Published October 13, 2010

Doug Casey: Bah! Humbug!

L: Happy Canadian Thanksgiving, Doug. But you're an atheist, and you pay for your own meals, so whom do you give thanks to, if anyone?

Doug: Yes, I guess it's getting to be that time of year. Holidays can be fun, regardless of one's beliefs, and for the record, neither you nor Bob Cratchit have to work Christmas Eve.

L: I probably will anyway. I celebrate the New Year, and sometimes raise a glass to Sir Isaac Newton, whose birthday was December 25, but not Christmas.

Doug: Why is that? I know you're an atheist as well, but you also call yourself a student of the carpenter of Nazareth, so why not celebrate his birthday?

L: You're right. I'm what you might call an Atheist Christian; I don't believe in any gods, but I do find great value in what Jesus actually said and taught, which was to love, forgive, and let live. That's quite different from what many modern churches teach, which is to fear and to try to control the behavior of others. Such people often have no qualms about employing the coercive machinery of the state to impose their values on others, which Jesus never did nor advocated – his slate was clean, and yet he cast no stones.

But to answer your question, ever since I was a teenager, I've thought Christmas, at least as practiced in most of the West, is a bad idea. It all revolves around a massive conspiracy of lies aimed at controlling children. I never wanted to control my children; I wanted to help them learn self-control. I decided long before I had any children that I would never lie to mine. That's bad psychology. I wanted my children – whatever else they might come to think – to always regard me as a reliable source of information. And 23 years after the first was born, they all still do.

Plus, if you think about it, Santa Claus is basically God on training wheels. He's omniscient – knows if you've been bad or good – and punishes or rewards you accordingly. If I believed in a god, this would seem like a bad idea to me, as children come to first discover that Santa does not know everything, and then find out the whole thing is a scam. The collapse of the Santa conspiracy sows seeds of doubt as to the supernatural – not to mention distrust of parents.

Doug: But you didn't send your kids back to school having to confront their peers after receiving no presents…

L: Of course not. We enjoyed the holiday songs and stories – I just never told my children they were true. They were fun fantasies like Curious George or Batman. I buy trees and decorate them, but I call them New Year's trees, and we give each other presents on New Year's Eve.

Later, when I started making friends in former Soviet countries, I found that the Soviets had done essentially the same thing – Marx said religion was the "opium of the masses," after all.

Doug: [Laughs]

L: It was a slightly embarrassing discovery for a staunch capitalist to make, but a good joke on me. At any rate, we're here to talk about your take on all this. Are you a Grinch?

Doug: I've never read that story, nor watched the cartoon all the way through, to be honest with you.

L: But you've heard of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" by Dr. Seuss? You know what I mean by Grinch?

Doug: Yes.

L: So, are you a Grinch? What do you do when you're visiting someone during the holidays and they bow their heads to say grace?

Doug: I listen respectfully, but then I always ask if I can say grace too. They usually say, "Well, of course!" And the grace I usually say is either to Odin, who's a favorite myth of mine, and sometimes to Crom, who was the god of Conan the Barbarian. "Oh Crom, help us to slay our enemies, ravish their women, burn their houses and enslave their children – and if you won't help us, then to hell with you." That always sets the tone for an excellent dinner conversation.

L: I've actually been present at a nice dinner in an expensive restaurant when you did this, and it was in the predominantly Catholic country of Argentina. But, to be fair, the dinner was with old cronies of yours, who know very well how you like to stir things up. Have you ever actually done that in a group of total strangers?

Doug: Yes, I have, with entertaining results. As you know, I'm a great believer in entertainment and refuse to waste much time talking about the weather and the roads. The next subject is philosophy, and abstract, theoretical philosophy is not very entertaining, so that leaves practical philosophy: politics and religion.

L: The two forbidden subjects. I should have known. But you know, in addition to people who wrote after our last conversation to say that you are wrong about the Tea Party, we got letters from people who said that you contradicted yourself, saying you don't make fun of religion, and in the next breath speaking of parroting and chimpanzees. I replied that if they would look carefully at what you said, it was not the religion you were poking fun at, but at dogma, at the religious-flavored groupthink that can be so dangerous. I don't think I've ever heard you criticize Jesus or his teachings. Churches are another matter entirely. Churches are human organizations, run by fallible human beings, with their own ends in mind. Churches can and should be held up for scrutiny and criticism, just like any other human institution.

Doug: I admit that many of Jesus' words were very wise. But Paul took over as his promoter after Jesus died, and many of Paul's ideas were very different from Jesus'. Paulism is really an entirely different religion from Jesusism, though they've become conflated in modern Christianity.

L: I agree, and Jesus also brought a "new covenant" that set aside much of the Old Testament, so the frequent citations of the Old Testament as grounds for persecuting homosexuals or other religions also run counter to the teachings of Jesus, in my view. I like looking at what Jesus is reported to have actually said and done, himself – not Paul, and not Moses.

Doug: Some readers might be surprised to know that I've actually read the Bible and made a study of many religions. The more I learn of them all, the less I'm inclined to believe any one of them, but if we define religion as a quest for some form of spiritual reality, I certainly don't in any way denigrate or make fun of religion. Unfortunately, that's not how most people approach religion; for many, it's a balm for their fears and miseries, rather than a path to enlightenment.

L: I can see that… But we digress. The topic today was holidays – so, if you don't believe in holiness, what do you do on holy days, and why?

Doug: I'm a big fan of the winter solstice and the summer solstice. Those are important turning points for life on this planet, and worth celebrating. Presents are nice – it's fine to give things to people you like. Even the shared traditions of society can be nice, though I have to say that the religious significance of many of these holidays has been totally lost to the commercial events they have become. In point of fact, by Christian tradition, Easter is the holiest of holidays, not Christmas, but all most people think of at that time are bunnies, chocolates, and colored eggs.

L: So, you're not a Grinch. Reindeer and blinking lights are okay?

Doug: You can even find them in some predominantly Muslim countries, and that's fine. It's good wintertime fun.

L: I suppose societies need periodic celebrations, in one form or another.

Doug: Yes, but there's a dark side to what we call the holiday season in the West, at which time people are supposed to celebrate happiness. That's a problem for unhappy people.

L: Which is why there's said to be so much trouble with alcoholism, increased suicide rates, and such during the holidays.

Doug: Yes, and even generally happy people can feel increased stress from the increasing financial demands of the season. It's becoming like the potlatch tradition of the Northwestern Indians, where gift giving is a very strong social expectation. That can be problematic in hard times, when extra cash for buying nice presents for others can be tough to come by. In Dickens' days, there was no expectation that you'd buy presents for everyone you know if you were a Cratchit. Today, it's becoming an embarrassment to go see anyone during the holidays without a gift in hand.

L: Some people might rather stay home – not wanting to seem like a Scrooge.

Doug: Now there's something I do object to – Scrooge has become a powerfully destructive meme loose in society. Dickens was a social critic of the Victorian age, perhaps rightly so in many ways, but his attack on the creative power of wealth in the form of his caricature, Scrooge, is misleading and harmful.

L: There was great injustice in the Victorian era, and to all accounts much inhuman treatment of poor people by the wealthy, though that was hardly a Victorian invention. But the wealthy, back then, were also usually the aristocracy, with hereditary titles and power. I've long thought that the problem lay in the legal power – coercive power – the wealthy had over others, not their wealth, per se.

Since then, there have been changes, including a huge though incomplete separation between the non-coercive power of money and the coercive power of the state. But people still conflate wealth with coercion and various personality traits that have nothing to do with wealth.

Doug: Such as?

L: Many people believe stereotypes, reinforced by Hollywood and other cultural sources, that rich people are obsessed with money, care only about money, are greedy, and completely lacking in generosity. Nice people don't care about money. Rich people are mean – and being mean is how you get rich.

But it's not true. I've made a study of this.  All the really wealthy people I know got that way by creating enormous value. I know one of the first guys to set up "sweatshops" in China, enabling people who had few choices other than prostitution and destitution to work in clean buildings – albeit for long hours – at better pay than they could get anywhere else. I know another fellow who saw a trading pattern and developed a system to take advantage of it and then sold it to Goldman Sachs for $125 million. And more – all were passionate about creating something of value, and that's what led to great wealth. Most started with nothing more than anyone else, and even the few that were born with silver spoons in their mouths took the money they started with and turned it into a lot more money. And none of them think the most fun thing to do on weekends is to evict poverty-stricken people from their homes.

I found that rich people do think about money; they understand it, invest it, put it to work for them. But it seems to me that poor people spend a lot more time thinking about money, precisely because they have so little of it; managing every penny is critically important. Poverty is not bliss – which is why people struggle so hard to escape it. They are not idiots fooled by Madison Avenue advertising executives: they're poor, and they know that's no fun.

Doug: That's right. As you know, I've pointed out in all my books that the key to accumulating wealth is to pay attention to these very things. Produce more than you consume, so you have money to invest in creating more wealth. Maybe the Calvinists were on to something, with their notion that visible wealth was a sign of inward grace – they figured God must think you're doing something right if he rewarded you with wealth.

That brings my mind back to Scrooge, not Dickens' Scrooge, but Uncle Scrooge, who, in my view, is a totally sound character.

L: [Laughs] I'm familiar with Scrooge McDuck, but not all of our readers might be, so perhaps you should fill them in on the Disney reference.

Doug: Donald Duck is better known, but he had three nephews and a phenomenally wealthy uncle of his own, named Scrooge McDuck. Uncle Scrooge is one of the great heroes of Western literature. He's a miser, but he's innovative and an adventurer, with a very good heart. That's shown in all of the stories about him – he didn't have to be transformed, as Dickens' Scrooge had to be; rather, it was an essential part of his character. I remember one story in which he took Donald and the boys on an adventure to Alaska – he was always taking Donald and the boys on fantastic adventures all around the world – and had to make a choice between saving his sled dog, Barko, and saving the sled, which had a treasure on it. He chose the dog, which was typical of him.

This is a positive image, one I wish were much more celebrated than Dickens' caricature.

L: [Chuckles] And he created value. How many jobs did Scrooge McDuck create, feeding families all around the world? He had mines, as I recall, and factories and office buildings – always clean and modern.

Doug: That's exactly right. Scrooge McDuck embodies the true, creative, life-giving spirit of the holiday, if you ask me.

L: [Laughs] You don't have children – do you actually deck the halls?

Doug: Well, I'll be in Buenos Aires this time, and it's a bit odd to decorate a tree with tinsel or fake snow in the middle of South American summer, but sure, I'll get a tree – why not?

L: So, when people sneer at you for being a rich Scrooge, your reply, with pride, is: "Yes, but Scrooge McDuck!"

Doug: Right. The right Scrooge, the sound one, is my model.

L: And, in a way, that's exactly what we strive to help people achieve in their own lives, through our newsletters. The Casey Report sets out the sound philosophical and economic basis for everything, plus investment ideas. The energy, technology, and metals letters offer even more specific guidance for accumulating McDuck-like wealth. We're the Scrooge Academy.

Doug: The more the merrier.

L: Okay then – that's what I'm giving thanks for this year: Scrooge Academy.

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Doug Casey and his fellow editors of The Casey Report have one common goal: to analyze and reveal the machinations of the political-economic engine and help subscribers seize the profit opportunities that arise from them. Even in times of crisis such as those we're currently in, smart investors can make money. Read more here.