Wednesday, March 12, 2014

“The Freedom to Succeed Goes Hand in Hand with the Freedom to Fail.”

There is a reason I re-read books: What may be insignificant or glossed over the first, or third, or seventh time, may take on immense importance the next time the book is read.

Take, for example, this quote from Terry Pratchett’s “Going Postal”

“The freedom to succeed goes hand in hand with the freedom to fail.” That’s something said by Lord Havelock Vetinari, tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, referring to the failure and pending government takeover of the Grand Trunk, Ankh-Morpork’s metaphor of the Internet. The communication service, he points out, was started by engineers who loved code and machinery, but did not have the business sense to run it – so it was taken over by those with enough business sense to buy it with its own money and turn it into a cash cow at the expense of its employees and the business itself.

Says the message from the dead, put into the Trunk by the Smoking GNU and Moist von Lipwig, postmaster to cover the veneer of his past criminality: “There was no safety. There was no pride. All there was was money. Everything became money, and money became everything. Money treated us as if we were things, and we died.”

Employ a crook to catch a crook is the message of Going Postal. And everyone in the book is a crook, from the aforementioned Vetinari, tyrant – benevolent at times, yes, but never afraid to weild his tyranny when necessary. And von Lipwig, former criminal persuaded to use his crookedness for the good by the tyrant, for fear of death, for fear of the golem Mr. Pump. Both going after the grafter and swindler Reacher Gilt, who bought the Grand Trunk with its own money, and who aims to drive it into the ground so he can buy it again at a bargain price.

All three have something in common: All three know what they are, tyrant and criminal. But only two of them – Vetinari and von Lipwig – use their skills, by habit or by force of habit, for the common good. Vetinari wishes the city to take over the Grand Trunk; von Lipwig wants it given back to the engineers who started it, in the hopes they can fix it. And it appears that might happen. Or not.

Are businesses too big to fail? Going Postal sends mixed messages on that front – and that’s probably close to the truth. Says Lord Vetinari of the Grand Trunk: “The question of ownership will remain in abeyance for now, until we have plumbed the sordid depths of this affair. But what I truly meant was that a great many people depend on the Trunk for their living. Out of sheer humanitarian considerations, we must do something. Sort things out, Postmaster.”

And he doesn’t mean the employees of the Trunk. He means those who depend on its fast communication to get their jobs done.

And what of the banks that Gilt fleeced as he convinced them they’d become rich beyond the dreams of avarice as he bled the Trunk dry? Going Postal says this:

It wasn’t until dawn that the somber men arrived. They were older and fatter and better – but not showily, never showily – dressed, and moved with the gravity of serious money. They were financiers too, richer than kings (who are often quite poor), but hardly anyone in the city outside their circle knew them or would notice them in the street. They spoke quietly to Cheeseborough as to one who suffered a bereavement, and then talked among themselves, and used little gold propelling pencils in neat little notebooks to make figures dance and jump through hoops. Then quiet agreement was reached and hands were shaken, which in this circle carried infinitely more weight than any written contract. The first domino had been steadied. The pillars of the world ceased to tremble. The Credit Bank would open in the morning, and when it did so, bills would be honored, wages would be paid, the city would be fed.

But all is not rosy, as the fantasy continues:

They’d saved the city with gold more easily, at that point, than any hero could have managed with steel. But, in truth, it had not exactly been gold, or even the promise of gold, but more like the fantasy of gold, the fairy dream that the gold is there, at the end of the rainbow, and will continue to be there forever – provided, naturally, that you don’t go and look.

This is known as Finance.

So the illusion of money is there to support the world, rather than having the world fall on its ear. Yes, there are parallels to our most recent crises. With one exception: Nobody, as yet, has paid the price. Pratchett continues:

On the way back home to a simple breakfast, one of them dropped by the Guild of Assassins to pay his respects to his old friend Lord Downey, during which visit current affairs were only lightly touched upon. And Reacher Gilt, wherever he had gone, was now certainly the worst insurance risk in the world. The people who guard the rainbow don’t’ like those who get in the way of the sun.

Aye, there’s the rub. Who has paid the price? None of the folks standing in the way of the sun, but rather those who saw the eclipse and feared its portents.

So it pays to re-read books. You never know what you’ll find the next time round.

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