Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

A parable explaining how to think about budget shortfalls

on 2009 September 27

Some years ago a group of pioneers arrived from various directions, and decided to settle some miles North of here. By chance, the group had a great variety of gifts. Some were teachers, some were builders, some farmers, and some healers. Consequently the children could all read, ate well, and slept in warm beds with beautiful woven blankets. The elders said, when the village was new, they must attend to the most important things first – having food and shelter enough for the winter. Being so industrious, they soon accomplished the basic needs of life, and turned to higher forms of employment such as tending to rows of flowers along the public promenade, and building a theater. For these pursuits, each family contributed according to a wonderful formula devised by the village economist. And as it happens in other villages, their society became gradually more complex and specialized, and most people turned to the more advanced trades such as acting, finance, and law. Late in his life, after working for years in his home, the village economist completed a study of the conditions of the time, emerged, walked into the common house, and heaved onto the great table two great volumes of his work. These were the two remaining options, he said. At that time neither the public officers nor their staff took notice, as they were in full time meetings concerning the village budget. It had been determined that there was a growing backlog of needs, and not nearly enough revenue to cover those needs. At each meeting, the villagers thought of more needs that they wished to have provided, and these were added to a great list. When it was finally decided to consult the economist’s work, he had already died, and his chart of annual economic indicators along with the rest of his life’s work was no longer legible because it had been buried in snow that came in through a hole in the rotting roof of the common house. All that was known about the two remaining options was that one option was to reduce public services, which was impossible because so many people were not working and depended on them. The other option was for each working family to contribute more, and that was also impossible because they were already working long hours at cross purposes, and didn’t have enough extra to give. With no other options, the villagers sat on old crates and watched each other die one by one, either by starvation or disease, while their houses rotted and the fields went to weeds. There was nothing else they could do: the economy had ruined their good fortune.

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