A Short Fable For Our Time1
Once upon a time there was a small kingdom that had recently been started in what the land-brokers swore was an “always green and fertile countryside with great promise of future fecundity.”2 The people moved in, saw the green fields, and rejoiced. They appointed a king, who looked at his subjects, who he loved dearly and who he was sure loved him the same way, and at the land, which was green and lush. And the new king, considering his prospects — including where he had previously been king3 — was filled with as much joy as his people.
And then — as always seems to be the case in historically-accurate recountings such as this one — bad things happened. Specifically, the rains that had kept the fields lush suddenly stopped falling. And the crops withered and died. And all mercantile exchange with other new small kingdoms ceased, as did the hope of ever getting into the good graces of a really large, really rich kingdom which would otherwise have been impressed at how quickly the small kingdom of our story had grown.
The children cried and the people went to the king and demanded to be fed, now. And the king did what kings always do, he put the squeeze on his Profoundly August Advisers, who did what such advisers always do, which was to put the squeeze on the Slightly Less Than Profoundly August Advisers, and so on down the line until they came to Someone Who Actually Knows Things, who, upon squeezing, said, “why not go fishing?”
And that’s what they did. At the personal direction of the Someone Who Actually Knows Things a great fleet was built and fisherpeople4 were brought in to person5 the boats and provisions were laid in and so on. In fact the Someone Who Actually Knows Things pretty much ran the show until almost the very end, when he got a bad head cold, so the only thing he didn’t do was supervise the construction of the nets. Which was considered so important a task that the king’s own Profoundly August Advisers oversaw their design and construction themselves.
In short order the fleet was launched to much cheering and rejoicing6 and went sailing out of the main harbor of the kingdom. Ten days later the fleet came back. With absolutely no fish … not a single sardine.
So the king immediately did the kingly thing and called on his Profoundly August Advisers to blame them for what happened.7 And, being on the hook, they in turn immediately called on the Slightly Less Than Profoundly August Advisers and blamed them, and so on down the line until all the blame had been heaped at the feet of the Someone Who Actually Knows Things.
And that humble personage, standing in front of the assembled crowd of the king and his descending ranks of hundreds of advisers8 said, “I did everything but oversee the nets, and I stand by my work.” And he stared quite hostilely at the innumerable ascending ranks of kingly advisers,9 the most ascendant of whom said, “We are the Profoundly August Advisers to the king, and we designed the nets, with the utmost erudition and with the recognition that, with our design, our illustrious fleet would collect the plentiful bounty of the seas, the fishes of the deep, for the glory of your majesty.”10
And since it was quite clear that the seas were full of fish whereas the nets were not, the king went on to ask the Profoundly August Advisers exactly what design criteria they’d used for the nets. “Well, your majesty” the Profoundly August Advisers said, “we looked at the nets the common fisherpeople use and saw that the openings are very small, so that vast numbers of small and undignified fishes such as anchovies and smelt and cuttlefish and so on are caught. And, your majesty,” they continued, “being Profoundly August Advisers we knew immediately that the plenitude and abundance of the seas could best be harvested for your majesty far better by discarding such insignificant fish and catching whale fish instead. And so we re-designed the nets to have enormous openings which would allow the small fry to pass through but would without difficulty ensnare the great whale fish, with which the people would be fed.”
The problem — as you, being something other than a Profoundly August Advisor, already no doubt well know — is that, like most seas, those around the kingdom were loaded with insignificant fishes like cuttlefish and anchovies and smelt and so on, whereas as for the magnificent whale fish … not so much. So the king, having had similar experiences with the Profoundly August Advisers in his previous gigs,11 sighed, immediately had all of his Profoundly August Advisers executed,12 and, at the direction of the Someone Who Actually Knows Things had the fleet refitted with normal nets, which brought in tons and tons of smelt and anchovies and cuttlefish, which weren’t much to look at but tasted quite nice. And, better yet, fed the kingdom, which went on to prosper and, eventually (after receiving a sufficiently high valuation), was bought by a much larger prosperous kingdom.13
Moral: A cuttlefish on your plate is worth ten magnificent whale fish in the sea.14
- With a tip of my hat to James Thurber. [↩]
- That’s how they really talked. Although they probably used the term “near-term great commercial success” instead of “future fecundity.” [↩]
- A series of other startup kingdoms which hadn’t done so well — but that’s a story for a different day. [↩]
- It was a very progressive kingdom where people were smart enough to know that both men and women are good at lots of things, including fishing. [↩]
- Unfortunately, writing in gender-neutral form gets tediously non-euphonious. [↩]
- And other things people inexplicably do when they’re desperate and have very little hope. [↩]
- This is a standard technique for kings; see “How to Be a King: Lessons from Other Top Managers” if you want to learn more. [↩]
- It is also standard for new kings to immediately appoint lots of advisors, as the book I’ve previously mentioned (“How to Be a King: Lessons from Other Top Managers”) makes quite clear. [↩]
- They all had their own titles, much like the heavenly hosts of Seraphim, Cherubim, Ophanim, etc, but it would be tedious to repeat those titles here, so I won’t. [↩]
- Yes, they really do talk like that. In fact they say a lot more and I’ve done you the favor of eliding over most of it. [↩]
- Although apparently not having learned much from these experiences. [↩]
- He did feel somewhat bad about this. But, after having read the management book for kings I referred to earlier, he’d concluded that — you know — a king is a king is a king is a king … (it was a very literary book). [↩]
- Which went on to mismanage the entire property and eventually brought the entire edifice crashing down — but again, that’s a story for another time. [↩]
- Whereas catching whale fish, while tempting, isn’t easy under the best of circumstances, even if it were politically correct. [↩]