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Paling Kings

Most of us are allowed to go through the span of life allotted to us in actuarial tables.” from The Echo newspaper, November 1, 1869

Except the tables don’t tell the whole tale, do they? There are also qualitative burdens—especially when it comes to certain folks, say for example kings, who:

…must bear all. O hard condition,

Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath

Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel

But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s-ease

Must kings neglect that private men enjoy! Henry V, IV.1

Does not late model democracy make all of us Henry’s? Kings and yet also subjects—to the king of collective will. And doubly subjects to that sovereign’s king, the entity that orders and executes that will. I’m referring to the actuarial tables, or the paper on which they are printed. It’s quite a trick to take on all the worries and enjoy so little of the power. Pale kings indeed.

Remember this testimony on March 13, 2009?

Or is this the king David Foster Wallace refers to with the title of his unfinished novel? It’s Robert Herz, chairman of FASB, who got himself “dragged in front of Congress” and subjected to the steam and grunts (–“the breath of every fool”–) of subcommittee members over the loss of constituents’ jobs and the need for immediate action. Mr. Herz twirled his water bottle’s cap and articulated maddeningly reasonable explanations for various accounting practices. He tends to smirk slightly when speaking, but perhaps not consciously.

It’s dreadful to watch elected representatives beg him to modify this or that mark-to-market or discounted cash flow accounting protocol. Not because he’s always ready with a lucid description of the rule’s origins and purpose, but because of his perfectly legitimate refrain that, even if a legislator’s suggestion makes sense, he’s merely one voice on a 5-person board, and, more importantly, accounting standards are now a global concern and unilateral changes to the way US corporations handle their balance sheets would have bespectacled bean counters from Alberta to Zaire shaking their fists at yet another overreach of US hegemony. Actually, Herz didn’t raise the specter of actuarial terrorism as much as indicate that no matter what the US does, everyone else isn’t going to necessarily agree to it, or even if they do, it may cause, instead of prevent, bookkeeping chaos.

Because he’s very smart, Herz didn’t say anything like, “A pile of shit weighs the same in pounds or kilograms.” Good bureaucrats know enough to allow their patrons to deceive themselves, both about facts and the scope of their (the bureaucrats’) power.

A good bureaucrat isn’t particularly human, which seems to me to be what concerned Wallace so much. In his work (and in interviews) there’s an evident desire to palpate those parts of us the world seems determined (and better than ever able) to conceal. Qua American writer of talent, energy, and ambition, he’s obliged to poke his fingers right into the heart of things American. The hearts of the last two centuries have been oil (and whales), and dreams (and Long Island). Certainly the 21st century’s pièce de résistance will be about taxes (and the suburbs). A book on paying the bills that have been run up is probably the last one our experiment can write and we can stop when it’s done. By then, we’ll have used up the span allotted to us in the tables.