Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Diamond Pillar: A Fable

Once upon a time, a group of very wise men built a city underground. They excavated a vast cavern where before, there was nothing but stone, and said, "In this place shall we build Paradise." And they knew that because the city was so deep underground, that at any moment, the pressure of the earth overhead could cause the roof of the city to collapse in and bury its inhabitants, so they reinforced the roof with an enormous diamond pillar, right in the very center of the town square. (They were very clever men who knew how to balance it properly so that it wouldn't crack or shatter under the weight. Don't quibble about details, here.)

And so many came to the city over the years, and the decades, and the centuries, and though some people fought and bickered and grew angry (because they were people, after all) they all lived securely and safely under the earth, with the diamond pillar holding everything upright and stable. Children became parents, parents became grand-parents, the founders of the city passed into history and then into legend, and still the pillar supported their creation.

Until one day, some of the inhabitants of the city said to themselves, "That pillar is made out of pure diamond; surely, nobody will miss it if I chip out a little piece for myself. Even the tiniest little piece of that pillar will make me wealthy beyond my wildest dreams, after all, and I don't see what damage a little chip will do." Because even in a city that was Paradise, some people always wanted more than they had.

And so those people went to others, and said, "Why is it that the greatest part of our wealth should be wasted simply sitting there in the center of town? Surely there are better things it could be used for, aren't there?"

And some people said, "It is not wasted! It holds up the roof over our heads, and keeps the city safe and intact by its very presence! Surely you would not wish for the rock to collapse upon us?"

And they responded, "This city has stood for time immemorial, and it shall always stand, because we are just and great and the people believe in us. I simply cannot imagine that taking away some of that pillar will make that great of a difference." For these were people who had lived all their lives and all their father's fathers' lives in a city where the roof did not collapse, and they could not believe that roofs just fell down all of a sudden. (And they also did not believe in using contractions.)

And some people said, "We think you must be very greedy people, to covet the wealth of this town so."

And they said, "Not at all! We do not simply covet this wealth for ourselves!" (Although they did.) "We simply wish to make sure that everyone gets a share of the value they put into making this city the great place that it is! By taking the diamonds out of the pillar and putting them in your hands, we will give you the freedom to spend that wealth the way you think wisest!" (While all the while, they were dreaming dreams and scheming schemes to cheat and connive the diamonds out of the hands of others, so that they might have them all.)

And the debate went on for a long while, but these men were single-minded in their greed, while others had other concerns. And so every day, they talked and talked and talked about chipping away at the pillar, while every day a few of the others who opposed them gave up or were distracted or were swayed by their agreements or simply grew old and died (for these greedy men were so single-minded that they passed on their greed to their children.) Until eventually, they managed to convince lots of people that yes, their greed was not a vice, but the virtue of "self-interest", and their carelessness was not folly, but "liberty". And so, with some trepidation, they chipped away a bit at the pillar and collected the fragments of diamond.

And nothing happened.

As is not surprising; it was a very, very big pillar, and a very, very small chip. But when nothing happened, people eased their opposition further. After all, one chip meant nothing next to such a big pillar. The roof did not fall. Things seemed to go on as normal, except that the people who got the pieces of diamond became very, very rich. (But somehow, never quite rich enough.)

And so they chipped away again. And again, and again, each time gleeful at the seemingly limitless wealth that the pillar provided and the seeming lack of consequences to their acts. Fewer and fewer people worried about the roof now, and those who did were derided as foolish and "out of touch". Town criers talked about the "new wisdom" of the diamond-cutters, and how they had discovered a "new paradigm" of "leaner, more efficient pillars."

And then one day, one of the greedy men was chipping out another piece of the pillar...and a rock the size of a football cracked loose from the ceiling and crushed his skull like a grape. Suddenly, the whole town was filled with panic. More stones came loose, and soon every townsperson was looking up at the ceiling anxiously every day. In great haste, they called for an architect.

With one look, the architect surmised the problem. "The pillar is no longer strong and stable," he said. "We must return the diamonds we took out, or we will all surely perish." (He was a really good architect who knew how to glue diamonds together really well. Don't quibble about details, here.)

But the remaining greedy men were very, very greedy, and no wiser now than they'd ever been. "This is simply a natural correction in the weight distribution of the roof! It is in no way the result of our diamond mining! These sorts of things have probably happened before, and the roof has survived. We are surely in no danger."

"No," said the architect simply. "We must replace the diamonds, or we will all die." (He stopped using 'perish', because it was too important to mince words now.) Even as he spoke, more chunks fell out of the ceiling, injuring some, killing others.

And the greedy men found an architect of their own, and told him what words to say. He said that he had an alternate plan, one which involved taking more diamonds out of the pillar in a very clever way that would make it sturdier. He said this new plan would make them safer and richer. But some townspeople noticed that the greedy men were slipping a few chips of diamond into his pocket every time he spoke.

They said, "We are tired of being endangered! We see now that you simply wanted diamonds, that you cared nothing for our safety! Even now, you care more about your diamonds than about our lives!"

And the greedy men said, "No! Not at all! This is not about the diamonds!" (Although it was.) "This is not about us!" (Although it was.) "This is about you! Think about it! If he wishes to take diamonds from us, what might he take from you? We must stand together, here, against his unwarranted taxation, or surely he will render us all poor!"

And some agreed with the greedy men...while some wondered what kind of men would rank "poor" as below "dead" in a list of ills...and still others decided it was none of their concern, just another argument in a long line of many. The roof would no doubt stand, because it had always stood. The architect must be wrong, because the consequences of his being right would be unthinkable. The city could not fall. It was Paradise, was it not?

Nobody knows what happened to the city. Some say it fell, its people crushed as the pillar finally collapsed. Others say the pillar was restored, and it lives still, deep below ground. Still others say that the greedy men were right, and the city survived without the diamond pillar...but there are always those who wish for free diamonds, and who will believe that the roof cannot collapse.


Mory said...

Good story. What's it a metaphor for, specifically?

KAW26 said...

There's certainly similarities to extracting fossil fuels.

John Seavey said...

Specifically, it's a metaphor for taxation. When consservatives decry "wasteful" spending, it's generally because the benefits of government are so familiar as to be invisible, while the costs are direct and obvious every April 15th. So they see all this money in the federal kitty, just being "wasted", when it could be in their pockets where it belongs because they earned it all by themselves...

And it doesn't occur to them that in an America without a strong federal government to keep the peace, regulate trade, and provide a civilized framework for their business to operate in, they'd be shanked in about five minutes by a gang of toughs and all their money would wind up in a pile someplace while they bled to death in the street. :)

(The environmental parallels are there, too, but they're secondary and mostly coincidental. Well, somewhat coincidental--there's a certain mindset that I think is necessary to elevate short-sighted greed to the level of a "principle", and the people who have it are going to apply it to just about any situation.)

But basically, it's saying, "Paying taxes is an act of patriotism." :)

JD Atlanta said...

Is anyone really talking about reducing taxation to zero? Really? Are we really under-taxed? Is buying GM (and giving it to the unions) going to keep me from getting shanked?

Seriously - most conservatives I know would be happy if taxation would simply stop increasing.

magidin said...

Well, now that Louisiana is in a big, deep, enormous fiscal hole, in large part because of sundry tax-cuts that were enacted a few years back (yes, the drop in oil didn't help, as that is where they said the money would come from; the recession didn't help either, but it hasn't really hit the state yet) there were many conservatives in the Capitol who argued that the best solution was... tax cuts! And more than one suggested eliminating the state income and/or sales tax entirely. So, yes, some people argue about reducing at least some taxation down to zero.

Roger said...

I never take metaphors seriously, it's bad for you.

You can also substitute "affordable housing" for "taxation" and get the same story. In essence, this is a fable about changing a system that has worked for years because 1% of the population thinks they can get ahead.

Also, you're confusing conservativism with libertarianism. Pure libertarians want the Articles of Confederation, while conservatives want a strong federal government that doesn't do everything for you and turn the states into "the guys who run the DMV"

Sidebar: Can you do a storytelling engine column on the new Battlestar Galactica? I'm thinking of doing one, thanks to your inspiration.

Roger said...

Couple other real-life counterparts of the diamonds in this story:
Newspaper subscriptions
Net Neutrality
Copyright Piracy
Opinion Journalism
Roman Polanski

John Seavey said...

JD Atlanta said:

"Seriously - most conservatives I know would be happy if taxation would simply stop increasing."

Let me put it this way: The income tax is actually lower now than it's been under any president since Reagan. Bush I lowered taxes, Clinton tried to raise them back up to Reagan-era levels but was rebuffed by a Republican Congress (who used a lot of hyperbole about how this was exactly the kind of tax increases that Democrats were known for, despite--let me say this again--wanting only to raise them back up to the levels they were at under Reagan.) Then Bush II lowered them again, drastically, shortly before pursuing a long war. This is how he managed to transform a budget surplus into the single largest budget deficit in the history of the entire human race. By drastically reducing taxes. See the metaphor a little more clearly now? :)

Roger said:

"Pure libertarians want the Articles of Confederation"

And if that worked, we'd still have it. :) Minimalist government is one of those things that always sounds great in the abstract, but falls apart whenever you get down to specifics. It's very easy to say, "I'm for less government," but hard to actually find specific things that you can make a consensus of people agree that the government is actually, legitimately wasting money on. (There will always be some people that will say the government is wasting money on any thing you care to point to, which is why Libertarians can always find an audience. But that audience will always walk away, because Libertarians will always get to something, in their laundry list of cuts, that is life-or-death vital to someone in their audience.)

Anonymous said...

As I was reading this, I thought the parable was going to be about how the pillar was capitalism, and that chipping away at it would weaken the system.

Omce you take all the money, or incentive, out of the capitalist system, invariably there is no money at all.

Greed can be viewed in many ways, and people who think they know better how to spend other people's resources can be just as greedy as Bernie Maddox.

The fact that they covet another's money for what they perceive to be a better use, doesn't make them less greedy.

John Seavey said...

Anonymous said:

"Greed can be viewed in many ways, and people who think they know better how to spend other people's resources can be just as greedy as Bernie Maddox."

Well, let's look at how the dictionary views it. "An excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves, especially with respect to material wealth: "Many . . . attach to competition the stigma of selfish greed" (Henry Fawcett)."

Doesn't really look like it fits the idea of improving the general well-being of society at large through a system of common improvements via taxation, no.

Admittedly, it's impossible to argue with the statement "Greed can be viewed in many ways", because you might view greed as a small fish, or a brand of bicycle. But you'd be hard-pressed to get anyone else to agree with your views, just like I think it's something of a hard sell to suggest that not wanting our children and grand-children to grow up knowing America only in the history books is just as "greedy" as running a giant Ponzi scam to make yourself wealthy. :)