Tin Cups

Once upon a time there was a man who made tin cups.  Tin cups were handy for dipping drinking water out of buckets and streams.  They could be used for soup from caldrons and beer from kegs.  They did not break like pottery or split like wood.  They worked just fine even if they got dented.  One tin cup could last a person a lifetime, with a little luck.

This tin man got in on the ground floor of cup making and had plenty of customers at first.  Everybody recognized the value of a tin cup—they were very useful and not too expensive.  The tin man would even trade for a pair of shoes or a sweater or a chicken or some firewood for his shop.  Business was good.

After a while, though, everybody but the very, very poor had a tin cup and, since they were so wonderfully durable, business started to fall off rather steeply.  The tin man thought long and hard about this problem and finally had a brilliant idea.

Up until then, all his cups had been more or less the same.  People marked their ownership of cups by scratching their sign on them, or tying on a piece of cloth or leather, or even by denting them in some particular way on purpose.

The tin man realized that declaring their ownership of the cup was quite important to people.  They decorated or deformed their cups to show that their cup was special and belonged to them alone.  His brilliant idea was to do this for them.  He realized he could make big cups and little cups and cups with special designs.  He could make cups for special occasions like marriages and births and winning a horse race or a battle.  He could make tin cups into a symbol of wealth or glory or respect or loyalty or bribery.  And if he could make all this happen he would never run out of customers because he could just sell more and more cups to the same people.

So the tin man starting making these special cups and sure enough, people bought them.  He even discovered he could change the shape of the handle a little and call it the new, improved cup, or the revolutionary new cup, or the cup just like the royalty used in some far away and fabulous part of the world—and people who already had a perfectly good cup would buy a new one.  He made cups for everyday use and cups just for parties or guests people wanted to impress.  He made cups people would pay ridiculous prices for because they were unique.  Business was good.

Business was so good he couldn’t make as many cups as people wanted to buy.  So he hired some workers to make the cups for him.  He no longer had time to make cups himself.  He was busy managing his workers and suppliers and coming up with the next revolutionary cup idea.  But he managed everything well and eventually a new problem arose: people were becoming jealous of his success.

The men on the town council became jealous.  They decided that, since they were the ones in charge of things, it simply wouldn’t do that they had to buy cups from the tin man the same as everybody else.  After all, their fathers and their father’s fathers before them had been in charge of things, and it had always been understood they would get special deals and privileges.

At first they tried to be dignified and subtle in rectifying the situation.  They made speeches about the glorious traditions of the past and how God had smiled upon the town.  They praised the tin man and all the great things he had done to put the town on the map, so to speak, and said he was a terrific example of good citizenship.  They talked about his hard work and determination and innovation.

But the tin man was slow to take the hint.  He had a talent for making cups and managing and marketing, but he didn’t really know much about how government worked.  He was flattered by all the nice things the town council said about him and swaggered around town like a lord.  He became so intoxicated and full of himself that he forgot the most basic thing about politics… political speeches are almost always lies and the politicians are telling those lies because they want you to do something.

After a while, the town council realized the tin man just wasn’t catching on.  So they started talking about putting a tax on tin cups.  They had public debates about this.  Some councilmen said maybe they should tax ownership of tin cups.  This upset the citizens who had already bought numerous cups.  The citizens thought it was entirely unfair they should have to pay a tax now on things they had bought in the past.  This whole argument was just a ruse, of course, to put more public pressure on the tin man and remind him who was in charge.

Other councilmen said that, while the tin man had certainly brought great benefit to the town, he had also made a nice little pile for himself, and it was his duty to contribute some of his profit to the town for civic projects like reducing the number of beggars on the streets—or waging war on the neighboring town if that became necessary.  There were rumors going around that somebody was starting to make tin cups over there, and that wouldn’t be good for our town, now would it?

By that time the tin man was starting to catch on.  When he swaggered around town people gave him dirty looks and made insulting remarks behind his back.  He suspected the councilmen had even deliberately maneuvered him into becoming a strutting peacock so they could use it against him later.

He may have been an ignorant innocent when it came to politics but, by God, he wasn’t stupid.  He hired a lobbyist who entered into secret negotiations with the council.

The lobbyist hinted at making donations to the councilmen’s favorite causes, giving them special deals on the finest cups, and maybe even employing them as consultants when they retired from public office.  An agreement was hammered out that imposed a small tax with plenty of loopholes and unwritten promises of little extras here and there as the councilmen needed them.

They all realized the tin man could raise his prices to pay for the tax and just blame it on something else… inflation or scarcity of materials or those damn labor unions or the cost of handouts to those beggars in the streets or something.  As you probably know yourself, the citizens always pay for everything in the end anyway, one way or another.

And so, everybody made out all right, at least the people who matter did.  They all had plenty of tin cups, more than they needed in fact, and the town was one step closer to the goal of prosperity shared by the tin man and the councilmen… tin cups for everyone.

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