God, I love shaggy dog jokes.

Apologies in advance, but I felt like I needed to put a spin on this stupid old joke.

Once, there was a man who loved his little son very much. The day before his fifth birthday, the man asked him, “What would you like for your birthday?” And after thinking only a moment, the son replied, “I would like one pink ping pong ball.” “That’s it?” the man said, not quite believing his ears. “Yes, papa.” “Then a pink ping pong ball you shall have,” the man lovingly assured him. The birthday was a happy one, and the boy was thrilled to receive his gift. And when the day was over the boy went to bed after kissing his father good night, and took the ball with him. But the father never saw the pink ball again. As the boy was still young, a lost ball didn’t matter much in the scheme of things and was hardly unprecedented besides.

The next year, the boy went up to his father unprompted and asked for ten pink ping pong balls for his sixth birthday. The father furrowed his brow. “That’s fine, son, but don’t lose these like you lost your ball last year.” “Oh, I didn’t lose it, father,” the boy said. “Then where did it go?” “I will tell you one day.” Smiling, the father said he looked forward to that day. And the party was a good one, with a petting zoo and a special apple pie and ten pink ping pong balls, all in a package. And the boy went to bed that night, and just as surely as the year before, the pink ping pong balls had vanished by the following morning. What is that boy up to, the father wondered.

For his seventh birthday, the son upped his request to one hundred pink ping pong balls. “Alright, son, listen to me. I want to make you happy, but I do not make enough money to keep buying you ten times the year before’s pink ping pong balls forever, especially when I don’t know where they keep going.” “Daddy, I’ll tell you one day, but it’s important. I want you to believe in me,” the boy said, “and eventually, it will all be worth it.” The father sighed. “Then I’ll do what it takes.” And the father gave him one hundred pink ping pong balls for his birthday, and wasn’t surprised that they’d all vanished yet again the next morning. He thought about the future, and he applied to business school.

A year into gaining his MBA, the father had parlayed his newfound wisdom into a higher position in his company. Even without the degree, he made enough to comfortably pay for one thousand pink ping pong balls and have them delivered in a moving truck for his son’s eighth birthday. There was singing, and laughter, and s’mores, as the skies grew dark earlier in the autumn and the fire was good for warming yourself when the wind grew damp. There were so many pink ping pong balls they couldn’t even make it into the house! Yet the next morning, they had all gone, and the only trace of them was the boy’s wry, conspiratorial smile.

The man earned his Master’s of Business Administration and moved all the way up to CFO of his company. Even with that raise, it was no small undertaking to obtain ten thousand pink pong balls for his only son, and he had to make a number of phone calls to that end. But they arrived by air, dropped into a nearby field, and even after a football game in celebration of the boy’s ninth birthday and his father’s promotion, the balls had vanished the next morning. Only the shipping pallets marked their passing.

Presiding over a hugely successful acquisition and product launch of pink ping pong balls, the man negotiated to have part of his compensation in his company’s flagship products. Ten thousand pink ping pong balls were delivered every month for ten months out of the year in anticipation of the boy’s tenth birthday, and every single one of them vanished outright. The birthday was an extravaganza that dwarfed the others, with clowns and balloons and hired singers, and inexplicably still ended with vanished pink ping pong balls.

Pink ping pong balls swept the nation with incredible speed. And that’s good – having to set aside a million of them just for your son’s eleventh birthday was pricey. Nearly 100,000 pink ping pong balls arrived every month by helicopter and truck, an endless rosey torrent that somehow, insanely, never left. Even at wholesale it was tens of thousands of dollars poured into a mysterious hole, out of pure love. The son was always grateful, and somehow always made the balls vanish. His father wired the entire house, installed hidden cameras everywhere he could rationalize doing so, yet the balls just kept vanishing. His son was very grateful, but the deal continued: next year, he’d want a million.

His father entered politics and became governor in a close race, divesting his business to trusted partners on the condition that a million pink ping pong balls be delivered to his son, and ten million the year after. No one anywhere could determine where they went – satellite imagery turned up nothing, and state police were baffled. Even the stockholders were beginning to view this as something more pathological than endearing. Yet the shipments continued, and the boy grinned ear to ear. Twelve years celebrated, with a million of the pink ping pong balls he loved so much. What could be better?

Ten million pink ping pong balls, of course. The man’s corruption began in earnest as he strong-armed local politicians into huge infrastructure projects to keep unfathomable numbers of pink ping pong balls streaming into his property. The roads were multilaned, modern, designed to withstand the test of time and mechanical wear and tear. Under other circumstances these would be laudable, forward-looking construction projects – but not for this. Airways began experiencing considerable congestion with the incessant dropoffs of pink ping pong balls, all incomprehensibly vanishing into the ether. And all for the love of a thirteen year old boy, who by outward appearances was normal, privileged, and very grateful.

The boy became fourteen. A hundred million pink ping pong balls couldn’t be a writeoff for the company the man had led to greatness so long ago any more. He led a bloody coup and became dictator of the United States, surrounding himself with generals, economists, and lawyers who made it possible for him to seize the means of production. The United States no longer exported ideals, or entertainment, or even products… except for pink ping pong balls, and endless war for pink ping pong balls. Petroleum prices began to rise solely due to the vast scale of pink ping pong ball manufacturing. The boy was sad for what his father had done, but he assured him, this would all be worth it, and rather soon.

At fifteen the United States was nearing the limits of what hastily constructed infrastructure could do. The nation was entering a recession, borne on the back of political strife and mistrust and the indefatigable, now flatly quixotic quest for more pink ping pong balls. The skies darkened with pollution. Other nations fell to nuclear hellfire, refusing to throw their futures away for the sake of pink ping pong balls. The poor built their houses from them. The middle class ridiculed them or turned them into tacky fashion statements. The rich turned up their noses in dismay. Oceans began to fill with unwanted, discarded pink ping pong balls. And through it all, the boy’s billion coveted, secret deliverables kept vanishing without a trace.

On his sixteenth birthday the boy grew ill. Under the lunatic strain of bending the entire world’s economies to the job of making pink ping pong balls, ecological collapse was occurring at a rapid pace. Famine and illness spread, and political fighting spilled into the streets. As the father pondered the ruin of his country, and where on Earth his son managed to make ten billion pink ping pong balls vanish away to, he received word that his son had taken a dramatic turn for the worse, and they ran together to see the boy. “Son!” the man yelled. “I cannot continue this much longer. The world is dying. I will have to flee for a safe location soon, and a coup could happen any minute. I have done all of these things because I love you endlessly, and I would do them all again – but now you have to tell me why you have needed these pink ping pong balls. There is no more time! I have to know!”

“I know, father,” the boy wheezed. “I will not disappoint you. My work will save us all and usher in a new era of peace and harmony. I… the balls…”

And then he died.