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Times taxing poor Scrooge

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VANCOUVER -- Finance Minister Ebenezer Scrooge VI stared from his office window at the unpopulated square below. The building was empty, silent. His face was a study. Reflective? Troubled? Conflicted? Perhaps all.

It had been a long road for the Scrooges from the once-considerable 19th-century firm of Scrooge & Marley. Scrooge's uncle several times removed, the first Ebenezer -- so the family oral story went -- had some ghostly experiences on Christmas Eve.

The British Society for Psychical Research investigated and found no conclusive evidence. The certainty was that overnight Scrooge was transformed. A hard businessman, he abruptly began distributing his fortune among the needy. He died broke, but smiling.

In succeeding generations, continuing with Scrooge's nephew, this became a family tradition -- almost an obsession. Its enterprises, including a prosthetics company, flourished, only to dwindle through excessively helping the poor, and then somehow they picked up and repeated the cycle.

Ebenezer VI's father, who immigrated to Vancouver and lived on the streets, his only companion his dog, literally gave away the shirt on his back. Again family fortunes miraculously revived, thanks to the dog, who learned fantastic tricks and become a Las Vegas headliner.

Ebenezer VI's reverie was broken by a deferential tap on his door. It was his deputy minister of finance, Jones.

"Ha, Jones, I welcome you," cried Ebenezer. "I'm new, of course, and doubtless was chosen finance minister for the family's gift for amassing fortunes -- not for its genius in losing them. Can we talk, away from daily pressures? I'd like your advice. Not metrics and least-cost optimums, or whatever. What's the essence?"

Jones had a deserved ministry reputation for both ability and cynicism. He drily replied: "Not enough money in, too much out. Had a chance to go over the books?"

"Enough to confirm that we're in serious straits. The deficit is staggering. The debt is worse," Ebenezer replied.

"All we have to do is to generate more national wealth, and tax it," Jones smiled.

"Merely compete in trade with aggressive and creative people in 190-odd countries, some selling what we're selling," Ebenezer mused.

"We have great natural resources, Minister."

"And, if some have their way, best left in the ground and not disturb the wildlife and the trees," Ebenezer winced. "It happens that an environment society is one of the family's most beloved charities. As for taxes, can your people dream up any more? Or make business and individuals enjoy paying them, out of sheer public spirit?"

"Answer to the first question, no. The second, also no. People insist they're taxed to the max."

"I disagree," Ebenezer said ruefully. "I get sincere advice every day from groups demanding higher taxes. For other people."

"I've noticed that it's much easier spending the public's money than my own," Jones replied. "That's one category that's expanding -- the country's Gross National Advice. Not just from the Opposition."

"Yes. Think-tanks, columnists, academics, hot-line listeners, social media fans, all convinced they can run government better than the government. Some might even be right," Ebenezer smiled.

"Now, your reputation preceded you," Jones said. "Since your great-uncle saw the light, or whatever he saw, the Scrooges have been famous philanthropists."

"First, though, we earned the money. Then we helped," Ebenezer said. "I'm uneasy in government, spending money we don't have. Passing on the debt to future generations."

"Future generations have this special characteristic," Jones said sardonically. "They aren't here."

"And the hungry are, and monetary theory and balance of trade figures don't feed them," Ebenezer replied.

The sun was setting. The two men walked to the silent hallway.

"You asked my advice, Minister," Jones said. "My opinion is: We'll muddle through. I suggest you go home, have some supper, relax, and maybe you'll get some brilliant insight, a bolt from the blue, in the night. Merry Christmas."

"Ah," Ebenezer Scrooge VI remembered, "it is Christmas Eve, isn't it?"

Retired Vancouver Sun editorial board member Trevor Lautens is a columnist for Vancouver's North Shore News and Business in Vancouver.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2012 J14

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