Richard Heller: What the Dickens? Scrooge the unlikely hero

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SIR Wilkins Micawber OM was a Nobel prizewinning economist, whose optimistic theories strongly influenced the formation of the euro. Troubled until middle age by profound economic insecurity, he emigrated to Australia with his family and prospered as a farmer and magistrate.

But Micawber hankered for English life, and having provided for his large family, he returned to London and his passion for economics. Micawber’s style contributed strongly to his success. No dry-as-dust conventional economist, he combined pleonastic prolixity, rhetorical redundancy and otiose orotundity with sudden insights.

His early work focused on the benefits of balanced budgets, both for households and governments. An analysis of metal price movements earned him respect among experts in the copper field.

However, his global reputation was secured by his pioneering theory of Favourable Eventuality Expectations. Micawber showed that the strength of belief in a benign economic outcome was a strong influence on its probability. Later he suggested that economic optimism made some favourable outcome a near-certainty. Micawber’s theories were especially popular in the financial sector during its boom years. Behind the scenes, he helped to plan the euro, for which he predicted a golden future. He received the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2007. The same year he was knighted and made OM.

His reputation suffered from the world financial crash and the travails of the eurozone. But he stood by his theories. Only days before his death, he assured President Sarkozy: “Quelquechose va se présenter. Indubitablement.”

Estella Havisham overcame her own disappointment with matrimony to build an international business as a wedding planner. She was a perfectionist, who supervised personally every detail of her clients’ arrangements. She achieved special success with her recipe for an imperishable wedding cake and designs for non-flammable wedding dresses. Her business model was simple: to demand full payment before the wedding, knowing that it would be much harder to collect after the bride had been jilted or discovered that the groom was a serious mistake.

Ebenezer Scrooge was a successful banker who survived early derision to earn recognition as a champion of sound finance and a pioneer of environmentally-sustainable living.

Through exceptional economy (and by forsaking the prospect of marriage) he accumulated enough capital to establish, in partnership with Jacob Marley, a private bank in the City (although Scrooge preferred the old term “counting house”). Marley died, but Scrooge continued to build the business, enduring much mockery and even hatred for his austere methods and personal lifestyle.

Seven years after Marley’s death, Scrooge endured a mental aberration, in which he imagined himself visited by ghosts. He embarked on a frenzy of philanthropic activities and employed a young writer, Charles Dickens, to publicise them. He also turned over management of his bank to his clerk, Robert Cratchit, and his nephew, Fred Goodwill.

However, he was soon alarmed by their profligate policies, and at this point he also received a doctor’s opinion that the ghosts were a delusion induced by mouldy gruel. Scrooge instantly resumed his former life. He abandoned philanthropy and dismissed Dickens, and reassumed control of his bank. Cratchit (still an employee) was dismissed but Fred Goodwill was able to build a glittering career elsewhere in banking.

Scrooge endured renewed mockery and hatred, particularly from the disappointed Dickens. As a banker he was derided for his belief in cash in hand and good security for loans, and for keeping his bank’s head office in its original shabby premises, rather than in an iconic new building. He was attacked for denouncing minimum wage and health and safety legislation as organised theft.

But Scrooge’s business values were vindicated when his bank survived the great financial crash of 2008, with large reserves of cash. He had the satisfaction of taking over the bank run by his nephew (now Sir Fred Goodwill) and re-employing him as his clerk. He was honoured for his environmentally-friendly lifestyle, especially his commitment to energy-saving. He even published a book of gruel recipes, which displaced Delia Smith and Jamie Oliver on the bestseller lists. It was enlivened by a confectionery chapter with several types of humbug. Scrooge was asked by successive governments to advise on welfare reform, and although disappointed by their refusal to restore the workhouse he secured adoption of many other measures against the workshy. In a rare jest, he wrote his own epitaph “Better Scrooge than scrounge”.

Richard Heller is a former advisor to Denis Healey and the author of a Dickensian novel, The Network.