMER: Before things got started, I sat down with the star of the show.

ADAM JACKSON: My name is Adam Jackson, and I am playing Ebenezer Scrooge.

ROMER: Scrooge is literature's most famous miser. And the plot of "A Christmas Carol" is basically these three ghosts - Spirit of Christmas Past, Spirit of Christmas Present, Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come - convincing Scrooge to be a better person.

JACKSON: He starts off, and you have to play him completely mean and completely rude and completely evil, sort of. But then by the end of the show, he's everyone's best friend.

ROMER: About an hour after our interview, the entire cast got together in the school's choir room.


ROMER: Sally, I can see in your eyes that you recognize that sound.

HELM: I did high school theater.

ROMER: That is the sound of four dozen teenagers warming up their vocal chords before a show.

CHRIS LEMIEUX: Me, may, my, mo, moo (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: Me, may, my, mo, moo (ph).

LEMIEUX: All right. Repeat after me. Can I be...

ROMER: Adam and all the other kids are standing in this big circle, buzzing with pre-show jitters. Everyone's wearing their Victorian frock coats and vests and old-timey dresses. Not enough boys tried out, so there are a bunch of girls wearing top hats with their hair in ponytails to play the boy parts.

After the warmups, the play's director - this slight, silver-haired retired teacher named Maria Ogren - gives them a pep talk.

MARIA OGREN: Last night, you proved that you could do this play. And tonight, you're going to prove that last night was not an accident, OK? All right?

ROMER: Now, look; part of my reason for traveling all the way from New York to Branford was just that I have this tremendous soft spot for the earnestness of high school theater.

OGREN: Quiet, quiet, quiet. Close your eyes. Center down. All right. We are one. Have a great show.

ROMER: But there was another reason I was there. The play they were doing that night - "A Christmas Carol." It is so much more than just a story about whether the Ghost of Christmas Past can convince Ebenezer Scrooge to be a decent human being.


ROMER: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Keith Romer.

HELM: And I'm Sally Helm. Today on the show, the secret war taking place in the pages of "A Christmas Carol." Yes, the story is about saving Tiny Tim's life and teaching Scrooge the true meaning of Christmas.

ROMER: But it turns out Charles Dickens is up to way more than just telling a ghost story with a happy ending. "A Christmas Carol" is this knock-down, drag-out fight between Charles Dickens and some of the biggest names in the history of economic thought.


HELM: All right. Just in case it has been a while since you read "A Christmas Carol" or watched the Muppets or Disney or the creepy CGI Jim Carrey version, here is where we start. It is 19th century London. The Industrial Revolution is in full swing, and we meet the star of our story, Ebenezer Scrooge.

JACKSON: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) Ah, yes, Mr. Pembrook. Have you come to make a payment on your note? It comes due tomorrow.

LISA KROEBER: (As Mr. Pembrook) Please, sir. We will need more time.

JACKSON: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) No, sir. A contract is a contract. I will have my payment when it is due.

ROMER: Scrooge is somebody who has gotten very, very rich, presumably from the Industrial Revolution itself somehow. But he is not about to share his wealth, least of all with his poor, relentlessly cheerful employee Bob Cratchit.

BEN CLOUSE: (As Bob Cratchit) And a merry Christmas to us all. God bless us.

HELM: Bob Cratchit has an even more relentlessly cheerful son, Tiny Tim, who hobbles around on his tiny crutch.

ALEXIS ASSELTA: (As Tiny Tim) God bless us, everyone.

ROMER: On Christmas Eve, Scrooge gets visited by a series of ghosts.

SOPHIA COPPOLA: (As Ghost of Christmas Past) I'm the Ghost of Christmas Past.

RITA MICKLUS: (As Ghost of Christmas Present) I am the Ghost of Christmas Present.

JACKSON: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) Are you the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come?

ROMER: The ghosts show him all these visions, including one where Tiny Tim dies, presumably because Scrooge doesn't pay Bob Cratchit enough. And the visions work. The ghosts convince Scrooge to stop being a miser.

HELM: In fact, Scrooge becomes super generous, gives Bob Cratchit a raise, Tiny Tim lives.

ROMER: "A Christmas Carol" is one of the iconic holiday stories. Its basic message that we should all be nicer to the poor - that's part of how we think about Christmas itself now.

HELM: But when you sit down to read "A Christmas Carol," you are actually diving right into the center of this massive argument that has so little to do with Christmas and so much to do with economics.

ROMER: Surprise.

HELM: Yup.


In 1843, when "A Christmas Carol" was written, the big economic question was, what the hell is going on with this Industrial Revolution thing? Like, where is all this money coming from? Why are there all these poor people leaving the countryside and coming to the cities? Is all of this change even a good thing?

MICHAEL SLATER: The decade of the 1840s in England, there was increasing mass poverty.

ROMER: That's Michael Slater. He wrote a biography of Charles Dickens titled "Charles Dickens."

SLATER: Wages were kept very, very low in England. And it was kind of rural capitalism, if you like.

ROMER: Slater says the inspiration for "A Christmas Carol" came when Dickens read a parliamentary report about the terrible working conditions of poor children.

HELM: We're talking 8-year-olds working 14-hour days in coal mines.

ROMER: And just - we want to be clear. The position of NPR is that that is bad.

HELM: We're against it.

ROMER: And so was Charles Dickens.

SLATER: And Dickens was horrified by what he read.

HELM: Yeah. But Charles Dickens - he's not just some random, tenderhearted dude. He is a super famous tenderhearted dude. Keith, back at the time that we're in - 1843 - there is no TV.

ROMER: What?

HELM: There are no movies.


HELM: Do you know what there is instead?

ROMER: Charles Dickens.

HELM: Yes, correct. When Dickens goes to America in 1842, thousands of people turn out to see him in every city. He is a huge deal. So super famous Charles Dickens decides he is going to use his fame to take a stand.

SLATER: And so he decided he would write a pamphlet called "An Appeal On Behalf Of The Poor Man's Child."

ROMER: To be fair, that was a thing back then - pamphlets. And for a while, Dickens is pretty fired up about his pamphlet idea. But then he remembers, no, wait; I'm Charles Dickens. I'm not writing a freaking pamphlet.

SLATER: He had the very sudden inspiration to write a short book in the form of almost like a kind of fairy story. And he said this would have, you know, a thousand times more effect than any article that he could write, which, of course, it did.

HELM: Dickens writes to a friend, says his new story is going to hit with the force of a sledgehammer.

ROMER: A sledgehammer.

HELM: Yup. And you want to know what he is going to smash with his sledgehammer? This new academic discipline called political economy, what we would now call economics.

ROMER: These political economists - they wanted to do for social sciences what Isaac Newton had done for physics. But instead of discovering the laws that govern motion and force, they wanted to discover the laws that governed how human beings behaved.

HELM: Charles Dickens - not a fan.

SLATER: He just hated questions to do with humanity being dealt with in a sort of coldly scientific, mathematical sort of way. He was all for the heart rather than the head, as it were.

SLATER: sort of way. He was all for the heart rather than the head, as it were.

ROMER: OK, so Dickens - captain of the heart team. Captain of the coldly scientific head team - Adam Smith.

HELM: Adam Father Of Economics Smith.

ROMER: That's the one.

HELM: In 1776, he publishes his 900-something-page book, "An Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes Of The Wealth Of Nations." So they should be buddies. Charles Dickens loved writing 900-page books.

ROMER: "Bleak House," "Little Dorrit."

HELM: Depending on what edition you get, "David Copperfield."

ROMER: I know what you're thinking - "Our Mutual Friend." I looked at it - 880. OK, so there are a lot of ideas in "The Wealth Of Nations," but for most readers, the big takeaway - self-interest is good. If everyone just looks out for themselves, then the invisible hand of the market is going to do an amazing job of allocating capital and labor. And the economy is going to grow, and everyone's going to be better off.

HELM: People are going crazy for this idea - for Adam Smith. Efficiency and self-interest - they're going to save us all.

ROMER: But when you read "A Christmas Carol," you can almost hear Dickens muttering to himself as he writes - stupid Adam Smith.

HELM: Yeah, take that exchange that we listened to before between Scrooge and poor Mr. Pembrook. This scene in the play doesn't actually occur in Dickens' original, but it is definitely true to the book's description of Scrooge as a, quote, "merciless creditor."

KROEBER: (As Mr. Pembrook) Please, sir, we will need more time.

JACKSON: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) No, sir. A contract is a contract. I will have my payment when it is due.

ROMER: It's pretty hard to be more self-interested than Ebenezer Scrooge.

KROEBER: (As Mr. Pembrook) Sir, consider my wife and child.

JACKSON: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) Business is business, sir. Good day.

HELM: Ugh, Charles Dickens' version of Adam Smith is such a jerk.

ROMER: Adam Smith, though - he is just the tip of the iceberg for Dickens. There's another scene - this one straight from the book - where two people come by asking for donations for a Christmas charity.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We are raising a fund to buy the poor some food and warmth at this time of year.

ROMER: You won't be surprised to learn that Ebenezer Scrooge will not be donating this Christmas. But if you listen carefully to the way he says no, you will hear Dickens taking shots at a second political economist.

JACKSON: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) May my taxes go to both the prisons and the workhouses. Those that are badly off must go there.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) But so many cannot go there.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) And they'd rather die first.

JACKSON: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) If they would rather die, then they'd better do so at once and decrease the surplus population.

ROMER: In 1843, if you heard that last phrase - surplus population - you would 100 percent know who Charles Dickens was talking about.

SLATER: There's that terrible phrase about the surplus population. That's a reference to the Reverend Malthus, M-A-L-T-H-U-S.

HELM: OK, new rule of podcasting that I'm making up for this show - when one scholar literally spells the name of a historical figure, you have to find another scholar to explain that historical figure.

ROMER: Sally Helm, I accept your terms.

ROBERT MAYHEW: I'm Robert Mayhew. I'm a professor of historical geography and intellectual history at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

ROMER: Mayhew wrote a book about the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus titled "Malthus."

MAYHEW: Malthus was a pioneering political economist whose main work was a book called "An Essay On The Principle Of Population," which was published in 1798. He's most famous for arguing that population will inevitably outstrip the resources it needs to survive and therefore that there will be some form of population collapse or crisis in our ability to sustain ourselves as a civilization. So he's known as a prophet of doom, I suppose.

ROMER: Malthus was not a big believer in the possibility of economic growth. What he saw when he looked at the history of the world was not progress but instead, this endless back-and-forth between good times and bad times.

HELM: In good times, everybody would be like, life is great. I'm going to have a giant family.

ROMER: And then the bad times would come again. Wages would go down. Food prices would go up. And poor people would starve.

HELM: And Malthus, quite understandably, thought that this was terrible. But he also thought that, in economic terms, the root of the problem was that there were just too many people. The poor people who starved - they were the surplus population. Here's Michael Slater again.

SLATER: Dickens, being a romantic, also loathed Malthus. Malthus is one of his great sort of enemies.

ROMER: Now, part of this is Dickens' deep suspicion that in their quest to understand how markets worked, political economists like Malthus had completely lost sight of the fact that these were people they were talking about, not just numbers.

HELM: But Dickens' real problem Malthus wasn't, like, the form of his thinking. It was the practical conclusions that Malthus came to because of that thinking.

ROMER: Conclusions about what society should actually do about the poor.

JACKSON: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) My taxes go to support the prisons and the workhouses. Those that are badly off must go there.

HELM: In 1843, there were a lot of people who were badly off. The industrial revolution was this kind of economic miracle, but it was not a miracle that everybody shared in. And if you were really poor and you couldn't find work, there was pretty much just one option - the workhouse.

ROMER: Workhouses had always been pretty horrible places. Families would get broken up - men to one section, women to another, children to another. Everyone would get some terrible job - breaking rocks or literally picking apart rope into individual strands. In exchange, you would be fed. You wouldn't starve.

HELM: But earlier in the 1800s, there started to be this concern that some of the people trying to get poor relief from the government could have found other ways to keep from starving if they really wanted to.

ROMER: So in 1834, Parliament passed what are called the New Poor Laws.

SLATER: The 1834 Poor Law was designed to make workhouses much less - I was going to say attractive. That's not the right word, but more frightening, as it were.

HELM: And one of the most famous proponents of these new, harsher workhouses was - you guessed it - Thomas Malthus.

ROMER: There is this even darker jab at Malthus hidden in "A Christmas Carol" - a more direct jab about not caring enough about the children of the poor.

HELM: In one of the visions that the Ghost of Christmas Present shows to Scrooge, Scrooge sees his clerk, Bob Cratchit, at home.

CLOUSE: (As Bob Cratchit) Now let us prepare ourselves for the finest Christmas dinner in all of London. May the Lord make us truly thankful.

ROMER: Cratchit is this wonderfully loving dad. But he is also a kind of stand-in for all the people who were being left behind by the Industrial Revolution.

HELM: While the Scrooges of the world are getting rich, Bob Cratchit is taking home very little in wages. And because he's so poor, his son, Tiny Tim, dies.

ROMER: In a second vision, Scrooge watches as Bob gathers his family around Tiny Tim's unused little crutch and tells them to never forget their tiny brother.

CLOUSE: (As Bob Cratchit) And I know that when we remember how patient and how mild he was, even though he was a little child, we shall not easily quarrel among ourselves, for doing so would dim his memory.

ROMER: Bob Cratchit is a good dude.

HELM: But he's poor, and he has a big family.

ROMER: Is Tiny Tim a part of the surplus population?

SLATER: I assume that Dickens' main point is that in a cold, utilitarian calculus, Tiny Tim is surplus population.

ROMER: OK. At this point in the podcast, I will blame basically no one who feels like they would much rather be on Team Dickens than Team Malthus.

HELM: Keith, am I sensing - are you on Team Malthus?

ROMER: I mean, kind of.

HELM: (Gasping) What? Scrooge.

ROMER: Like, hear me out. Hear me out. Hear me out. Hear me out. Hear me out. Part of it is - so Malthus is the scapegoat for a bunch of writers, including, maybe, Dickens, who never even read him.

HELM: Straw man - OK.

ROMER: But part of it is that Malthus is this kind of tragic intellectual figure to me because he was kind of right, but he was just about to be totally wrong. Sally, I brought you a graph.

HELM: (Gasping) My favorite. Oh, my God. It's quite a graph. OK, it is world GDP over the last two millennia.

ROMER: From the Year 1 to basically the present day.

HELM: Wow. Strong time frame.

ROMER: GDP - gross domestic product - basically, every bushel of wheat, every house, every Christmas wreath that got made each year for 2,000 years.

HELM: And it's basically flat, flat, flat. And then, at a certain point in - what do we say?

ROMER: Oh, 1798 or so.

HELM: Right when Malthus writes his book, it shoots up. World GDP just goes crazy - goes into basically, like, a vertical line from then till now.

ROMER: So for almost 2,000 years, GDP growth is, like, 0.3 percent. It basically hasn't been invented yet. Malthus is right.

HELM: But then, the Industrial Revolution.

ROMER: And then he's wrong.

HELM: Yeah. Basically, the day he publishes, the economy shoots up. All of a sudden, there's not just plenty of food, there's plenty of everything. This is that super steep growing part of the graph - steam power, factories, mechanization. The economy - the British economy, especially - takes off, basically in the 45 years between Malthus putting out his book in 1798 and Dickens publishing "A Christmas Carol" in 1843.

Now, that growth didn't get shared by everyone. There were still plenty of poor people. But human beings showed they could figure out how to grow the economy. The population could grow, and there would still be enough food for everyone to eat. So basically, history proves Malthus totally wrong.

ROMER: I just want to point out, though, history also kind of proves Dickens wrong, and for almost the exact same reason as what happened to Malthus. Malthus misses the possibility of economic growth because economic growth had never happened before. But Dickens completely misses this second huge economic shift that is happening right under his feet - a shift, by the way, that political economists like Adam Smith said was going to happen, and then does, right around 1843 - wage growth.

HELM: OK, but there is wage growth of a sort in "A Christmas Carol."

ROMER: Of a sort.

HELM: Of a sort. Well, the Christmas spirits do their little number on Scrooge. And he completely changes into a different person.

JACKSON: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) No, no, no, no, no - good spirits, hear me. I am not the man I used to be. I will honor Christmas in my heart.

HELM: And newly unmiserly (ph) Ebenezer Scrooge gives Bob Cratchit a raise - wage growth.

JACKSON: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) A merry Christmas, Bob, my good fellow. I shall raise your salary and endeavor to assist you with your struggling family. Make up the fires, Bob. And buy another scuttle of coal before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit. Ha-ha.

HELM: It is not just scuttles of coal; Tiny Tim lives - surplus population problem, solved by the miracle of the Christmas spirit.

ROMER: OK, I'm about to be this person.

HELM: Go there.

ROMER: I know that the point of "A Christmas Carol" is that everyone should be kind and generous to the poor. And to be clear, I am for that. But the secret to wage growth cannot be ghosts visiting employers in the middle of the night and convincing them to be more generous.

HELM: It's not sustainable. And that wasn't how it happened. Right around the time that Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol," all of that industrial revolution wealth that the Bob Cratchits of the world weren't seeing any of - they started sort of seeing some of it. And that was for tons and tons of reasons. Productivity went up. More and more of those factory owners had to compete for workers. Labor organizing helped. Wages started this long, long rise that lifted a lot of Bob Cratchits of the world out of poverty.

ROMER: Now, look - Charles Dickens wanted his readers to use their hearts to consider Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim as real, living, breathing human beings, not as data points on a graph - to care about making their lives better.

HELM: OK, but political economists then and now would say, look - making that graph, using numbers to describe the world as accurately as possible - sometimes that is a necessary first step in making people's lives better.

ROMER: There is something about those graphs, though, that just does not sit right with people. I asked Ben Clouse, who plays Bob Cratchit, why he thinks Tiny Tim ends up surviving.

CLOUSE: That's a good question - because Scrooge saves the day, basically. And Tiny Tim is the result of that. He's alive. He's well. He's doing OK.

ROMER: If I made the argument that what really saved Tiny Tim was the increasing productivity of the Industrial Revolution, would you just say that I'm kind of a Scrooge.

CLOUSE: Probably, yeah.


ROMER: This is what I came here to learn.

CLOUSE: (As Bob Cratchit) God bless us.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Merry Christmas. God bless us.

ALEXIS: (As Tiny Tim) God bless us, everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: All right - warm glow - the warm, fuzzy feeling you can get from supporting PLANET MONEY. Here we go.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: It's raining outside, but you're inside next to the fire.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Oh, the water is ready for your hot cocoa. And good news - your best friend showed up. They brought you a music box. They pull you in for a big, warm hug.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Only one thing could feel better than this. Just go to donate.npr.org/planetmoney, where you can support PLANET MONEY by donating to your local NPR station. Yep, just go ahead and hit enter there.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Just bask in the warm glow of supporting PLANET MONEY - donate.npr.org/planetmoney.


HELM: If you are in a high school play that has a secret economic message, we want to come. Send us an email - planetmoney@npr.org. You can also reach out to us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

ROMER: Special thanks today to Anthony Brundage for helping me understand the history of the Poor Laws and to Maria Ogren, Chris Lemieux, Jess Strassburg and everyone at Branford High School. The performers you heard throughout the show were Adam Jackson, Ben Clouse, Lisa Kroeber, Alexis Brown, Hannah Bloomquist, Sophia Coppola, Rita Micklus, Abby Boyle, Dorian Hayes, Saura Malahaizar, Robert Olejarczyk and introducing as Tiny Tim, Alexis Asselta.

HELM: Today's show was produced by Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. Alex Goldmark is PLANET MONEY's supervising producer. Bryant Urstadt edits the show. I'm Sally Helm.

ROMER: And I'm Keith Romer. Thanks for listening.

Is it Thomas? Is it Robert? Is it pastor? What do I call him?

MAYHEW: His full name's Thomas Robert, but he's known by his own family as Robert. So take your pick, really.

ROMER: What about Bob?

MAYHEW: Occasionally, in letters, he's Bob. But I - as a Robert myself, I don't think so.

ROMER: (Laughter) Because you don't want to be called Bob, he can't be called Bob.

MAYHEW: (Laughter) I - most of the contemporary references to him are to Thomas or to Robert. And if you know him, you probably call him Robert. And if you don't know him - you're communicating about him or with him - it's probably Thomas.

ROMER: I really want to call him Bob.

MAYHEW: (Laughter) If it floats your boat.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.