Thursday, April 21, 2011

What's Mine is Mine, and What's Yours is Mine

Beneficent Nevermore hated cabinet meetings.

As the government of Dyspepsia’s Minister of Indignation and Enrichment, he was the junior member of cabinet, and as the youngest of the government’s ministers his protocolary problems were compounded by the fact that all the other ministers treated him with thinly disguised disdain; thinly disguised because, as the son of the third cousin twice removed of Dyspepsia’s president Aimat Arrant, it would have been dangerous to openly show disrespect.

Despite his privileged position, Nevermore still hated cabinet meetings; and at no time more than when he was called upon to make a presentation; such as he was on this particular day. He’d been tasked by Arrant with coming up with a plan to assess and take a controlling interest in Dyspepsia’s principal industry, mushroom growing, and today was the day Arrant wanted his report. Taking over industries run by foreigners, or by those who were not fully supportive of the Dyspeptic government; and among the population there were many of those; was one of his duties – part of his enrichment portfolio; while the other part was devoted to preparing indignant replies to foreign criticism of the rather heavy-handed way Arrant ran the government and the country.

Nevermore sat at the foot of the long, rectangular conference table, as befitted his junior status, directly opposite Arrant, who sat, owl-like, facing him some fifty feet away; with the rest of the cabinet arrayed on either side, in descending order of seniority. Arrant glanced down the table at his junior minister and distant relative, his heavy lidded gaze seeming to stare off into some unfathomable distance.

“Well, honorable Minister Nevermore,” he said in his sepulchral voice. “Have you completed the task I assigned to you?”

Nevermore shuffled his papers, placing the thin report on the mushroom industry atop the pile of papers he routinely brought with him to cabinet meetings. “Yes, All-powerful and excellent Excellency from whom flows all that is good and wise; I have completed the report,” he responded.

There was a rustling of papers and scraping of chairs as the rest of the cabinet swiveled their heads to focus beady eyes on Nevermore.

Arrant waved a well-manicured hand in a regal manner. “Please, then, proceed with your report.”

“Most revered Excellency,” Nevermore cleared his throat. “As you know, mushrooms are our main industry, and the sector is dominated by our former colonial masters. You directed that I explore ways to obtain fifty-five percent of all operating mushroom facilities, and I have here, on these two pages, just such a plan.” He opened the cover of the bright green folder and laid a pudgy finger on the first page. “I propose we proceed in three phases; first we obtain fifty-five percent equity in the most productive farms; in phase two we go after the balance of the farms; and in phase three we take fifty-five percent of the processing and transportation facilities, thus giving us effective control over the industry.”

Pendleton Pincher, the acerbic finance minister, whose detractors derisively called Penny Pincher behind his back, coughed and raised a bony finger. “Honorable comrade minister,” he said. “Have you a valuation of the industry?”

Nevermore turned to page two of his report; he ran his finger down the page. “Yes,” he said. “The total value of the Dyspeptic mushroom industry is fifty trillion Zlopeks.” The Zlopek was the Dyspeptic national currency, which at the current international rate of exchange was valued at some fifty thousand Zlopeks to one US Dollar.

Pincher reeled back in his chair. “And, if I hear correctly, your plan is to acquire fifty-five percent of that value?”

“That is my plan,” Nevermore said.

Pincher took a gold Cross pen from the pocket of his exquisitely tailored suit, and made a few notations on a sheet of paper on the table in front of him. “Ah-h,” he said after a few minutes. “There is one small problem with your plan. After we take care of our normal annual operating expenses, our treasury will be left with approximately one million Zlopeks; hardly enough to buy fifty-five percent of even one mushroom farm.”

Nevermore’s porcine eyes widened. He hadn’t thought about from where the funds to achieve his grand scheme would come.

The Dyspeptic Central Bank governor, Caligula Whimsey, tapped the table to get attention. “That, my honorable friend,” he said, giving Pincher a look of disdain. “Is not a problem. I can merely print the necessary amount of currency.”

“But,” Pincher persisted. “Our industrial output is not increasing, so if you print more money, it’s worth less and less.”

Nevermore looked more and more dejected as this argument volleyed back and forth across the table; Pincher and Whimsey sat opposite each other, were sworn enemies since childhood, and bickered constantly in cabinet meetings until Arrant, with a withering glare, silenced them.

Saddam Shaim, the beefy, wide-shouldered, beetle-browed defense minister, who sat on Arrant’s right, the senior-most ministerial position, slammed a knobby-knuckled hand on the table. “Damnation,” he thundered. “What’s all this nattering about having enough money to buy the shares? Why don’t we just demand that the owners surrender fifty-five percent to us? After all, don’t we own the country?”

Byon Celle, the commerce minister, senior by one position to Nevermore, and only five years older, a man who seldom spoke in cabinet meetings, timidly raised a finger. “The problem with that, honorable comrade defense minister,” he said. “Is that we would have problems selling our mushrooms on the international market. Many countries frown on buying from countries who have expropriated private industries. We really need to offer value for the shares we obtain.”

Shaim snorted, and muttered under his breath something to the effect of “to hell with the international market.”

Arrant, who had been sitting regarding the verbal volleyball game like a vulture sitting on a fence waiting for some poor animal to die, raised his head and glanced around the table, starting with Shaim on his right; that worthy immediately ducked his head into his shoulders and slumped in his chair; and gliding his steely gaze around the table until it came to rest on the silent, scowling individual on his left; Lawrence Undercover, chief of the Dyspeptic Secret Intelligence Service, sometimes called the Keep Government Boiling, for reasons know one remembered or understood. “Now, honorable and loyal gentlemen,” Arrant said. “Comrade Celle is correct. We must do this according to the rules. We must be prepared to offer something of value for what we receive. Now, if I’m not mistaken, do mushrooms not require a great amount of fertilizer to grow?”

Everyone nodded agreement; of course, they nodded agreement with everything Arrant said as a matter of course.

“That is correct, most noble and generous leader,” Nevermore said. “They require large amounts of fertilizer.”

“And, where does that fertilizer come from?” Arrant asked.

“From the cows, sheep, pigs, and other animals of the small villages near the mushroom farms,” Nevermore replied.

“And do those animals not belong to citizens of Dyspepsia, and do the citizens of Dyspepsia not belong to the state?”

Habeas Corpus, the scholarly minister of justice, nodded. “Most benevolent Excellency, that is precisely right. We Dyspepsians are all wards of the state, and thus, belong to him who is the father of all.” Referring, of course, to Arrant, who often liked to call himself father of the country.

“Then,” Arrant said. “Why can we not put a value on the fertilizer, which is ours to start with, and then use that to purchase the requisite shares?”

Nevermore beamed. Again, his benefactor, and very, very distant cousin had gotten right to the heart of the matter. “An excellent idea, Excellency,” he said. “I will begin to implement this plan forthwith.”

Pincher, who had been sulking and glaring across the table at his arch-rival, again raised his hand. “What if the mushroom farmers refuse to accept your offer?”

Nevermore glared. Ever the spoiler that Pincher, he thought. Shaim came to his rescue. “We can declare the project a national priority,” he said. “And, anyone refusing to cooperate would face arrest and prosecution. That should make them all fall in line.”

Undercover, his cryptic expression changing not one whit, looked down the table at Nevermore, who had, earlier in his career been one of his most effective and vicious KGB agents. “And, be assured that my organization will most vigorously support the execution of that plan.” and he stressed the word execution.

“Well, there you have it,” Nevermore said. “The problem would appear to be solved.”

“Well,” Pincher said. “There is one other small problem; we don’t know anything about growing mushrooms.”

Arrant suddenly laughed. “My dear comrade minister,” he said. “That is not a problem. I’ve been reading about mushroom growing, and I can instruct you in the most effective and productive way to be successful in that pursuit.”

Pincher, knowing when it was wise to surrender, inclined his head toward the president. “I am sure you have solved any problems that I might have in my inexperience mistakenly detected, most gracious Excellency,” he said. “I beg of you, though, please enlighten those of us who do not possess your great wisdom.”

“It’s really very simple,” Arrant said. “We raise mushrooms the same way we handle the people of Dyspepsia; we keep them in the dark and feed them a lot of crap.”