3/19/2014

Everything I Know About Wealth I Learned From Uncle Scrooge

The cover of "Uncle Scrooge" #19, drawn by
Carl Barks and published in September 1957.
A billionaire’s recent inane fretting about being an oversized target for radical progressives out to separate him from his immense wealth reminded me of a comic book character I loved when I was growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Walt Disney comic “Uncle Scrooge” featured the adventures of Scrooge McDuck, the world’s richest duck. The character was created by Carl Barks, an artist who developed his remarkable talent – and maybe his elaborate fantasies about great wealth – in his spare time while working a series of menial, low-paying jobs. And while he presumably made a living during the time he worked for Disney, he never approached the kind of wealth that he imagined for Uncle Scrooge.

When I was eight or nine years old, I couldn’t wait to get the latest “Uncle Scrooge” comic. And I was far from alone. Although Disney had a stable of artists drawing Uncle Scrooge and other “duck” comics, Barks’s work made him a cult figure among young Baby Boomers who were just starting to read. His fascinating, well-researched stories and drawings full of detail and texture were immediately distinguishable from other Disney artists’ depictions of the same characters.

Barks’s humble jobs and his struggles to make an honest dollar undoubtedly influenced his characterization of Scrooge McDuck and shaped the wonderful stories he told of Scrooge’s adventures. But the work of all artists went out under Walt Disney’s stylized signature. So he was anonymous to his young Boomer fans, who referred to him simply as “the good artist.” They didn’t know who he was until late in his life after he’d retired and the Boomers, now grown, started spending big bucks to reacquire the comics their mothers had thrown out when they were kids.

Barks created a fascinating character who was obsessed with his wealth and had a personal attachment to every dollar he’d ever earned. Scrooge had lucrative business interests around the world and lived in a giant cube-shaped piggybank known as the Money Bin. It contained three cubic acres of cash, including the first dime he ever earned.

In one episode, Scrooge said it took him 13 years to count all the money in the Money Bin, which sat atop a hill overlooking the city of Duckburg, in the state of Calisota. In another episode, his wealth was expressed as a five, followed by 77 zeroes.

Scrooge wasn't interested in using his mountain of cash for pleasure or power. His motivation for accumulating such vast wealth was simply to prove he was a better man or duck -- than his competitors. He had little use for those who made their money off of other people’s money and ideas. In one episode, he is asked if he made his money in banking.

“Banking?” he answered with a snort. “I made it on the seas, and in the mines, and in the cattle wars of the old frontiers. I made it by being tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties. And I made it square.”

Unlike some of today’s uber-wealthy – including the fretful billionaire mentioned earlier – McDuck avoided conspicuous displays of his wealth. He did not own a car, and he refused to buy new clothes or even replace his eyeglasses. And he wouldn’t buy newspapers, preferring to roam public parks looking for copies of yesterday’s papers left behind by less-thrifty Duckburg residents.

The splash-panel for one of the first Uncle Scrooge adventures
drawn by Carl Barks shows Scrooge McDuck pursuing his
favorite pastime. The story was published by Walt Disney
in 1952.
The sole pleasure that Scrooge took from his money was an odd and rather sensual one. For him, life’s greatest delight was diving into his piles of cash like a porpoise, and burrowing into it like a gopher, and tossing up coins and letting them hit him on the head.

Scrooge’s only relatives were his nephew, Donald Duck, who lived in a modest house in Duckburg with his three nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie. Donald and his nephews joined Scrooge for his adventures, and nearly all of the stories consisted of his efforts to either acquire more wealth or prevent it from being stolen, usually by his arch-nemeses, the Beagle Boys.

Although Huey, Dewey and Louie were kids, they were wise beyond their years and inevitably provided the knowledge needed to safeguard Scrooge’s fortune or crack an ancient code or solve an ancient mystery that added more treasure to their great-uncle’s holdings. And they usually obtained that valuable information from an infinite storehouse of the world’s knowledge and history – the Junior Woodchucks’ Guide Book.

But even though Donald and his nephews repeatedly rescued Scrooge from impossible difficulties, saved his vast fortune from being plundered by the Beagle Boys, and helped add immeasurable riches to his Money Bin, he always squawked loudly at having to cough up the pay – 30 cents an hour – he’d promised them for their help.

I read and re-read my “Uncle Scrooge” comics, and so I guess that’s where I formed my earliest impressions of how rich people behave. To me, Scrooge represented American capitalism, and he gave me the impression that somewhere in their souls, rich people were decent folks who would do the right thing for the common good when the time came.

I’m older now, and while I’ve somehow managed to avoid becoming wealthy, I do have a little more sophisticated understanding of how immense wealth sometimes affects human behavior.

Wealth obviously was affecting that billionaire I mentioned earlier. And his comments seem to have prompted other wealthy men to voice their own fears and frustrations about how the world perceives them.

Scrooge also was terrified of losing his money. But this comic book character differed from some of his real-life counterparts in one way – he occasionally showed a social consciousness. There were times during his adventures when he reluctantly realized that the only right thing to do was spend a sizeable amount of money to help someone who needed and deserved help.

Wealthy philanthropists aren’t fantasy characters confined to the pages of comic books, however. Henry Flagler was the son of a poor Presbyterian minister. He became John D. Rockefeller’s business partner at Standard Oil and used his great wealth to essentially invent modern Florida around the turn of the 19th century.

Flagler’s upbringing influenced his world view. “If money is spent for personal uses, to promote idleness, luxury and selfishness, it is a curse to the possessor and to society,” he said in 1907. “Wealth brings obligation, moral and governmental. It has but one legitimate function, and that is its employment for the welfare of the nation.”

Flagler obviously enjoyed his wealth, and unlike Scrooge, he didn’t try to conceal it. Whitehall, his home in Palm Beach, is a 100,000-square-foot, 75-room palace that the New York Herald described in 1902 as “grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world.” It’s also a far cry from the frugal-and-fictional Scrooge McDuck’s plain and utilitarian Money Bin.

Still, Flagler realized that there is such a thing as noblesse oblige. And Scrooge realized that there are times when the only right thing to do was help someone in need, regardless of how painful it was to him.

I’ve got nothing against money, and I do wish I had more of it. I don’t begrudge the wealthy their prosperity. But I do wish more of the most-fortunate had more in common with Henry Flagler, the real-life plutocrat, and Scrooge McDuck, the comic book character.

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