Barney had owned a good farm with a fine dwelling house. The farming had been his life and only in his latter years had he married; he had worried about being alone in his advancing years without a woman’s presence in the house. The marriage had come with costs. His new wife had decided that an isolated farmhouse was not the place for one’s retirement years, as fine a house as it might be. The house was sold, along with the good land that went with it, and a bungalow was bought in a seaside town.
Barney never talked much about being a seaside pensioner; it was his farming days and his horse race going days that were recalled with fondness. One almost got the impression that marriage was recalled as an investment that had not paid off, Barney’s wife had died soon after they had moved to her desired bungalow and he had given up independent living and had moved into an old people’s home.
Barney was fond of talking about good and bad investments, mainly in terms of successes and losses at race tracks. Barney would remember his bad bets as well as his good ones, unlike many punters we knew. His favourite story about a bet going wrong did not concern himself, but a man he knew who had accepted a bad bet.
The man had been a bus conductor who had shown great mathematical aptitude – particularly for calculating horse race odds and making successful bets. An affluent man had noticed the bus conductor’s skill at numbers and loaned him a large sum of cash so that the conductor could set himself up as an on course bookmaker. The conductor was not long in his new business before he took a big bet at long odds; he chose not to ‘lay off’ the bet, to share the risk, and also the potential gain, with his fellow bookmakers. The long odds horse came in and the man was cleaned out; it cost him all he had to pay the bet, including the money he had been loaned.
The man realized that he could not repay the loan and went to the person who had lent him the money explaining that it had all gone wrong, that he would hope to get back his job on the buses, and that he would try to repay the loan as best as he could. The affluent man said that the conductor would not make the same mistake again; that he would loan him more money and that he would repay him from the profit he made.
A second loan was advanced, the conductor went back onto the course, and the money rolled in, allowing the loans to be repaid and the new bookmaker to live well.
The continuing financial crisis presents two sorts of choices. There are those like Barney’s decision to simply to write off his decision to leave the life and community he had known as a bad investment, there are times when the only realistic choice is to accept losses and to draw a line under the matter. There are those, like the choice of the man who had lent the money, to put even more money into an investment in the hope that this time it would pay off.
Europe’s present economic policy seems seems caught between the two, neither prepared to write off the bad decisions, nor to invest in the hope of better times. It seems unable to either let go of the past or to grasp the future.