San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A Matter of Principle

Among the myriad laws that govern our behavior, such as gravity, the thermodynamic three or diminishing returns, none is more pervasive than the law of parsimony, otherwise known as the principle of least action. It is one of the great universal laws, because you can see it operating in every corner of the universe: in the fall of an apple, the shooting of a star, but most often in those you appoint to do things for you.

I could point the finger at several professions, but those who toil within the law must surely be awarded the palm for strict obedience to the concept of least action. Many of my best friends are attorneys, and I will let no man say a word against them; they strive until midnight to polish the perfect phrase that will demolish the opposition next day in court, and their fees are certainly no more onerous than my banker charges for my overdraft, yet somehow, in spite of all that effort, they contrive to spend unimaginable time on any case involving a struggle between deep pockets.

But let us not forget those who borrow our money or our books. I must admit to being a bit of a bookkeeper myself, capable of retaining a loaned volume unread for literally years, but let’s talk about real debtors.

People are bad enough, but nothing compared to whole governments that borrow billions, pay interest reluctantly, and when it comes time to repay the principal claim, there’s nothing left in the kitty. What do you do about them, put them all in jail?

Then there are the nationalized concerns, chiefly banks, which advertise they open at eight. We dutifully line up outside in the rain at the appointed time and wait – and wait. Or the printers that fail to deliver the promised invitation cards, calendars or diaries until long after they are no longer useful. Or the legislators who fail to deliver at all. Clearly the principle of least action is universal and pervasive.

But admittedly, there is a sweet side to slow. If language, manners and customs were to change any faster than they already do, we might all begin to feel like the con leaving jail after a lifer for a world so different from the one he knew, so utterly alien, that recidivism seems the only answer. And you wonder why anyone with an incurable disease would want to be frozen in the hope of being thawed out when medical science finally delivers on its reiterated promises. By that time, we’ll all be living on a new planet.

So take no notice of my complaining; my tax adviser points out that under the opposite principle of most action, I might myself now be in a position to consider the advantages of recidivism.


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