Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Heart of Darkness

The Heart of Darkness
Avid Avarice was feeling very pleased with himself, as he sat in the back of his chauffeur driven limousine, reading the Financial Times. Any observer might have wondered why Avid Avarice was oozing with self-satisfaction. After all, it was only the previous evening that he had paid a cool K250,000 to eat a soggy and tasteless buffet supper at the Dinner of the Drones and Parasites, and spent three hours listening to their vapid but pompous speeches.
But in this strange country of Zed, these Drones and Parasites were the most high and mighty in the land. Hob-knobbing with them was the route to Avid Avarice’s most avid goal – to meet the Godfather, the man whose hand lay behind everything in the land of Zed. To do a deal with the Godfather was the route to undreamed of wealth. But to annoy the Godfather was the route to destruction. So our skinny little Avid Avarice, a new investor from Sindia, was playing for high stakes.
The highlight of the Dinner of the Drones and Parasites was the Auction of the Godfather Lunch. The highest bid would buy a lunch invitation to the GreatMansion of the Godfather.
And so of course it came to pass that Avid Avarice’s limousine was now gliding down the Grand Drive towards the Great Mansion. As his car drew up under the portico, a black suited lackey opened the car door, and ushered Avarice inside, through the beautiful sun-lit mansion, until they came to a dark staircase leading down into the basement. ‘Excuse me,’ said Avarice nervously, ‘aren’t we having lunch up here?’
‘Upstairs,’ grunted the lackey, ‘is only for meetings with ambassadors and donors, but all deals are done in the nightclub downstairs. We call it the Heart of Darkness.’
As his eyes adjusted to the half-light, Avarice saw a large man in dark suit and shades, sitting alone at the end of a dark mahogany table. ‘Mr Avarice, I presume,’ he said in a gruff voice. ‘I’ve been expecting you, please sit down.’
‘Thank you, nice to meet you,’ said Avarice, rather nervously, looking round at the bare table. ‘Er, um, are we having lunch upstairs?’
‘Lunch?’ sneered the Godfather. ‘Did you imagine that I was going to give you lunch? No, that’s not the way it works. I’m here to see what you’ve brought to the table!’
‘Well, er,’ began Avarice, ‘I’ve just come to pay my respects to the Great Godfather.’
‘I like the word pay,’ said the Godfather, now seeming more friendly. ‘A business can easily collapse if it doesn’t pay for protection.’ He snapped his fingers, and out of the darkness appeared a beautiful young waitress, wearing only a small grass skirt and a pair of high heels. ‘A recent gift from Swaziland,’ explained the Godfather.
‘A very beautiful pair of, er, erum, ah, pair of high heels,’ stuttered Avarice.
‘Beauty,’ ordered the Godfather, ‘bring us a double Blue Label and a double gin and tonic.’
‘If you’re going to make good profit,’ continued the Godfather, ‘you have to keep your costs down.’
‘Exactly,’ said Avarice. ‘It’s just the same in Sindia.’
‘Demands for higher wages can ruin the business. But on the other hand it’s expensive to buy the union leaders, or to employ the police to put down a strike and arrest the agitators.’
As he was speaking, Beauty returned and put the whisky in front of the Godfather. Then she took a gulp from the gin and tonic, and promptly sat down on Avarice’s lap, entwined her arms around him, and inserted her tongue into his ear.
‘Your Exploitation Copper Mine,’ continued the Godfather, apparently oblivious of Avarice’s predicament, ‘could easily become unprofitable if the mine inspectors demanded proper ventilation or protective clothing.’
‘Ah, ah, yes,’ spluttered Avarice, as he struggled to partially disengage himself from Beauty, ‘She’s a very friendly girl. Protective clothing would just get in the way of doing the job.’
‘And of course, in addition to the enabling environment, I can ensure that you will have easy entry wherever you go.’
‘I don’t know what to say,’ panted Avarice, gasping for breath, ‘I’m a bit weighed down by the occasion.
‘Better if you sit on her lap,’ advised the Godfather. ‘She’s a big girl for a little squirt like you.’
‘So this enabling environment,’ gulped Avarice. ‘Is that all I get for my 500 million I paid?’
‘The five hundred million was just to get here,’ said the Godfather sternly. ‘For my protection you have to put 50% of the shares in my name.’
‘What!’ squealed Avarice. ‘Why should I do that?’
‘Because, if you do, I shall give you first option on all the new mines to be opened.’
‘But suppose I get arrested, you know, for destroying the environment, poisoning the river, killing the workers, or some false accusation like that.’
‘Don’t worry. With this sort of money we can get nolle prosequis, or acquittals, rely on bent judges, and so on.’
‘Even buy judges?’
‘Judges here have low salaries, they can be bought quite cheap.’
‘OK,’ said Avarice, ‘It’s a deal. Provided I can also have Beauty.’
‘Of course,’ said the Godfather, as they shook hands, ‘you can eat her for lunch. Just be careful she doesn’t eat you.’
‘Just as a point of interest,’ said Avarice, as Beauty picked him up and made for the stairs. ‘What do you do with all the money?’
‘Half of it goes to new schools and clinics,’ he said proudly.
‘And what about the other half?’ said Avarice suspiciously.
‘The other half,’ replied the Godfather, ‘is devoted to the fight against corruption.’

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Godfather

The Godfather
‘What’s showing on TVZ tonight?’ I asked.
‘The Godfather,’ replied Sara.
‘That film,’ I said. ‘must be about forty years old.’
‘Quite recent,’ said Sara. ‘TVZ is trying to modernize.’
Sure enough, when the titles came up, there was The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Copolla, starring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino.
And there was the famous opening scene. A busy city street, along which comes a speeding black limousine, coming to a screeching halt outside the Laundry Bank. Out jump eight men all wearing black suits and dark glasses, wielding machine guns as they dash into the bank, with people scattering in all directions.
Inside the bank customers and tellers hit the floor as alarm bells start to ring. ‘Carry on as normal,’ shouts the leader of the gang, ‘we’re not going to interfere with business operations!’
Up to the next floor they dash, as managers and their secretaries now hit the floor. ‘Carry on as normal,’ repeats the leader, ‘we’re not here to frighten you, we’re here to protect you from thieves and gangsters.’
And so this sequence is repeated at each successive floor of ascending authority, until they finally burst into the huge penthouse office of the Chairman, the crafty little Razor Mataki, who is found lying on a sheepskin rug, where his personal secretary is attending to his personal needs.
‘I presume you’ve brought an invitation for me to meet the Godfather,’ squeaks Mataki bravely, as he is simultaneously bound, blindfolded and bundled out of the building, into the limousine.
Now we move to the huge subterranean bar and nightclub which form the basement of the Godfather’s mansion, the infamous Plot Zero. At a large mahogany table presides the huge flabby Godfather, impassively chomping on a cigar and nursing a bourbon, as Mataki is plonked in front of him, and the blindfold removed.
‘The Godfather extended his hand as if in greeting, and then squeezed Mataki’s hand until he squealed. ‘Haven’t we met before?’ he asked, in a friendly tone.
‘I don’t think so,’ Mataki whimpered.
‘I remember now,’ said the Godfather with a smile. It was back inMinnesota, about twenty years ago, when you were the local branch manager. I defaulted on a loan, and you foreclosed on my house, leaving me destitute.’
‘Terribly sorry,’ said Mataki, as he rubbed his injured hand.
‘Don’t worry, old chap,’ he said, ‘I’m not the sort of person to bear a grudge.’ He took the bottle of bourbon, and filled a glass. ‘Here, have a drink!’
‘I don’t drink,’ replied the plucky little Mataki.
‘It’s all the same to me,’ replied the Godfather graciously, as he looked round at the heavies surrounding the table. ‘But these gentlemen don’t take kindly to people who refuse my hospitality.
‘Now,’ began the Godfather, as Mataki sipped and spluttered. ‘I’ve invited you here for a little business discussion. As the Godfather of the Nation I provide protection to all businesses in the country. But I have been disappointed to find that I don’t seem to have any arrangement with the Laundry Bank…’
‘I should explain that…’ began Mataki, but then felt a gun butt in his butt.
‘Please don’t interrupt me,’ said the Godfather politely. ‘These gentlemen don’t understand any lack of respect for the Godfather of the Nation. As I was saying, I wonder why you haven’t visited me here, and offered me some of the well-known services of the Laundry Bank?’
‘How can I help?’ asked the hapless Mataki.
‘I understand,’ smiled the Godfather. ‘that your bank runs a discreet laundry facility for favoured customers.’
Mataki looked round at the heavies. ‘Yes,’ he replied.
‘Well,’ continued the Godfather, ‘I sometimes receive large donations from friends and admirers, and I need a discreet account for recycling funds into legitimate business.
‘In addition, as commander-in-chief of the National Protection Service, I protect all big business from paying taxes, from paying wage increases, and from experiencing workers protests or strikes. So returns from this side of the business would entail quite large amounts of money being paid into your bank.’
‘I understand,’ said Mataki, venturing another sip of 50% proof.
‘Of course, in return, I expect some consideration. I would require a 20% shareholding in the bank. Secondly, as a major shareholder, I would expect the Board’s favourable consideration of unsecured loans to expand my investments on the London Stock Exchange. Thirdly, I would expect that you would call in all your present loans to any person who has criticized my good work for the nation. Fourthly, I would require information on the accounts of any of my enemies presently using your laundry services, so that these criminals can be prosecuted.’
‘And if I don’t agree?’ said Mataki, as one of the heavies gave him a good clip round the ear.
‘Look,’ said the Godfather, in a kindly voice, ‘you should know that you are already under my protection. Luckily the Chief Inspector of Banks is on my payroll. I have told him that I am protecting your bank, and all is well. But if I were to tell him that all is not well, he could suddenly notice all the things he had previously overlooked.’
‘Poor Mataki,’ said Sara. ‘He’s damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.’
‘It’s bad enough,’ I said, ‘living in a police state. But see what happens if you live in a criminal state.’
‘Terrible,’ said Sara. ‘Let’s hope that never happens here.’

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Mutant

The Mutant
‘Don’t turn off the TV,’ I said, ‘Frank Mubushisha is interviewing Flux Mutant. He’s the one who says that only he can understand windfall tax, the rest of us are too stupid.’
‘He’s talking out of his backside!’ snorted Sara.
‘This evening,’ began Frank, ‘I’m privileged, you know, to be able to interview the Minister for Upside-Down Economics, you know, the Honorable Flux Mutant. Good evening, Honorable Minister.’
‘Good evening viewers,’ replied the Mutant.
‘He looks like a robot,’ Sara complained. ‘His mechanical voice sounds like a computer simulation.’
‘First of all, Mr Minister,’ said Frank, ‘people you know would like to know, you know, why you said, you know, that we’re all too stupid to understand windfall tax.’
‘People think that the windfall tax will make us rich,’ began the computer generated voice of the mutant, but then he stopped himself in mid-sentence. ‘No, I shouldn’t say that people think. People don’t think. People claim, people say, people wish, people dream, but people don’t think.’
‘But you, you know, you can think.’
‘Exactly,’ said the Mutant, in his machine monotone, ‘You know that I know that I can think. I have worked out that if we charge the mines windfall tax, then their profits will drop. Then their share prices and dividends will drop. Then our number of investors will drop. Then our economic growth will drop. Then we shall all be worse off.’
‘He’s talking out his arse,’ declared Sara.
‘But you know,’ said Frank, ‘some people say, you know, that we must tax the mines to provide for schools and hospitals.’
‘Quite the opposite,’ came the continuing flux of words from the Flux Mutant. ‘Mines don’t need schools or hospitals, they just need copper ore. It is people that need schools and hospitals, so they must be the ones to pay for them. This is just simple economics.’
‘Some people say, you know, that this is upside-down economics, you know.’
‘Yes, I know,’ replied the Mutant. ‘But you know that I know that they don’t know, it’s only me that knows, you know.’
‘I know you know,’ said Frank bravely, scratching his bald head. ‘I’m told, you know, that you have even worked out that lower wages increase employment.’
‘Quite correct,’ replied the Machine Mutant. ‘If you pay a man starvation wages then his wife has to grow food to feed the family, and his children have to set up tuntemba to sell produce to earn money to buy their school uniforms. So in the end, all the family are fully employed in economic ventures. This is what we mean by economic empowerment.’
‘But as the country becomes richer, you know,’ said Frank hopefully, ‘money, you know, will begin to trickle down from the rich to the poor.’
‘Quite the opposite,’ continued the monotonous discharge of all-knowing economics. ‘It is only when the workers become poorer that they work harder to earn more wages, and when they worker harder they produce more profit, which makes the country richer.’
‘I am amazed, you know,’ said Frank, ‘at your quite different perspective on economic theory. Let’s go back, you know, to where it all began. Where did it all start, you know? And where were you born, you know? And did you have parents, you know?’
‘I resulted from a computer experiment at Yunza,’ replied the Mutant. ‘My father was Professor of Computer Science and my mother was a computer. Father was trying to get computers to reproduce themselves, to get rid of the need for humans…’
‘So you mean, you know, that you are really a computer?’
‘Not exactly,’ said the mechanical voice. ‘Father accidentally introduced a virus into mother, and she produced a mutant.’
‘I told you,’ screeched Sara, ‘he’s actually a machine!’
‘Half human, half computer?’ asked Frank.
‘No, half virus, half computer,’ replied the Mutant.
‘So this,’ suggested Frank, ‘explains, you know, why you have such, you know, an upside-down view of economics?’
‘Not having a heart enables me to take an objective and dispassionate view of the production of goods and services, without being distracted by the human concerns or emotions that confuse other theorists.’
‘But why is everything so upside-down?’
‘My father the professor, being sick with the virus, wired all the positives and negatives the wrong way round. That’s why I have to sit on my head and talk out of my rear.’
‘I told you!’ shouted Sara, ‘He eats economic theory with his mouth, and upside-down theory discharges continuously out of his arse. No wonder he knows all about windfall tax, it was his wind that blew it away!’
‘And tomorrow,’ said Frank, ‘you’re off to Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize for Upside Down Achievement. Last year Barack Obama won the Upside-Down Peace Prize for waging war in Afghanistan. And this year you’re the winner of the Upside-Down Economics Prize for bringing poverty and starvation to Zed.’
‘I have devoted my life to my country,’ declared the Mutant.
‘What an arsehole,’ said Sara.
‘And the prize, you know,’ said Frank, ‘is worth seventy million dollars, you know. What will you do with all that money?’
‘I shall buy more KCM shares on the London Stock Exchange in order to gain a controlling interest,’ said the Mutant, as a smile finally spread across his smooth mechanical bottom.
‘Then he’ll bring down the wages to increase profits,’ Sara screeched.
‘He may be an arsehole,’ I said, ‘but he’s not stupid.’
[Special thanks to Namukolo Chipola and Patrick Pami for their contributions to the Facebook discussion on backside mutant economics]