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Let's get fiscal

August 2018


Ancient tale hides a modern message

Nury Vittachi

Hong Kong’s humorist on how there are accounting lessons to be learnt, even in 2,400-year-old tales 



Ding! A string of messages appears on my phone. “HSBC: A transaction (iTunes) of HK$76 was recorded from your credit card,” says each one.

Again, my children are spending REAL MONEY on imaginary items in games on Apple iTunes. I complain that pixels have no actual value, but they don’t get it, and I retire to my desk, which is currently filled with books of folk tales.

As vital repositories of essential wisdom, ancient stories have real value. Without them, how would we know that girls should always kiss frogs, (surviving) pigs live in brick homes, and bears watch out for their porridge being stolen by mischievous blondes?

Folk tales are on the mind of the present writer, having been commissioned to compile a collection of them. Which is when an idea struck: why not research the question of whether there any ancient stories about accountants?

Answer: Because that would involve actual work.

Plan B: Instead, a quick call was made to a literature professor at a university, who provided an instant answer. “Money-related items are one of the most common subjects of ancient wisdom tales,” she said. She pointed out that Jesus told more parables about money than any other topic.

I start reading. In an ancient Buddhist document called The Jataka Tales, I found a story from India which seemed to be specifically about the first accountant, written 2,400 years ago – long before the iconic dark grey suit was invented. 

The Price Maker

The King of Benares appointed a Price Maker to value items he bought and sold. The Price Maker was careful and honest, and the kingdom functioned smoothly as a happy place for many years.

But the King became greedy, and eventually replaced the Price Maker with a man who promised to bring in more money for the Royal Family.

Mr. Profit (for that was the new man’s nickname) demanded huge fees for anything the King’s household licensed, and paid low prices for anything it bought.

The King became richer – and the kingdom less happy.

One day, a horse trader arrived in Benares with a shipment of stallions.

“We will take all the horses,” Mr. Profit said. “And send you a fair price.” He arranged for a single cup of the King’s rice to be delivered to the merchant.

The horse trader was horrified, and contacted the old Price Maker, who had retired quietly. The money man gave him an unexpected answer: “Send a nice thank-you gift to Mr. Profit and tell him you would like to learn more about the King’s wonderful rice.”

This the merchant did, and was invited to the palace.

Mr. Profit cackled with delight at how successful he had been, and arranged to meet the merchant with the King and the nobles in attendance. This would be the perfect chance to show off just how skillful he was.

At the meeting, the merchant asked: “Tell me more about the King’s rice. How much exactly is it worth?”

“A small bag of the King’s rice is worth more than a palace,” Mr. Profit enthused. “In fact, it is worth more than the entire kingdom of Benares and everything in it.”

He expected the nobles to be impressed by his bravado.

But several laughed. “You have turned the kingdom into a joke,” one said. Then they were all laughing.

Mr. Profit was humiliated.

The King was embarrassed. He sacked Mr. Profit, paid the merchant properly, and sent his servants to beg the Price Maker to return to the palace.

Happiness returned to Benares.

As you can see, this two-millennia-old tale is about the importance of prices matching valuations.

So where’s the value in imaginary goods on games on Apple iTunes?

I found the answer in the newspaper two days later: Apple has just become the first trillion U.S. dollar company, the headline said. The commentators ask: “How did Tim Cook manage that?”


Ding! Another string of messages appears on my phone. “HSBC: A transaction (iTunes) of HK$76 was recorded from your credit card,” says each one.