by Don Longo
Jacques Attali is a prominent member of the French Socialist Party, and Jewish. He was adviser to Socialist President François Mitterand from 1981 to 1991. He founded ‘Action Contre la Faim’ (Action Against Hunger) in 1980 and the European new technologies programme ‘Eureka’ (which invented the MP3). In 1989, he launched an international programme of action against the disastrous floods in Bangladesh. He founded the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in 1991 and currently runs think-tanks on globalisation. His writes a blog on economic and social issues, both in his native language of French [http://www.attali.com/actualite/blog] and in an English version [http://www.attali.com/en/].
Attali told the following joke in the context of a conference organized by the Adath Shalom Conservative Jewish Community of Paris in mid-2010 on the theme of ‘Can capitalism be ethical?’ The joke has received wide coverage in Europe since 2010 and has been the subject of much commentary. Mostly, it has been seen as a clever and amusing story, and a profound illustration of the nature of the global financial crisis since 2008; as such it has become elevated to the status of a parable of our times. However, some have seen in it Attali’s own sometimes difficult relationship with the Jewish community and the state of Israel [see ‘I used to be pro-Israel, but not any longer’ in French, at [http://www.juif.org/le-mag/304,j-etais-pro-israelien-je-ne-le-suis-plus.php?pg=213]. Readers can judge for themselves.
The transcript of the parable as told by Attali is given below. The translation from the French is mine.
“The [following] story is the one which I believe best sums up, and better than any economic theory, what is happening today:
Shlomo telephones David and says: “Listen, I have an excellent deal for you. I have a truck full of pants each worth $1. Do you want them? Terrific.”
David takes the pants. Later he telephones Jonathan and says to him: “Listen, I have an excellent deal for you, a truck full of pants each worth $2. Do you want them? Terrific.”
Jonathan then contacts Shaoul and proposes $3.
The story continues in this way until at a certain point Moshe calls Christian and says to him: “I have an excellent deal for you. I have pants each worth $49.” “Ah! That’s fantastic. Great, I’ll take them.”
The following day Christian telephones Moshe and says:
– Listen, you’re a real swindler.
– What do you mean I’m a swindler?
– Well yes, you sold me pants for $49, but they’re unwearable!
– What do you mean they’re unwearable?
– You know exactly what I mean. I opened the truck and the pants only had one leg. What do you want me to do with pants which people can’t wear?
– But you don’t understand. There’s no problem. They’re not meant to be worn. They are meant to be bought and sold, to be bought and sold, and bought and sold!….
This is exactly, exactly the best lesson one can have on what is at stake today. If you want to understand what is happening in the current financial system, you will have understood everything once you have understood this story.“