Art Pact 214 - Odd Conspiracy



I had discovered a conspiracy - although the nature of the conspiracy was so strange, and its aims seemingly so pointless, that the very word seemed wrong. Conspiracy implied to me a smokey backroom filled with arcane geniuses manipulating the world for their own sinister aims, but the conspirators here seemed to be nothing more than middle-aged idiots, the kind of corporate nobodies that formed the undifferentiated matrix in which traditional conspirators might have floated. If you'd met any one of them individually you would be convinced that there was nothing more interesting going on in their head than the patio extension and last night's episode of Top Gear, but somehow they had managed to arrange themselves into a cabal capable of doing such a complicated and unlikely thing as ensuring that the price of staple-removers remained in a narrow band bounded by £3.49 at its floor and £4.25 at its ceiling. A little digging - now that I knew the names of the main conspirators - showed that they had been all over in the pursuit of this goal. They had tinkered with the prices of the raw materials at the factories (even those that were in China, and therefore rather hard to get to), they had jiggered, altered, or just influenced in some subtle way the results of price comparisons, market surveys, and opinion polls. They had intercepted sales reports from retail outlets to show that the price point they wished to maintain was the sweet spot for sales and profits - which it might well have been, I had no idea, but they seemed to have gone to great and mendacious lengths to ensure that that was how it seemed to their higher-ups. They had, for all intents and purposes, completely controlled the pricing of a relatively trivial piece of office equipment - so thoroughly had they been successful, in fact, that within the band that they had restrained the prices to, those prices could further be plotted as a bell curve, so that almost all of the staple-removers being sold over the last year anywhere in Britain were somewhere between three pounds eighty and three ninety-five (the bell skewed slightly, but it was close enough to a classic distribution to be accepted as one).

The mechanics of the conspiracy, then, were impeccable. They had kept it a secret for more than five years (according to the retail sales data I could get my hands on the prices had been more variable before then, so it seemed like a reasonable start point for my theory), they had controlled the prices very successfully and very resiliently in so far as even when there had been fluctuations in the prices of raw materials or the consumer demand other constraints they had put in place had ensured that the prices neither rose nor dropped outside of their desired bands, and they had done it all in so subtle a way that even when I had discovered them it took me a great deal of digging to convince myself that I had stumbled across a bone fide conspiracy and not just some series of mundane coincidences that just happened to all point in the same direction. If they had been involved in the sort of melodramatic shadowy conspiracy to take over the world that was the meat and drink of television series they would have been well on their way, and in some ways good luck to them, since their meticulous attitude towards control was at least more laudable than the seat-of-the-pants governance I'd been getting from my higher-ups (and their higher-ups) over the last four years, and possibly even more successful. After all, imagine an exchequer capable of controlling interest rates or growth so finely as the members of the micro-conspiracy had been able to control the price of staple-removers! They'd go down in history as one of the most fiscally adept governments of all time.

Such praise aside, the question remained: Why? All that effort, all that subtlety and genius, and for what? Could they really be controlling the price of staple-removers for its own sake? None of the conspirators appeared, as far as I could tell, to be profiting directly from sales - indeed, if they had, obviously the conspiracy would be an odd one, since one would expect them to be driving the prices up rather than constraining them to a tight band. They all lived modest and uninteresting lives in middish-to-largish houses, most of them married with children with just a few recalcitrant bachelors and one homosexual (in accordance with the traditional conspiratorial blueprint, I should point out, they were all men). There seemed to be absolutely no reason for the target of their conspiracy, it being of no benefit to them and causing no hardship to any group I could identify as their enemies (they were, in fact, relatively heterogeneous politically and spiritually, so that under normal circumstances I would have thought that finding a common ground between them to be vanishly unlikely).

So banal was the goal of the conspirators that for months I remained convinced that they had somehow misled me, knowing that they had been found out. I searched in vain for another possible goal, something for which the control of staple-remover prices was just an odd side-effect, something that would justify all the resources they had poured into the task. But there was nothing - or if there was anything it was too subtle for me to find despite a great deal more digging - and I was eventually forced to admit that the conspiracy was just what it appeared to be to me - a cabal gathered together to affect the prices of a quotidian piece of office equipment to no profit. There was nothing else to it, no grand plan of which this was just stage one, no awareness even that they should, if they were putting so much effort into the task, at least alter it to one from which they might benefit.

With that admission I was forced to fall back on my last remaining hypothesis, a suspicion that had been growing in me ever since I had first discovered the apparent aim of the conspiracy: that perhaps the conspirators were all just nutters. It was unsatisfying, but did at least fit all the evidence.

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