david lindsley FIET; Hon Fellow, Kingston  University

… communicating engineering

The miller’s tale

Old Tom had run his flour mill for as long as anybody could remember. In fact, his family had a long history of milling; he had inherited the business from his father, who had inherited it from his own father. Over the years, the family had turned it into a thriving little operation. Learning the trade from his father, Old Tom (then known as Young Thomas) had grown to know each and every customer by name; he knew their wives and children’s names too and the names of their farm animals and their pets. People would come from miles around to buy his flour.

When his father retired at the ripe old age of ninety-three, Young Thomas took on all the responsibilities of the mill and in the process acquired his new name, Old Tom.

From his father, he had learned about all the many varieties of flour and their uses. His bread flour had a highly-acclaimed balance of starch and protein. His cake flour was milled to a fine texture, yielding a softer and more delicate crumb. His pastry flour was so famous that people would queue in the rain to buy it. Housewives knew that its fine texture produced flaky pastry crust and that some secret ingredient prevented pastries from becoming too dense or chewy.

He was very flexible and obliging and on request would even produce semolina or rice flour.

But more than that, Old Tom knew the mill itself. He knew how it worked during every season: from spring, when the river that powered it raged and ran swiftly with the melting ice and snow from the distant high mountains; through summer when it would sometimes flow so weakly that it seemed about to fail (but never did); and in the autumn when he would have to regularly clear leaves and branches from the inlet filters; and then through the winter when the sluices would oftimes freeze.

He knew when the huge millstone needed cleaning and he knew how to recognise every creak and rumble of the mill: he could recognise any signs of trouble in the squeaks of stout wooden shafts and gears. He could tell from the vibrating boards beneath his feet when a bearing needed lubrication.

Old Tom worked closely with other mill operators in the county. They cooperated with each other in a collaborative that operated very effectively.

Then, one day, a minister of the Government paid them all a visit. He called them to a meeting where he told them that the King had come to an important decision about the way the flour mills operated. The millers looked at each other, wondering what the King or his ministers knew about milling.

‘The people are complaining!’ the minister said. ‘Your flour and bread are far too expensive.’

‘But we are charging a fair price,’ Old Tom said. ‘We have to run the mills, buy the grain, do all the prep …’

But before he could finish, the minister interrupted. ‘Exactly! The way you operate your mills is far too expensive and inefficient.’

‘Expensive?’ the millers chorused. ‘Inefficient?’

‘Indeed,’ the minister said triumphantly. ‘His Majesty has heard from millers in another land about how they operate. Their mills are far less expensive to build and run than ours, so they can sell flour at much lower prices. As a result their whole economy thrives.’

Old Tom knew a little about this. He had heard how the mills in “another country”, an ally of his own, were built, so he was ready to argue.

‘But I have heard that they build their mills with flimsy materials,’ he said.

‘Perhaps,’ the minister countered, ‘but they work just as well.’

‘But for how long?’ another miller asked. ‘Build cheap and you pay in the long run.’

‘Ah!’ the minister chortled. ‘That’s it! In the long run. But in the meantime the construction and operating costs are low.’

And before anybody could explain the stupidity of the claims the minister drove his argument home: ‘And here’s another thing,’ he said, ‘it’s called Competition.’

The millers’ collective jaws dropped and there was a brief silence before Old Tom asked, ‘Competition?’

‘Yes!’ came the answer. ‘By setting up several different milling companies which would compete with each other, people would know that they are getting their bread and flour at the best possible price.’

‘But we wouldn’t compete with each other,’ one miller protested as his fellow millers nodded in agreement. ‘We would carry on serving our customers and charging honest prices.’

‘We understand,’ the minister replied. ‘But you must understand too. You are too involved with the nitty-gritty of milling to see the wider picture. The future is commercial!

‘Commercial?’ the millers asked, staring at each other in bewilderment.

As the minister started to leave he turned and came back to the distraught millers. ‘Oh, and there’s another thing,’ he said. ‘The Government has decided that these old water mills are too old and inefficient. We are going to start building windmills instead – much more in keeping with the modern age.’

The millers protested that whereas their machinery worked faithfully and reliably for most of the year, windmills only worked when … well, when the wind blew – which was not every day. Also, to start building them now would involve a hugely expensive programme of capital expenditure.

‘Yes,’ the minister replied, ‘we know all that. We know how much they cost, but we have decided that they are so valuable that we should subsidise them. People can point to their sails turning and see how our government is harnessing nature to feed the country.’

The millers groaned. Some had built windmills themselves, mills that worked very efficiently, but they envied the millers who used water, which ran day in and day out through still days as well as windy ones. And as for the cost – the millers knew very well where the money was going to come from – “government subsidies” was just another term for public subscription. It wouldn’t be the Government’s money that was to subsidise the windmills it was to be the taxpayers’. And with the benefir of these subsidies and grants the windmills would under-cut the water mills which were un-subsidised and would suffer in the unfair competition. ‘These politicians are creating an unrealistic market,’ they said with one voice ‘And as a result our businesses will suffer.’ But nobody listened to them.

But they were powerless to stop the madness. Within a short time, ranks of commercial, financial and marketing experts has been dragooned into their industry. Many of the millers saw the light and took early retirement. The few who remained wrung their hands as the madness spread. The new managers were determined to cut costs: machines were left untended until they broke down; skilled workers were allowed to leave and were not replaced; the work of keeping the mill streams was neglected.

But the customers were beguiled by fancy new packaging and “bargain offers”. On occasion they would find themselves travelling dozens of miles to but bread and flour which were basically the same as those produced by nearer mills, simply because of some dubious and ephemeral “benefit”. Advertising agents were hired to extol the virtues of competing mills. Expensive flim-flam men were engaged to conceal the truth and explain away the failures of poorly-maintained mills and the fragility of the remaining ones.

Of course, all of this drove up the price of the products but the people had been thoroughly duped and failed to see what was happening.

And only a few people saw that these peripheral ‘experts’ only added to the costs of the businesses, and that the wonderful offers that promised lower prices were in fact a smoke-screen. When a few wise men pointed out the madness and showed that the flour and bread and buns and rolls were now actually much more expensive than they would have been if they had been allowed to continue their old ways, the government said it was untrue and that the rising prices were the result of the natural process of inflation.

Eventually, of course, reality dawned, and in the end the country had to start importing flour and bread from foreign competitors who used slave labour to cut their costs.

* * * *

Yes, my friends, it continues to this day – it’s called privatisation.

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