The good King Guden ruled wisely and well in the land of Cornucopia. He always, always wanted to do the Right Thing, and was a man of profound principles.
One day, king’s advisors came to him with a problem.
“O Sire,” they said. “There are people starving and homeless, begging in the streets of your cities.”
“What people? How is this possible, when we have so much?” The king wrung his hands and paced the oval chamber.
“Old people, Sire. They were foolish and didn’t put aside money for when they were old, so now they starve, and go without shelter.”
“Why are their children not taking care of them?”
“Many of the children have moved away to work in the factories, building marvelous devices to enrich us all,” the advisors said. “They have neither time, nor desire to care for their parents.”
“I know what to do!” cried King Guden. “We will place a tax on these children, a small amount that they will hardly notice. We’ll put this money in a special room of the treasury and appoint a guardian to watch over it. This treasure will multiply until these workers are too old to be productive, whereupon my guardians will dole out the treasure in a monthly stipend so that they may neither starve, nor go without a home.”
And the advisors nodded and decided the king was very wise, indeed.
“Many of the elders grow sick from disease,” one of the advisors, whose name was Berol, said. “And healers are expensive. How will this stipend provide for their health?”
The King thought for a long moment, stroking his chin. “I have it! We will enact another small tax upon the workers, and this money will go to pay healers for their care of the elderly.”
“But Your Majesty,” said the advisor, “everyone knows healers charge exorbitant fees, and are licentious and greedy. How will we know they are charging accurate fees?”
“Ah, that one is easy,” said another of the king’s men. “We will say exactly how much they may charge for treatment, and pay not a farthing more.”
All the wise men in the room nodded. This made perfect sense.
And so it was passed into law and, as is the way of such things, took on more administrative burden than king first imagined. Someone had to collect the tax, police the tax, account for the tax and justly apportion the tax. It came to pass in the next many years that the king’s guardian of the Old People Saving System grew from one small group to a thriving bureau, employing thousands of people. The people, realizing they no longer had to worry about setting aside money and handling that difficult chore themselves, could rely on the king and his band of faithful guardians to insure their future comfort.
The few malcontents in the kingdom who wanted no part of this system were quickly silenced, not only by the OPSS Enforcement Bureau, but by the elderly, who feared losing their meager dole.
Many years passed in the land of Cornucopia, and there were ups and downs, as there are in all kingdoms, but by-and-large the citizens of this land were more prosperous than many of their neighboring kingdoms.
It was this very prosperity that troubled many kind-hearted advisors to King Guden. At a formal audience, the advisors told the king, “O Sire, there are people starving in the street, and going homeless, right here in Cornucopia.”
“Surely not Cornucopia,” cried the king. “You must mean one of those far off lands where they know not how to grow wheat. Those places where we sent the Soldiers of Tranquility to teach them to fish, and bathe, and drink Coca-Cola.”
“Nay, Sire, right here in this land, people go hungry. They fail again and again to take advantage of their free education and instead wallow in poverty.”
“That’s awful. Something must be done. We have to do the Right Thing!”
“Perhaps . . .” said Berol, who had become somewhat wealthy in the last few years, helping to administer the OPSS. He kept his face mild and demeanor subservient. “Perhaps we could do something like we did for the old people. Add a small tax to the people and feed all the hungry, and give them homes.”
“Outstanding idea!” commended the other advisors.
“No, wait,” said the king.
“Horrible idea!” decried the other advisors.
“No, I like the idea, but I’m not sure the people would be happy with another tax, especially to pay for those who are foolish, indolent, or lazy.”
“But, Sire,” Berol advised, “these aren’t the indolent. These are people who have fallen on hard times, through no fault of their own. And we would pay them only for a short while, until they got back on their feet, so to speak.”
“We need a catchy phrase,” an advisor named Topp chimed in. “Ah, maybe . . . the Assault on Poorness!”
“Excellent,” said the king. “Make it so.”
And the advisors all nodded wisely, went forth and began the Assault on Poorness. Berol took the prominent lead, for he knew he could grow even richer in power and influence if he gave people money from the king’s treasury. It had happened with the Old People Saving System, and he saw how easily it would work with the Assault on Poorness.
A period of great wealth came to the kingdom. Even with the AoP and the OPSS bureaucracies having grown at an exponential rate, the king’s treasury was stuffed.
Berol had grown influential and powerful, controlling huge segments of the population who benefited from his stewardship of the treasury. Every month, Berol whispered in King Guden’s ear with a voice so seductively reasonable, the king agreed that Something Must be Done.
“O Sire, our people are not smart enough to adequately provide for their own healing . . .”
“O Sire, our communities are incapable of educating our children correctly . . .”
“O Sire, the rotten factory owners are despoiling the land . . .”
“O Sire, the people are too stupid to advance themselves through merit. We must address the imbalance through fiat and require their employers to pay them A Living Wage . . .”
“O Sire, some people have been foolish in their use of weapons. We cannot allow this to stand . . .”
Each time Berol whispered in the king’s ear, he agreed that Something Must be Done. The town criers, who went to schools run by Berol’s sycophants, and agreed with Berol’s philosophy, all cried the same news, that Something Must be Done!
And so it came to pass that Berol became the most powerful of all advisors, aided by Topp and praised by all the town criers. King Guden lost interest in government entirely, preferring his amusements and distractions and refusing to think too deeply about the juggernaut he’d created. He ate fattening foods and dispensed with wearing any clothes, prancing through the palace, playing an out-of-tune violin.
One night, as King Guden caroused, he wandered down a path he’d rarely taken and soon found himself lost. Blundering aimlessly, he came to a chamber wherein sat a little man with a serious demeanor.
“Who art thou?” the king asked, for he often spoke that way while in his cups.
“O Sire, I am called Pat.”
“And why dost thou look so serious, Pat?”
“I’m in charge of your accounting department, Your Majesty, and I’m very sad to have to tell you, the treasury is empty, but for spider webs and mouse droppings.”
“Empty?” King Guden was dismayed. “How can it be empty? My land is more prosperous than any other?”
“It is indeed very prosperous, Your Majesty, and your tax collects winnow a bounty of revenue from the people every year. However your bureaucrats have given it all away, trying to do the right thing.”
“And have they done the right thing?” the king demanded. “Have they provided all the people with an adequate retirement?”
“Have they lifted people from poverty?”
“Are our children not better educated?”
“Have the rotten factory owners stopped despoiling the land?”
“Don’t all my people make A Living Wage?”
“And haven’t people stopped using weapons foolishly?”
“Well then,” King Guden thundered. “Something Must be Done!”
The next day, the king called together all his advisors and explained the treasury was bare, and yet none of the taxes or policies they’d enacted had done what was originally intended.
“We must stop spending all this money!” The king banged the table for emphasis, frightening some of the advisors.
The sly Berol, having grown powerful enacting and administering those very policies, said, “O Sire, but wait. If you stop sending money to your people, many will be grievously harmed. They will starve, go without education, become ill, and bureaucrats will lose their jobs. We simply cannot end spending. Think of the devastation.”
“But, Berol,” whined the king, already tired of the argument. Banging his fist on the table had taken a lot out of him. “We have no money.”
“That is not a problem, Sire.”
“There are four simple ways we can continue Doing the Right Thing, even though the treasury lay barren as a spinster’s womb.” Berol raised a chubby finger. “One, we can print more money, for what is money beyond symbols on a piece of paper? We print as much as we want and we can give it away like water flows over a dam.”
“Ahhh!” sighed the advisors. They let Berol take the lead, for he was very clever, and good at this sort of thing.
“Two,” another finger went up, “we can increase revenue to the treasury by adding taxes, fees, regulations and outright confiscations. Three, we can borrow from ourselves.”
“Come again,” said King Guden, now picking away one-fingered at a game on his wooden pallet.
“We merely promise to pay our citizens back and we borrow from them – at a very reasonable interest rate, I might add. We’ll call it, uh . . . bonds! As in, they are bonded to us. And four . . .” Here Berol paused, sure this next idea would enrage King Guden. He took the plunge anyway. “And four, we can borrow from the Chimunists.”
“The Chimunists hate us,” blurted one advisor.
“Yeah, what about that, Berol?” King Guden yawned. All this economics talk was making him sleepy.
“Well, sure,” said the sly Berol. “But since they have a totalitarian rule, and their people live in fear and poverty, they can dictate wages, profits and taxes.”
“Wait,” said Advisor Phox. “Don’t we do that, too?”
“No, you ninny, it’s completely different,” Berol snarled. “Now shut up. The Chimunists utter control of their economy allows them to have excess cash on hand, ready for loaning. We can borrow as much as we want, and continue to provide all the Right Things for our people.”
“You know,” the king said, fighting a yawn. “That sounds like a great plan, Berol. I’m putting you in charge of all that silly money nonsense. Take care of it, would you?” King Guden pushed out of his chair and turned away. “I’m going to take a nap. Wake me when everything’s fixed.”