Monday, December 13, 2004

Channeling Scrooge

'Tis the season, as they say, so 'Incoming!" says I.

I notice my color turning a Grinch-like green as I react to the incessant demands for money, money, money. This is the season where the hard-sell for all things impractical, whether obscenely pricey jewelry, designer clothing which serves no effective purpose but to highlight the inadequacies of any normal person, while deepening the pockets of french designers, or over-priced toys my little one will delight in for a few days, while I take months to pay the bills.

I have begun to hate the television, as well. Try explaining to a 4-year-old about the Victoria's Secret harlot, er, slut, er, "model" on the TV, wearing a santa hat and a thong and not much more. Try explaining why the kids who scream "gimme!" in a commercial are not good children, even though the commercial clearly shows them getting everything they demand. Try explaining why, with all the peppermint and chocolate candies flying around, you still expect them to eat their vegetables. Arrgh.

I also notice this is when the volume on charity demands gets cranked up. Groups I've never heard from except at Yuletide (if ever before), strongly imply that anyone who wants to consider themselves human, must fork over moolah in exelcious.

And then there's tipping, the peculiar art of paying additional fees and bonuses for something you have already paid for once. Newsweek put out a guide for this extortion, er, remuneration, suggesting anywhere from $10 to "one or two weeks' pay" for all those things we already pay for. I did a quick summary in my head, and if I followed their advice, I'd blow a month's pay on these bonuses, before I spent even a penny on my own family and friends.

The word flows unbidden to my lips, and escapes without restraint: "Humbug!"

Not that I am unfeeling to my fellow man. Far from that, actually. But the notion that I am somehow obliged to spend money I do not have, solely to please people I barely know, by which action I should deprive my family, strikes me as unacceptable in the extreme. With year-end deadlines, harassed shoppers making driving home a combat exercise, and no bonus (as usual), I could skip the season and find myself greatly relieved.

And there it is; the bonus. Some years back, it seems almost everyone got a Christmas/Holiday/Year-End Bonus, and the extra money made it possible to do some nice things for the family and friends. But enter the auditors. That is, I think I know what happened.

If a company gives out a Year-End bonus, they will necessarily do so before the 4th-Quarter and Annual numbers for a company are known, which adds a known but controllable cost to an unknown balance entering into the period. Someone began to sell companies on the notion of presenting the annual bonus at the end of the succeeding period, the 1st Quarter of the next year. This allowed a company to know how much of a bonus they could afford, but it added an additional advantage. As more and more companies deferred the bonus for 3 or 4 months, they gained the interest from holding the money that much longer. Also, any financial difficulty became a reason to reduce or deny bonuses, especially since the bonus was separated from the moral expectation that the company do the right thing. Legally, the company had never been required to give bonuses, and as more and more companies joined the deferment of bonuses, it became easier and easier to delay, reduce, or deny bonuses at all. In my own personal experience, in 24 years of working, I have only once received a Christmas Bonus, and only four times received any kind of bonus. This, in spite of regular promotions and recognitions for excellence. Companies simply do not reward excellence. The Ghosts of Christmases Past and Present have been sacked, to be replaced by the Spirit of the Bottom Line.

This year, like the last, has been a hard one for my family financially. So while we will buy a few gifts for my daughter and a few close friends, my wife and I have again agreed not to buy anything for each other, planning to save what we can. I find myself grateful for my family, my job, and for the ability to thumb my nose at Madison Avenue.

If you find yourself able to buy the gifts you know your family and friends will delight in, go for it. And if you are able to help others in need, may you receive just as much joy in return. But if you are like me, and find yourself just a mite tired of all of this mercenary exuberance, while working for a company that thinks a form-letter greeting counts as recognition, don't worry too much. You're not channeling Scrooge, it's the people who have forgotten why the old traditions mattered, who are in his sway.

Merry Christmas, no purchase necessary!

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