Thursday, December 4, 2008

Budgetary Work



I've been working on a university budget-committee this semester. Why a poet and an English professor would end up on such a committee is a good question. I'm surprised someone didn't say, "Put down the spreadsheet, sir, and back away from it slowly." Of course, all the major budgetary decisions are made elsewhere, and certain established realities (such as how much money is available and how much non-debatable things like maintaining Building X costs) further limit the paths such a committee may tread.

Interestingly (well, it interests me), "budget" in English seems originally to have referred to a leather bag, at least according to the OED online:

1. a. A pouch, bag, wallet, usually of leather. Obs. exc. dial.

The OED traces this denotation back to the early 1400s. Not until the early-t0-mid 1700's does "budget" start to refer to a record or prediction of money/capital expended.

I guess one could argue that although we do still keep money in such things as wallets and bags, we keep most of the real money (assuming money is real) in unreal spaces: in online, virtual-reality accounts. We "transfer" X number of dollars from account Y to account Z, but nobody ever touches an object symbolizing value, energy, or worth--until someone later watches an ATM spit rectangles of paper out, and, astoundingly, other people accept these rectangles in return for a bag of rice or a cup of coffee. That all of this perplexes me is yet another reason to wonder about my presence on a budgetary-committee.

With regard to the "home" budget, I'm about as sophisticated as Fred Flinstone. I figure you have to have some money coming in, and you have to keep an eye on the money going out, and you better have some back-up plans, as well as some money "stored" literally or figuratively, such as in a "bank" (but now we're back to virtual reality) or "real estate" (I "own" a rectangle of "undeveloped" dirt in California, for example, and in theory, I might be able to induce someone to give me money in return for it.) The tale of how I purchased the dirt (also known as a parcel or a lot) and when will and should wait for another day. I had no business buying it, and how I scraped the dough together TO buy it remains vaguely mystical.

At any rate (let's say 6%, nyuk, nyuk), a poem regarding budgetary work:

Budgetary Matters

The spreadsheet is all before you. The farther

left you travel, the more desireable things become.

Indeed the items named seem not just necessary

but inevitable, prophesied. As you travel toward

the reckoning right hand of calculation, the less

possible things seem. You think of Zeno's Paradox.

You begin to feel an urge to save rubber-bands

and bits of string, to eat left-overs and sew

your own clothes. When you finally arrive

in the severe, humorless zone of the numbers-column,

you then descend toward the hell of the Bottom Line,

which is, oddly enough, often represented by two lines.

At that line, expenses devour entrails of income.

Accountants costumed in gray feathers perform

a ghastly arithmetical dance. You hear someone

mumble, "Nothing we can afford is worth doing,"

to which you respond, "Nothing worth doing

is quantifiable." You stand up and demand

to know the origin of money. You are forcibly

exported from the room. As you depart, you

hear someone say, "I think we just found

some extra money in the budget."

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

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