Once Upon a Time
Wednesday, 25 July 2012
Once upon a time, long, long ago, lived an emperor. Like all emperors, he had his very own spiffy little kingdom. It was the week before the emperor’s birthday, and to honour the occasion he was having a new set of clothes made. The tailors of the kingdom had been brought together and asked to spare no expense in producing the finest of fine cloths. The tailor that produced the best cloth would receive a fine reward from the emperor.
There were two tailors amongst the group that afterwards everybody agreed they had never seen before and nodded their heads that yes, they did suspect there was something fishy about those two tailors but they didn’t want to say anything at the time. These two tailors won the emperor’s birthday clothing contract. The head tailor’s smooth marketing talk had sold the emperor from the start.
“Sire,” he had bowed low, with an excellent flourish that concealed the glint in his eye. “As you know, the tailors of your kingdom produce cloth and garments of the highest calibre in all of the world; their artistry is beyond compare.
“However, Your Highness, my partner and I have a cloth to offer Your Highness that will surpass even the best cloths of this kingdom. You see, it is a very special cloth, sire. Not only will the emperor’s new apparel be of the most fashionable fit and breathtaking colour, but the cloth is a magical cloth. With it your Majesty will be able to tell who of his kingdom is wise, and who is but a dill. And the magic of the cloth is this – only those who are wise will be able to see it at all!”
The emperor had been astounded at such a thought. His brain had begun ticking at the prospects such a magical cloth could bring. That Minister of Finance who proved so stupid last year and who lost the kingdom so much money? Why, the emperor would have seen that coming before it happened! This cloth was expensive, but surely it would reap its own benefits many times over before the year was out. The wealth of the emperor’s kingdom would increase tenfold when this cloth was exported to every other kingdom. Then the emperor’s kingdom would be secure like never before.
When the emperor had been brought in for his first fitting his expectations were high. He couldn’t wait to see the amazing silk the two tailors had been gushing about. The thread was of the finest count ever, its colour of a teal so sublime that it was both deep and subtle at the same time. They’d want to be – these duds were costing him a fortune. A slight twinge of nervousness had accompanied him. He had felt it running its questions up and down his spine – what if he himself, the emperor, could not see the cloth? But he shook it off. After all, he was the emperor – it was a given that he was wise! The two tailors had come before him, carrying with care the bolt of cloth for his perusal.
If he had been in a cartoon, the emperor would have shook his head to resituate his eye sockets. Instead he blinked several times. When he opened his eyes, there were his two weavers before him, beaming and holding the magical cloth to best effect to catch the light coming through the windows, and which was ... completely invisible. The head weaver picked a piece of invisible lint off the emperor’s cloth.
The emperor felt himself sweating underneath his current season’s costly garments. What should he do? His mind raced backwards and forwards across the possibilities. And then he shook himself back to the present situation. Whatever this meant, if he was indeed a dill, he would not appear so to a couple of merchants. They would go throughout the emperor’s kingdom before day’s end and everyone would know that their emperor was a moron. And then what would happen to him? Out in the cold (literally – it was snowing out there) while his lascivious son seized his throne.
What could he do? He couldn’t do anything. He must keep this to himself – indeed, he must learn to keep this even from himself. The emperor had shoved his thoughts and fears aside, ordered the delivery of a couple of chocolate éclairs, and donned one of his more extroverted personas. He leapt up and began gushing to the tailors his admiration of the intricate detailing, the fine craftsmanship of his new pants, his jacket, and his outer jacket, all crafted in the finest silk and dyed the most illustrious shade of teal.
All the way down through the kingdom from the top to the bottom began a trickle. It began with the queen, who had been feasting her imagination on the new designs she would have produced using the magical cloth. And so when the emperor came before her after his final fitting, sashaying before her in all his glory, she had to almost physically swallow down the fear and dismay that lodged in her throat and in her gut.
She exclaimed, in a louder voice than usual, how amazing, how beautiful, how absolutely delightful the colour, of the emperor’s new clothes. And so down it trickled, to the courtiers and the merchants, all the way down to the servants and the beggar who appeared at the palace gates, how amazing this new cloth was which was going to make the kingdom’s fortune, and usher in a golden age of peace, prosperity and prestige. Nobody wished to miss out on such good times. Even more, they did not wish to be thought stupid by those who were so obviously wise.
In the days before the emperor came before his people in his new clothes, the mood in the kingdom visibly deteriorated. Everybody began sweating under their own collars, with the unvoiced fear that they would turn out to be a dullard in a town full of Rhodes scholars. They began doubting their own ability to see. Their care for their neighbours began to wane as everybody became enveloped in their own fear and began sweating in the juices of their own paranoia.
By the day of the emperor’s birthday, he had pretty much convinced himself that he really could see his beautiful finery. He paraded in front of his mirror, ignoring his appendage floating on the breeze and the cold air on his bum cheeks. He admired the tiny pearls sewn with such finesse all the way down the front of his jacket, and how the long tail of his coat swished out behind him when he turned smartly on his heel.
The day outside was unseasonably sunny for winter. The snow had melted on the counterpanes and the emperor decided to take a turn through his kingdom so that everybody could share in the regality of the occasion of his birthday, and the stunning attire that was going to be the making of them all.
Out into the streets he sauntered. If the emperor noticed that the people outside registered a shock of disbelief followed by a paling of their complexions, immediately followed by a quick plastering-over of joy, he did not let himself notice. His constituents began to crowd around him, some resisting the urge to reach out to finger the beautiful fine silk of his garments, admiring the way the fabric fell around him as he walked through them. The emperor’s saunter turned into a swagger.
As he walked through his kingdom the king was greeted with effusive, excessive greetings, followed in his wake by silence. He felt like a wave flowing through his own ocean, leaving admiration and awe in his wake. Twice around the fountain in the town centre the emperor walked, until there was a break in the crowd and there before him stood a woman, with her young son.
The little boy was four. He had not yet gained the social self-consciousness that comes with age. The little boy just saw it all as it was. And so it was that he saw the emperor, pointed his finger and said in a loud voice that carried across the suddenly-descended silence and through the sunny winter air, “Mummy, why is that man not wearing any clothes?”
And just like that the spell was broken. The emperor ran, red-faced and humbled, back to his palace, where he banished the two swindling tailors from his kingdom, and put his old clothes on in preparation for the evening’s birthday celebrations.
~ * ~
Fairy tales are much more interesting than AAA ratings, inflation and the economy. Australia’s current rude economic health was a party trumpet that Julia Gillard enjoyed blowing at the recent Rio +20 conference. An applaudable feat of fiscal management in recent years, along with a bunch of giant holes that China keeps desiring the contents of, has seen Australia sail pretty steadily through the storm of the global financial crisis. The economy is as regular a conversational topic in Australian politics and media as the news, sport and weather. After all, it is the indicator of how well we’re doing in turbulent, changeable, volatile times ... isn’t it?
But what happens if our ongoing celebration of Australia’s performance in the global economy just ends up being a celebration of being a few rungs higher up on a ladder that is leaning up against the wrong wall? What if all the talk of the beautiful construction of our economy’s buttons, the fine stitching along its side seams, and the way the cut of the bias makes us look so awesome when we swish is all an exercise in denying what is right in front of us?
When it comes to economics, I’m feeling more and more like that little kid holding his mother’s hand. Nobody seems to be talking about it, but from my limited perspective the very structure of the economy as it stands is like a giant, untenable elephant that no one wants to talk about. And so now, whenever the talk turns to the latest economic forecast, this heavy, clotted, surreal feeling settles onto my chest, like that feeling you get as a kid when you suspect the adults are talking fake, and you can see right through it. But you don’t know what you’re seeing right through to because everything is a big adult mystery that you wouldn’t be able to understand even if you had the language for it.
This is what I’ve been able to piece together, bit by bit, about an alien language I do not speak. A mini Economics 101 by someone who never made it past Year 9, but who can see the truth in fairy tales far faster than any that may exist in our current economic model. And it seems to be a stranger tale than any the Grimms ever came up with.
In simplified terms, the reason why our global economy is not sustainable on any front is because it is one that is based on debt. What that means is that every time a piece of money is printed and put into currency, it comes on loan from those who actually own it – in Australia, the Reserve Bank. Every piece of money put into circulation is first borrowed by somebody who must pay that loan back with interest to the people and corporations that make up the Reserve Bank. This is how they earn their profits.
Which means that the more an economy grows, the more its debt grows alongside it. And the economy must keep growing, to pay back the interest on the money it has borrowed from the banks. If the economy stops growing, it falls into recession and we lose our jobs.
And it means that every time a struggling European country is bailed out with more money, they are also being put into more debt.
Even though I only finished Year 9, this is simple enough for me to work out. It becomes more complex when you talk about the way the economy links in to unemployment, but even I can see that this debt-based system is not a win-win situation for us, or for the environment, or anybody except for the banks who make the profits. Even I can see that this is simply another version of kings and subjects, where a small concentration of the powerful gain at the expense of those who lose. And what is at stake is the loss of everything.
Out in the real world, away from computer spreadsheets, an ideology of continuous economic growth turns us – the subjects of the kingdom – into vultures in the way we view the planet we live on and its resources. And each other. The earth – and us – become as flatpacked as that spreadsheet. Except that there is no column on the spreadsheet for what is important and beautiful, nor is there a column for meaning, nor a column for continuity, nor a column that factors in irreplaceability costs, nor one for climate change. It is a spreadsheet with a virus. All of the things that give us meaning are pushed aside as fuel for that particular machine to run.
When you consider that this particular way of operating economically is not necessary – it’s just how it’s turned out since the beginning of last century, being operated as it is from the top down by the 1% that the Occupy movement was complaining about –turning aside to do things differently becomes a matter not only of necessity, but one of vision. Like that episode in The Simpsons where all the advertising creatures come to life and took over the town, perhaps it’s simply time to look away and find other ways to do it.
Which is exactly what some are beginning to do. Online portals such as Community Exchange (www.community-exchange.org) have invented a new form of currency to practice “a new way of doing money” sans interest, and voices such as Charles Eisenstein (www.sacred-economics.com) encourage us to think about new ways of doing money ... which turn out to be old ways. Sacred religious texts from Judaism and Islam both warn against the destructive practice of charging interest. And this is where we find ourselves. This is not left and right political views. It’s about our future. We must find a different way. We have no other choice.