Fool.com: It's a Wonderful Life (Fool on the Hill) December 23, 1999

FOOL ON THE HILL
An Investment Opinion

It's a Wonderful Life

By Bill Barker (TMF Max)
December 23, 1999

My wife had our first child late last night, which, all things considered, went pretty smoothly. She might beg to differ with that description, but I'm pretty sure that she's still on some powerful painkillers at the moment, and by the time she is coherent enough to be alerted to my descriptions of the occasion as "pretty smooth," I trust all will be forgiven. We shall see.

Because of the timing of all this, we decided a little while ago that nothing we might buy from a store would be able to improve on the Christmas we would be celebrating. So we agreed to take the money we otherwise would have spent on presents for each other and give it to the charities in the Foolanthropy drive. Alternatively, one might say this was simply a way to disguise as altruism my total lack of a decent idea for a present -- a charge that I will neither confirm nor deny. Anyway, I'm flagrantly and unapologetically going to use the space I have left here today to make the case for why others might also think about giving to the Foolanthropy charities -- even if it's too late for some of you to use a donation as leverage to get out of any Christmas shopping.

Careful study of annual technical analysis charts going back at least two hundred years reveals that charity appeals work much better at this time of the year than any other -- so obviously I'm engaging in a little bit of market-timing by writing this right before Christmas. But there's fundamental analysis to be done, too. Let's look at the three most popular secular Christmas tales in our society -- Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life -- and see what popular culture reveals the expected return on investment for Christmastime charity is.

The Grinch

To be honest, the Grinch never quite gets around to any true charitable contributions. True, he does return the gifts, trees, and bread crumbs to the Whos -- but since he stole them in the first place, we can't go overboard in crediting him in the charity column. What we really see in the final scene development of the Grinch is his willingness to entertain the idea that Christmas, just maybe, perhaps, "means a little bit more" than the accumulation of material goods. Mulling over this simple idea results in a serious return on investment, whereby his heart grows three sizes, and (in the cartoon version, though not in the text of the book) he gains the strength of ten grinches. Plus two.

The Grinch returns down to Whoville and is welcomed into their community, even garnering the honor of carving the rare Who roast beast. On the whole, I would say that the Grinch gets a pretty decent return on his investment here -- inclusion in the community, SuperGrinch strength, increased pulmonary capacity -- considering that he does virtually nothing beyond return some stolen goods and open his mind up to the possibility that material wealth is not the most important thing in the world.

Scrooge

Scrooge does engage in charity at the end of the novella, though by no means an extravagant amount. Specifically, he provides Bob Cratchit with no more than a Christmas turkey, and on the day after Christmas (Boxing Day?) gives Bob a raise. Also, he agrees to attend Christmas dinner with his nephew, which doesn't seem to be to be too much of a sacrifice -- depending, of course, on the type of company his nephew and family were.

For this, and it really doesn't seem to be all that much, we discover that Scrooge is welcomed back into a community that was willing previously to spurn him and his miserliness. We find out in the denouement that the simple raise to Mr. Cratchit translates into the provision of health care for Tiny Tim, enough to provide a full and happy life for one who otherwise would have died. We are not given details as to how well Scrooge's funeral (so bleakly prognosticated by the Ghost of Christmas Future) is attended, but we are informed that he becomes much loved in the community, so we suspect his passing is noted with sadness. As with the Grinch, the return on some comparatively meager charity is the acceptance back into the community for Scrooge.

Bedford Falls

In the climax to It's A Wonderful Life, the community of Bedford Falls assembles in George Bailey's house and the members of the community gleefully and unthinkingly empty their pockets into the collection for Jimmy Stewart. A telegram comes in from Sam "Hee-Haw" Wainwright, an individual who has made it big by getting in on the ground floor of "the biggest thing since radio." George and, it is assumed, the rest of Bedford Falls failed to get in on that investment.

As the telegram is read, promising to forward up to $25,000 to George (the amount needed to get out of trouble is only $8,000), the crowd goes wild. Importantly, even though the contribution of Mr. Wainwright on its own is more than enough, the townspeople do not seek their own contributions back, they actually continue to give. The comparatively poor folk, individuals who, we are told, literally would have no roof over their heads but for George Bailey, do not become free riders on the gift of the richer man -- they make sure that they are part of the community by giving significantly of their own money. George Bailey, the individual who at this point we know is the central figure in the community, is declared by his younger brother to be the richest man in town -- a moment which is usually punctuated by the attempt and failure of most viewers to hold back their tears.

The tangible return on investment of the Bedford Falls community as seen in the movie is pretty small -- they get some wine, and an opportunity to sing a couple of Christmas carols. But what they really get, we assume, is the knowledge and more than the knowledge, the emotion, that they live in a connected community.

Foolanthropy

It's an amazing time -- a time of unprecedented wealth, and wealth that in many cases has been acquired more easily than wealth has ever been acquired. It's a time when many, like Sam Wainwright, are sitting on money gained from being in on the biggest thing since radio, and are in a position to do something with the money -- something like save lives, or less dramatically, become involved in improving their communities.

It is a time of many, many Tiny Tims. Given the increased world population and the improved abilities of medical care, there are probably more ill but treatable or curable children than ever before. It is a time, as it always has been, and always will be, of Grinches and Scrooges. Both the before and after versions.

Christmas charity is not, or at least should not be, about assuaging guilt -- but is instead one of the year's great opportunities to (re)connect with community. There are certainly a lot of Sam Wainwrights out there able to give extreme amounts, but there are many more of us who are not in his league, yet who are still able to strengthen our communities through comparatively modest giving. That is hopefully something worth thinking about, while we stare, mystified, at the returns of the market, still trying to believe this all could have happened so fast, and so easily.

I've got to get back to my family now, as I'm sure you do, too. If you've got a few moments and haven't already, check out what we're doing in Foolanthropy, and have yourselves a merry Christmas.