Of course the emperor has clothes--in Washington
The majority of GCN readers don't live in the greater Washington area. So, in an
attempt to explain some of the inner complexities of Washington to those who live outside
the Beltway, I have reworked a classic fairy tale. I offer my sincere apologies to the
Brothers Grimm, but no royalties since their copyright has long since expired and their
stories entered the public domain.
As you probably recall from your childhood days, in one story, traveling con artists
convince the emperor that they can provide him with the most splendid clothes
available--truly cutting-edge couture, as it were. Their costly fabrics were so splendid,
they told the emperor, that only the most discerning eyes could even see them.
The con men pretended to dress the emperor in an entire suit of clothes from this
invisible material. The emperor's self-serving advisers convinced him that he was clad in
a magnificent suit of new clothes. He was actually wearing one of the earliest known forms
of vaporware, because the fabric was nonexistent, or, still in development.
The naked emperor, accompanied by his so-called tailors, paraded past his subjects so
they could admire his new clothes.
In the original version, a boy in the crowd spoiled the illusion by observing loudly
that the clothes weren't there at all, not even as virtual apparel. The Washington version
of the story, however, has a somewhat different ending.
Soon after the boy's accusation rang out, some in the audience began to realize what
this discovery would mean for them. They weren't pleased with the likely outcome.
The imperial dry cleaner had already obtained a substantial increase in his contract
price, claiming that he required upgraded equipment to clean and press clothes made of the
sophisticated new fabrics.
The dry cleaner was one of the first to spot the financial benefits of planned
technological obsolescence. Not wishing to lose this benefit, he quickly cried, "What
a silly boy! I can see the emperor's clothes."
Likewise, the local innkeeper recalled that the tailors had run up a large tab at his
establishment, with considerable room service bills. If the clothes were bogus, the
tailors would be imprisoned, and he, the innkeeper, would never be paid.
So he seconded the dry cleaner's comment, observing that the emperor was wise to
exchange his old clothes for new ones. He proclaimed that the emperor's figure had been
re-formed by the new garb, thus coining a useful term that would last to this very day.
Some in the emperor's gushing entourage began to fear that the emperor might think of
them as accomplices to the crooked tailors. So they too proclaimed that the doubting boy
was merely misguided.
Various tradesmen, courtiers, counselors, and other hangers-on quickly joined the
chorus. Some understood why, but most simply didn't want to be left out.
A stubborn minority, however, still insisted that the new clothes were an illusion.
After the parade, they petitioned for the appointment of an Especial Counsel to
investigate the matter fully.
The pro-clothes faction, however, recruited the most clever man in the empire, Dr.
Spinn. He convinced the Privy Council to table the idea of an investigation until the
affair had been considered by a blue-ribbon commission.
Spinn made sure that the commission was packed with special interest group members.
After lengthy and rather expensive consideration, the panel reported that the best
available data was inconclusive, but that the existence of the clothes had not been
disproved to a scientific certainty. It recommended further study and investigation.
Everyone forgot about the Especial Counsel.
A considerable and politically powerful industry grew up around the fictitious clothes.
Additional outfits had to be produced. All of those clothes, too, needed special treatment
such as costly storage, expensive maintenance and, of course, a full inventory system and
its attendant auditors.
The industry required regulation that kept the council, its newly expanded staff,
various other officials, and journalists and lawyers busy. It was even robust enough to
provide a summer job for the perspicacious boy, who resolved in the future to keep his
insights to himself. And so, they all lived happily ever after.
Well, that's the official version, anyway.
Joseph J. Petrillo is an attorney with the Washington law firm of Petrillo &
Associates. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.