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25 June 2011

Making Money

Terry Pratchett lives in his own world, Disc, which neatly mirrors or even presages our universe in this reality, while slyly poking fun at everything here by making it commonplace there.

Making Money was first published on 1 October 2008.  That means he must have written it at least one year before, at least six months before the cracks in the world economic system began to show (although predicted by contrarians skeptical of the "new paradigm").

In the book, our hero Moist von Lipwig is bored with his position as Postmaster General, so bored that he has taken (literally) to scaling the walls to break into his own post office, to which he has all the keys.  His appointment to the position was not sought, but offered by someone who recognized Moist's sense of self-preservation, continuous need for rewarding challenge and most of all, genius for imagining and then, implementing the unthinkable.  During his tenure, he has already turned the post office into an efficient, popular operation and its stamps, a trusted, popular form of substitute currency as well as some coveted and ever increasingly valuable collectibles.  In fact, his stamps are better than gold!

And now, his "angel," the dreaded and all-powerful "Tyrant of Ankh-Morpork" Lord Vetinari has another offer Moist can't refuse:  Reform the Mint.  Popularize the Bank.  Circulate the Money.

(I won't use exclamation points, as that is one punctuation mark that Moist hates -- "hate[s] its manic, desperate cheeriness," in re: the mug of tea on which is printed You Don't Have to Be Mad to Work Here But It Helps!  It tickles me pink (as it would Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves) that Moist is the kind of man who absentmindedly picks up a thick black pen and drew a comma in the proper place.)  (I might also take this moment to mention bookavore (Stephanie Anderson of WordBrooklyn, NY)'s Twitter profile, which says, "Don't judge me by my exclamation points." [sic -- sentence is finished with a period, not an exclamation point])

Poor Mr Lipwig whose "nom de felonie" was Albert Spangler, convicted of being a thief and perpetrator of fraud but somehow, mysteriously and quite secretly saved from the gallows and entered into a kind of "Angel's" Criminal Expert Protection Program, is a nearly married man, affianced to the inimitable, indomitable and nearly non-stop smoker Adora Belle Dearheart and believes he should be conservative and refuse the offer.

Still, Moise ends up exactly in the position where Vetinari wants him, having signed a statement saying he is totally uninterested in running the Bank but also having impressed the just met and then just-passed Chairwoman of the Bank Topsy Lavish into leaving him as keeper of new Chairdog Mr. Fusspot with $20,000/year as carrot and a contract on his life with the Assassins Guild as stick.  Tradition has it that the Chairman of the Bank always be the majority shareholder, so in a matter of six months, this venerable position has been held first by Sir Joshua Lavish, then, his widow and former showgirl Topsy (who inherited 50% of the shares and the dog Mr. Fusspot) and then, Mr. Fusspot, who subsequently holds 51% (1% from his master and 50% from his mistress).

Moise learns all about the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork and the Royal Mint -- how it costs more than a penny to make a penny, how everyone believes gold is the basis of the Ankh-Morpork currency and is what keeps the Banks honest, how most people rather put their money in a sock under the mattress rather than trust the Banks, how almost anything, say potatoes, could be more valuable than gold, and how Topsy's nephew Hubert is close to perfecting the Balance of Payments system or affectionately, "the Glooper," an apparatus of water, glass pipes, valves and tipping buckets which can be used to predict possible economic futures, given scenarios.

Hubert demonstrates with the Glooper what would happen if people lost all confidence in banks -- the flow of money moving out of banks and into the Old Sock Under the Mattress, resulting in banks ceasing to lend money out and business expansion slowing, foreclosures, job losses, and ultimately, the economy at a total standstill, with people with no or insufficient savings going hungry, farms reverting to wilderness and trolls rampaging down from the mountain.  Sound familiar?  This is the scenario that TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) and QE II (The United States Federal Bank's Second Quantitative Easing) are meant to avoid, but the banks are not cooperating -- that is, not doing what banks by definition do, giving savers no reason to put their money in the banks and seeing no reason expose themselves to risk by lending to businesses when they can earn more income garnering interest on Treasury bills and charging fees to each other and to consumers.  The Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork also was not taking in deposits or lending out money when Moist arrives on the scene.  He quickly changes all that, first creating paper money which the good citizens of Ankh-Morpork accept, because he is after all, the Postmaster General, and it's kind of like a stamp, isn't it?  And, then, by sheer personality, persuading people to deposit and borrow funds.  Van Lipwig catches a real coup when waste management magnate Harry King comes in to deposit $50,000 and borrow $100,000 to "con-sol-i-date," first asking for a signature (or a spit-in-the-palm handshake) loan and after successfully obtaining it, presenting a few deeds as collateral.

As a passionate member of the Golem Trust, Adora Belle finally returns from three weeks in the field, searching for lost golems, known generically as giant animate clay figures who work tirelessly for long hours and without loss of strength.  One could see the analogy to automation or robotics, or even third-world immigrants, as golems take over all the difficult work of humans in Discworld.  First, we see golems displacing human laborers, but then, there is the human concern of a few (those bleeding heart liberals) that golems are people, too.  Hence, the existence of Golem Trust to protect the rights of the clayborn.  Adora Belle's latest project results in her returning to Ankh-Morpork with an exquisitely made arm inscribed with an ancient language.  She recalled seeing as a child a golem's foot with the same kind of inscription, kept safe in a multi-dimensional cabinet at Unseen University, Ankh-Morpork's (and indeed Disc's) most prestigious institution of higher learning for wizards, no less.

These two seemingly disparate stories dovetail not only with these endearing characters, but ultimately, with the ancient language and the golems.  However, I won't give the climax of the story away.  As a hint, I present you with an NPR piece on what constitutes wealth on the island of Yap.

There's also an endearing side story about a golem named Gladys.  Having objected to a male golem (already an absurdity for some, because golems have no gender) cleaning the women's privvies, the post office counter girls gave the golem a blue dress and the name "Gladys," and life was good again.  However, the counter girls continued Gladys's education as a female golem through fashion magazines and outdated books on etiquette and household hints.  Gladys begins to feel romantically inclined towards her boss, which Lipwig finds awkward and Adora Belle finds hilarious.

One more passage to point out:  Pratchett takes a jab at audiobooks, which in Discworld are created by the wizards of Unseen University.
'Talking books?  That sounds a good idea,' said Moist.
'Quite possibly,' said Spools [of Teemer and Spools, the byword for quality printing], with a sniff.  'But these weren't meant to talk, and certainly not to complain about the quality of their glue and the hamfistedness of the typesetter.  And of course now the university can't pulp them.'
'Why not?'
'Think of the screaming!...'

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