The Purchase

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Column by Paul Hein.

Exclusive to STR

The desert sand glowed in the early morning sunlight as Abdul took his customary place in front of his store--Abdul’s Camels, New and Used--to greet his first customer.

On the day we’re examining, that customer was Omar, whose new SnoCone business was doing so well that he decided to purchase a fleet of three delivery camels.

The two men greeted one another, sipped cups of strong coffee, inquired about each other’s health, and finally got down to business. Abdul quoted a price for the number of beasts Omar desired.

“My hearing is so bad,” Omar said, “that I could not hear what you said.” Abdul, familiar with this ploy, repeated his demand, but for a significantly lower amount.

“I am beginning to hear you clearly,” said Omar. “Hopefully my hearing will return to normal very quickly.” And return it did, as Abdul made his final demand: five golden Grickles for the desired fleet of camels.

Omar opened his purse and drew out a piece of paper. “Here you are,” he said. “Five golden Grickles.” And indeed, upon the paper, filled with beautiful engravings of the current king and several of his wives, palaces, and gardens, were the words “Five Golden Grickles.”

“What is this?” Abdul demanded. “We agreed to five golden Grickles, and you offer me a piece of paper. Am I such a fool that you expect me to accept this instead?”

“This is the king’s promise to pay five Golden Grickles. You will notice his signature at the bottom, next to the picture of his summer palace.”

“So I am expected to go to court, obtain an audience with the King, and receive five Golden Grickles from him?” Abdul asked.

“You could try, but my understanding is that the king does not, nor does he contemplate, ever making payment to those who own his promises.”

“Omar, do you take me for a fool? Am I to accept an offer of payment that will never be paid? Why would I do such a silly thing?”

“The King has rather strong feelings about it. You may have noticed the heads upon pikes at the gates of the city. Those heads belonged to individuals who refused to accept the King’s promises. It is a very powerful persuasive argument, if you can call a threat of decapitation an argument.”

Abdul thought for a moment. “It seems to me that what you are saying is that a piece of paper marked Five Golden Grickles is to be thought of AS five Golden Grickles.”

“Exactly, my friend. The piece of paper I’ve offered you IS five golden Grickles.”

Abdul excused himself and went into his tent, emerging a few minutes later with a piece of paper in his hand. On it he had drawn a crude portrait of himself, surrounded by his tents and camels. It bore the legend: Three Camels. “Here you are, Omar. For a piece of paper that is five golden Grickles, I offer you a piece of paper that is three camels. Fair trade. Note my signature at the bottom, next to my drawing of a palm tree.”

“And when, dear Abdul, will you actually deliver the camels?”

“When you, dear Omar, deliver the Grickles.”

“You have failed to understand, Abdul. I am, admittedly, cheating you in obtaining your beautiful camels in return for a promise of Grickles that will never be paid. But the whole point of the heads on pikes is that you, in turn, can cheat someone else with the same paper that I am using to cheat you. If the merchant from whom you buy hay for your camels refuses to accept the Five Golden Grickles paper I have given you, he risks losing his head. So you will get your hay, and he, in turn, will get lambs from the butcher. As far as your paper which you claim to be three camels, I cannot accept it. For one thing, you dare not cut off my head for refusing it. For another, if you can create camels with a few strokes of your pencil, and the butcher can create lambs the same way, and the cloth merchant do the same, we would all soon be naked and starving, even if we had bushels of paper. You cannot eat, wear, or haul goods, with pieces of paper.

“And yet, Omar, the king can create Grickles with a stroke of HIS pen. What justice is there in this scheme?”

“This is government, not justice, dear Abdul. The king has the soldiers and the weapons. And in a few generations, few people will even forget that Grickles were once some thing, instead of numbers on papers issued by the King. Indeed, people will come to regard the king’s promise to pay as the payment in itself. They will cheat and steal to get those paper promises. Yes, using his paper we cheat one another, but he cheats everyone and, obviously, becomes very rich. It’s good to be the king!”

“Your understanding of the system is remarkable, Omar. You could be the king’s minister of finance.”

“Never, Abdul. I am an honest, god-fearing man!”

The two men drank more coffee, and pondered the fate of a society that must exist under such a system.

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Paul Hein's picture
Columns on STR: 148

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Alex R. Knight III's picture

Very nicely done, Paul.  Kudos.  :-)