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What St. Nicholas Taught Me

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Today is St. Nicholas Day. He has a special place in my life. At the time, I thought it was really him, so what he said to me had a big impact.

In our house, St. Nick was a living presence. He's the subject of a remarkably large number of legends, patron saint of sailors, children, merchants, scholars, Greeks, Russians, people unjustly accused... and of New York City, ever since it was Nieuw Amsterdam. Our other claim on St. Nick is that a New Yorker wrote the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," which created the modern jolly Santa Claus.

My Dutch-born mother used to play the part of St. Nick every year on December 6 and she wasn't jolly about it at all. St. Nick, bishop's crook in hand and miter on top of his head, quizzed each of us six children and our visiting companions in great detail. It was marvelous and flattering to me that this busy saint from Turkey seemed to know so much about us. This made it all the more poignant when he asked whether we had been good or bad. Very weighty questions, it seemed to me, not like the ho-ho-ho department-store santas.

I was reminded of this serious St. Nick by Ben Stein's widely discussed opinion piece in Sunday's NY Times, "The Long and Short of It at Goldman Sachs". Stein asks right-or-wrong questions about Goldman's selling packages of mortgage securities at one window while traders were short-selling mortgage indexes at another. Whatever the merits of the particular issues Stein raises, I think the question he asks is a fair one. Doesn't the enormous power of our financial institutions require that they make their decisions with an eye to the long-term consequences of their decisions? Using the Equator Principles to introduce environmental issues into the lending process, for example, is a step in this direction.

My mother wrote about this very subject 50 years ago. Here's an excerpt (I hear St. Nick's voice in every sentence):

CONSCIENCE AND MONEY, by Hilda van Stockum (December 6, 1957)

It strikes me that the whole area of finance has imperceptibly crept outside the boundaries of moral awareness. People tend to think in terms of profit and loss, not in terms of good and evil. Yet nowhere is ethical consideration so necessary.

I was looking at a television program for children one Saturday morning, and I was struck by the bad quality of the program itself, full of improbable bad guys and improbable good guys, much too exciting and violent. Ten minutes were devoted to a lighting of a dynamite fuse about to blow up a sleeping boy in a cave, before the galloping horse was allowed to come to the rescue. It was interlarded with drooling appeals to children to ask their mommies to buy them succulent lollipops or chocolate bars or ice cream cones, while some smug child was licking at the aforementioned article with tempting expressions of pleasure.

The thought that came into my mind was: "This is not fair!" I saw the harassed housewife, trying to make ends meet and keep her children away from the dentist or doctor, besieged by the little horrors with cries of "Ah mom, give me a sucker or chocolate," and finally succumbing from sheer weariness, to the detriment of her purse and her child's health. I felt it was hitting below the belt to address the modern barrage of advertising to little children, the most suggestible creatures in the world, without the sense to resist. There is a strong mother instinct that wants to make children happy, but should this be exploited for the purpose of financial gain?

Yet many people, when I talk about this, say: "I don't see what morals have to do with it. It is good business." Now I do not deny that business is a good thing. But how can it remain a good thing without morals? Is it really irrelevant HOW we spend or earn money? Irresponsibility usually leads to chaos, and then order has to be brought in by force. I think it would be to the advantage of businessmen and housewives alike, if they gave a thought to the moral side of money. If we appeal always to the weaknesses and vices of the public in our advertisements, we are necessarily going to increase these weaknesses and vices.

This is a very complex and difficult question. What one person considers good and necessary, may be despised by another. But perhaps some day the irresponsible use of money will seem as strange and outdated to us as slavery seems now, and we will have learned to restrain our profit-making to what is legitimate and generally beneficial.