In which Niall scoffs at homeschooling, looks for allies, and meets Rose, a mover and shaker, sort of.
Upon arriving at the apartment, Lora was put to bed for a nap after a long, tiring day of activities. John went to his room to start writing the paper which would explain why a rich trader would want to become a payer. It wasn’t long before Tony arrived from his day at the library and joined Niall and Brianna, who were in the kitchen preparing supper.
Niall hadn’t been able to leave the topic of home-schooling alone and was pointing out that children became far too dependent on their mother if they weren’t exposed to the rough and tumble of childish play in school. After greeting Tony upon his arrival, Niall immediately sought him as an ally in support of his argument.
“You agree with me, don’t you Tony, that education in school is better than education at home?”
“Well, as to that,” Tony said, “I don’t think you can count on me for much support. I admit that at first I was a little leery of the whole idea but Brianna wanted it so much that I finally gave in and let her try it. It’s worked great so far. John goes to the testing center every month or two and gets certified for what he’s learned. They say he’s about two years ahead of where he would be in school.”
“Sure, if you force feed him the stuff they test on you can get even a parrot to pass those tests,” Niall gruffly asserted. “He’s just memorizing stuff for the tests and forgetting it right after.”
“Actually, Dad,” Brianna said,” I don’t even know what they’re going to ask him about each time. I just teach, if you could call it that; whatever he’s interested in.”
“Yes, see, what did I tell you?” Niall pounced. “You aren’t giving him a coherent structure. You aren’t giving him things in the proper order. You aren’t directing his education. You’re just letting him play. You probably have him way ahead in some areas and way behind in others. It’s unbalanced and like any unbalanced structure it could collapse at any time. He’ll probably have to spend years overcoming the problems you’re making for him with your home grown, so-called education.”
“Hold on there, old man. Brianna’s been doing a fine job. If there were any problems with the way John was learning or what he was learning the testers would have told us right away. That’s what they get paid for.”
“Thank you, sweetie,” Brianna grinned at Tony and offered him a tempting morsel from the pot she was stirring as a reward.
“Sure, government testers,” Niall said scornfully. “I suppose if you don’t teach him the right things they take him away from you.” Niall was so upset by now that he completely forgot about not saying anything incriminating in front of the computer.
“Fat chance. I’d just like to see them try!” Brianna bristled.
Tony held up both hands to her so she turned back to the pot, stirring more briskly than was really necessary, and let Tony shoulder the load.
“Nobody could do that unless we were abusing him. If he were getting an inferior education, what would probably happen is that somebody else would try to teach him what we weren’t teaching him,” Tony said trying to calm things a bit.
“Besides,” Brianna put in, unable to resist the temptation, “nobody has to go to the testers. They’re just available if you want them. They’re just people who evaluate and certify knowledge. You’d go to the same people to qualify for admission to college. They’re just people who have a reputation for evaluating one’s education.”
“Probably just a bunch of standardized tests is all they have.”
“No Dad, from what John tells me they just played with him at first and after he could read some they played games that involved reading and math, you know, like monopoly and cribbage. Sometimes they wandered around in the park talking about what they saw.”
“Sounds to me like they’re a bunch of swindlers,” Niall interrupted. “They aren’t competent to judge how well educated someone is.”
“Well now, Mr. Campbell since they won’t get paid for years unless they detect a real problem, how are they going to swindle us?
“Tony, just because you don’t know how they are doing it doesn’t mean they aren’t doing it. They’re just slick or have some deal going with someone.” Niall’s patronizing tone sent Brianna’s anger up another notch.
“Look here, Tony is a very well educated man. He lives with Johnny. If Johnny were badly educated, Tony would know it right away.”
“Well if home-schooling is such a good idea, why are you the only one doing it?” Niall countered.
“The only one?” Brianna began laughing.
“There are more home-schooled kids than there are kids in traditional schools these days,” Tony informed Niall with an amused smile. “Since the transition far more mothers and even a lot of fathers have decided that being home with and educating their kids is more rewarding than working for more luxuries. Now they have the choice. Women often felt trapped into having to work even if they wanted to be a stay at home mother. It used to be that single mothers, you know, those who were divorced or never married, would have to have a job or go on welfare. Now they can do what’s best for their children, whether that means staying home or day care. And to sweeten the deal they get paid for educating their own children.”
“Amateur teachers will never do the job that professional teachers can,” Niall said, sticking to his guns.
“Dad, you aren’t going to convince us and we aren’t going to change what’s been so successful, so you might as well just relax and let it go.”
Niall was still somewhat upset, but dinner was almost ready and the kids would be coming in soon so Niall went to his bedroom to wash up for supper.
After he left the room, Brianna turned to Tony almost in tears.
“Why does he attack the way I’m teaching Johnny and Lora? I’m doing a good job with them. Everybody says so.”
“Darling, from what you’ve told me about his career, it was to get families in underdeveloped nations to send their children to the schools he helped to organize. Now here you are, his own daughter, keeping your kids out of school. Is it any wonder he feels somewhat betrayed? Don’t you worry, darling. You’re doing great with the kids. Just be as tolerant as you can of your dad. Remember that he’s been under a lot of stress and he’s likely to have a short temper because of it.”
After dinner, they went out to the playground behind the apartments, and sat on some benches under the shade trees to enjoy the cool breezes of dusk. The benches gave a good view of the area where Lora was playing in a sand box with some other children near her age, and a basketball backboard where John had joined several boys playing a half-court game.
There were other parents there who knew Tony and Brianna and they all fell into a general conversation. Brianna told them that her father had been out of the country for 15 years and was learning a lot of new things. She mentioned the trip to D.C. and how it had changed since the transition. One of the women, named Rose, had been a government worker in those days and described how she experienced the transition.
“Oh honey, you should have been here. It was a hoot. We had all these VIPs in D.C. and suddenly, they were just people like the rest of us. I remember how my boss reacted when we told him we were quitting. He kept telling us, ‘Hang in there for just a few more weeks. This new money thing will have blown over by then. No government can last without taxing.’ And so forth. But we just waved goodbye. I wonder how long he kept coming to work. It can’t have been too long because the building I used to work in was soon being used as a hotel.”
“What did you do without work?” Niall asked.
“At first I was kind of at loose ends, you know? I was used to going to work every day. I guess I mostly missed my friends from work. They just scattered to the four winds. I still talk to a couple of them but we’ve drifted apart now.”
“Tell him about your husband, Rose,” Brianna suggested.
“That doofus, he was as bad as the rest of them. You know he had a position with the Federal Trade Commission back then and after about six months people began to realize that no one was enforcing the regulations and laws having to do with trade any more. Reggie was a lawyer in those days but there was just nothing for him to do. And of course he wasn’t being paid by the government any more so there didn’t seem to be any reason to go to the office for him either.”
“Is that why you had to come here to live?” Niall asked.
“Honey, I didn’t have to come here, I wanted to come here. After Reggie left me I sat at home alone for several days feeling miserable. I guess there was a lot of that going around in my circle of friends. Anyway, they called me from time to time to cry on my shoulder and pretty soon I noticed that when I was helping them I wasn’t miserable about myself. I had plenty of money what with our investments and retirement plans and all.”
Rose’s situation was far from unique in those days, especially in Washington. Many couples, whose marriages had already been under considerable stress due to the economic and social dislocations of the time, found the loss of status of the main bread winner too much to bear.
It was during a time in which the divorce rate had risen sharply in the months after the transition. The courts were flooded with cases. Many of the plaintiffs were women who had felt trapped in abusive marriages by the need to support their children. After the transition they no longer needed a husband’s income. Some were men who had wanted to leave their wives but had feared the alimony or child support payments. Some had seen in the sharp increase in divorces the signs of a disintegration of the American family. But within two years the divorce rate had fallen to levels well below the decades before the transition. It turned out that money problems had been one of the main causes of divorce. Especially among the poor, men no longer left their wives so their families could collect welfare and women no longer married any man who appeared able to provide an income. There were very few arguments over how the family money was spent, since each person’s money was their own. If a husband or wife chose to take some time away from work, it didn’t endanger their spouse or children. Also, the pressures of work became dramatically less and with less stress families could be more loving.
“Did you get alimony or a good divorce settlement?” Niall had interrupted the narrative to ask. Brianna frowned at him but what can a daughter say when her visiting father puts his foot in his mouth?
“Alimony? Honey, there’s no alimony any more. All that happens in a divorce settlement is each person keeps what they own. Now Reggie and I were joint owners of our house and the cars so we had to decide who got which car. Reggie was man enough to give me his half of the house, I gotta give him that.
Our kids had already been living on their own for several years. In fact, when Maureen left for college is when I went back to work. So anyway I had plenty of money.”
Since money could no longer be transferred there was no way alimony could be paid even if a judge were willing to grant it. Child support was no longer necessary because all the necessities were covered already and giving food or shelter or clothes to a child was a quick source of money for anyone who had them to give. Those things that had joint ownership could be given to others or sold to others in the case of luxuries and the pay for those actions was split between the parties. Thus with the money aspects of divorce simplified, the other aspects of divorce, mainly child custody, could be emphasized.
“And you came here because…” Tony said making little circles with his hand to get her back to her previous point.
“I came because, well, I thought I could be useful here. I just got on the bus one day and started riding all over looking for a neighborhood that was friendly and comfortable. I wanted one where the people went outdoors and talked to each other. When I came down the street over there, there were a lot of kids playing in a playground over on the other side of Dickens there. Of course it was just a vacant lot in those days. And there were lots of people sitting on the stoops of the apartments and there just seemed to be a buzz of people talking friendly with each other.”
“So you came here because people were outside and talking?”
“Yes, but I didn’t realize that there were so many people outside and so many windows open because they were redecorating their apartments and they didn’t like the paint fumes.” Rose laughed and swayed at how she had fooled herself.
The others chuckled in appreciation and grinned encouragement to go on.
“So I got right off that bus and went to see the apartment manager about getting an apartment. Well, they didn’t really have an apartment manager so I sort of got the job by accident. That’s my apartment just to the left as you come in the main foyer of Dickens, there.”
“You seem to like it here even if you were fooled,” Tony added.
“Honey, I’m having a blast.”
Brianna reached across to squeeze Rose’s arm and said, “And we love you here, too. You’re such a good person. Like that poor girl that came in last January with three young ones, just babies, really, and you had her all tucked in and comfortable within a few hours. It’s no wonder that for a week or so she almost cried every time she saw you.”
“Well who wouldn’t help her, the poor baby? Her husband had been beating her and she’d been hiding the injuries and lying to the doctor about how she got them. Then when he threatened to kill her and the kids, she just got on the bus with them, no clothes or anything and rode until she realized that the bus was going back to her own neighborhood. Then she got off right over there and just stood there holding a baby in her arms and two little ones hanging onto her skirts. I mean it was enough to make anyone cry. How could I refuse to help her?”
“How could anyone else get the chance to help her?” Tony laughed. “From what I’ve heard, you were out there like a flash and brought her in and had half the people in the building scurrying around to get things for her and her children before she could blink.”
“And you were so brave,” Brianna added, “when her husband came to drag her back home. You practically chased him out of the building, threatening to have him arrested.” Brianna couldn’t help laughing, remembering Rose, who couldn’t have been more than five feet two, confronting a man over six feet tall and winning easily.
“Why wasn’t he arrested for hurting her before she left home?” Niall asked. “Not that it’s any of my business, of course.”
“She never pressed charges. She just let him do it,” an indignant Rose said. Then, more thoughtfully, she continued, “I guess her self-confidence was just so low and she thought so little of herself that she felt she deserved it. But we’re working on that. You just wait. In a few more months, well, she’s still a little clingy, you know? She doesn’t like to go out without me right there. I think she’s still afraid her husband will be there. But I told Buster that I wanted to know if that husband of hers was anywhere in the neighborhood and he hasn’t said boo about it, so I think he must have given up on her by now.”
“Who’s Buster?” Niall asked.
“Oh that’s just what I call the computer,” Rose laughed. “You know, like Buster Keaton in the old silent movies? When I first started using him years ago he was rather stiff faced and somber all the time, which reminded me of Buster Keaton, so I started calling him that.”
“Nowadays,” Tony said, seizing a chance to contribute to the conversation, “the computer is much better at simulating real people. That’s why they tell you in the movies which characters are people and which are just the simulations.”
“You mean you can’t tell otherwise?” Niall wasn’t so much shocked, since he was used to advances in computer technology being almost faster than one could keep up with, it was more worry that the images he would see on the phone might not be real. He could picture talking to Brianna, or thinking it was Brianna, and having it really be just the computer.
“Some people think they can tell,” Rose said, "but I don’t think they can. I mean, they don’t even put makeup on the real actors any more, they do all of that during the editing process."
The conversation continued on in a general way, skipping from one topic to another and Niall’s mind had drifted back to its chronic worries.
Almost without realizing it, Niall’s view of the current situation had begun to change. If the government had dissolved 15 years ago, then the current threat couldn’t be the plot of an old-style totalitarian regime as in the novel 1984 with its “Big Brother.” It had to be some more subtle scheme in which powerful forces were seeking total control, mind control if you will, of the general population. The conspiracy obviously had found ways to keep the general population passive, calm, and unresisting while their heritage of freedom was deftly stolen from them as if by a pickpocket with invisible hands. One day the people of America might wake up and realize they were in chains, but by then it would be too late to do anything about it.
Surely, he thought, there were others who shared his concern. Surely he was not the only one to see the scope of the problem. Before he had left the country, there had been political movements and groups which had been sensitive to every infringement of freedom. Of course, what had seemed an infringement to one group had been accepted by other groups and the various groups couldn’t agree on who was responsible for the loss of freedoms. But all these groups couldn’t have simply disappeared. Unless, of course, they had been suppressed.
A computer system that permeated daily life as this new computer system seemed to do would make it possible to identify every person who had participated in such groups, no matter where they went. He had heard Rose casually mentioning following the cruel husband’s movements using her computer. It would be possible by using such a computer system even to fake such groups as they faked real actors in the movies just to lure from hiding those who did love freedom. Could it be that love of freedom had been eradicated already? Could all the patriots already be in prison or dead? How could Niall even look for others who shared his beliefs without becoming a suspect?
Tony might be the answer. Tony was doing historical research on the time of the transition and before. Perhaps Tony would be able to tell him what he now needed to know. But could he trust Tony? Would he be able to get Tony to talk about the right topics and would Tony tell the truth? Was it even safe to ask questions about politics? The way to go might be to use Rose. She seemed to talk about everything else. Perhaps she could be brought to talk about politics and those small political parties. "Let’s see," Niall thought. "Freedom of the press, there’s lots of reasons for asking about newspapers. That can lead to issues of the day and editorials and politics. That’s the way to get it started."
“Rose, I’ve been thinking of getting a job,” Niall began, hardly noticing that he had interrupted the others’ conversational thread. “Are there any good jobs in the want ads?”
“Honey, there’s work to be done everywhere, you just have to decide what’s good for you, personally. If you want to work, examine what you like to do and go with that.”
Rose wasn’t helping.
“But wouldn’t the want ads give me more of an idea of what kinds of things people are doing these days? I mean, for example, if I liked being a paper shuffling bureaucrat I’d be out of luck, wouldn’t I?”
“We don’t use paper much any more. Why, even when I was with the IRS in the old days, we were almost paperless by time of the transition.”
"Rose, talk about the newspapers." Niall thought. He was grinding his mental teeth in frustration.
“Do we even still have newspapers? I mean, if everything is paperless did they cease to exist, too?” That’ll get her.
“Oh, sure. People still like to read from paper and newspapers are handy for other things too, sometimes. The want ads are a little different, though,” said Rose, finally talking about something Niall wanted.
“How so?” asked Niall, willing her to elaborate.
“Well, they don’t talk about skills so much as what needs to be accomplished. They’re more in the nature of project announcements than individual work descriptions. Also, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish them from the news. If people have specific skills they want to use, they go to an employment office since it doesn’t cost anything and you get personal service. It’s much quicker and more efficient than the want ads.”
“How about if I wanted to place an ad asking for work? How would I go about that?”
“You’d go to an employment office. You wouldn’t put an ad in the paper.” Rose was sure stubborn.
“But if I did want to put an ad in the paper, how would I do it?” Niall was stubborn, too.
“Why, just call them up and tell them what you want the ad to say. If you have a particular picture or something you want in the ad, you could send that to them as well.”
“Will they print that ad no questions asked?” Niall asked skeptically.
“They print what they think will provide the most benefit,” Tony said.” If you want them to use space in their paper for something silly or worthless, you’d be out of luck. For that you have to try a vanity press. That aspect of the printing business hasn’t changed much. It’d be a lot easier just to put it on the Internet. That’s a lot quicker and no one cares much what you say there. Of course it’ll be part of your reputation, so most folks are careful what they present.” Tony had been following the conversation and had joined in on this point since it was not something he thought Rose would be interested in.
“What about political ads?” Niall said, being a little careless due to the frustration.
“Political ads?” Rose said. “Oh, you mean those commercials and things we had on TV before the transition. Oh, we don’t have those any more.”
No political ads? Was it censorship? Was freedom of the press gone just like that?
“Why not?” Niall said before he could censor himself.
Tony, seeing another lecture opportunity, took this one. “First, most of those ads were lies in one way or another, so none of the media today would present them to the public, since it would reduce their pay. Second, since a political party can’t own money, the parties couldn’t pay for their presentation in any vanity press way. Third, and probably most important, when governments stopped spending money and stopped regulating business, only a few people cared about political parties any more. There are other reasons as well but those are the main ones.”
"I’ll just bet there are other reasons," Niall thought.
Brianna said, "Tony, why don’t you go see how the kids are doing?" trying to head off the lecture that seemed sure to come otherwise.
“Oh, they’re fine, dear. They’re right over there,” Tony said giving a vague gesture toward the playground swings.
“How do people campaign for office without ads?” Niall asked next.
Tony said, “They appear on television before the election and state the case for why they should be elected. They write position papers which are posted on their websites. The newspapers print biographies and excerpts from their position papers. The candidates appear at public debates held in various parts of the State.”
“What about the political parties?” Niall asked. “How are they involved?”
“The parties still exist,” Tony continued, “but they’ve changed quite a bit. The people who were most important and influential in the old parties moved on to other areas of work. The new parties’ organizations are mostly composed of what you might call ‘true believers’ for some social issue or other. It’s fragmented most of the old parties. The Republicans’ main split was between those who were Christian fundamentalists and the economic conservatives. The Democrats splintered into ethnic parties and what you might call Socialists, though the latter only lasted a couple of years. The ethnic parties also lost a lot of attractiveness when they found their members really could become Payers. Most of the economic discrimination they’d faced just melted away, so the emotion behind their political involvement also melted away.”
“You’re lecturing again, Tony,” said Brianna. “He sounds just like a professor when he gets off on one of his subjects.”
“My ignorance could benefit from a few lectures,” Niall put in, not wanting a valuable source of information scared off. “So there aren’t just two dominant parties any more?”
“No. There must be half a dozen important parties but even then they’re important to so few people that they influence only a tiny part of the electorate.”
“Don’t people care who gets elected any more?” Niall said, fearing the worst.
“Most people’s lives aren’t really affected by the elections, since the government controls so very little and the Payers only pay for good behavior. If some nut gets elected to a high office and tries to mess up, all the people below them in the bureaucracy just ignore the stupid orders and go on doing their best.”
“What about judges and the police? Don’t the politicians have a lot to do with who the judges are and how the police enforce the laws?” Niall said.
Tony’s reply was hardly comforting.
“There’s very little crime these days. It’s almost impossible to make money from committing a crime, so few people steal, for example. Most of the crimes the police deal with are crimes of violence. Since preventing or stopping violence is so obviously beneficial, any elected official who told the police to allow violence would probably not just be ignored as an office holder but would be considered insane.”
“As for the judges, their case loads are way down. There aren’t any more lawsuits for money, for example. There are far fewer money crimes. There’s no organized crime. There are only a few crimes for drugs or over drugs, since the black-market supply has almost disappeared. The judges who send a lot of people to jail for long sentences aren’t paid as much as the judges who arrange for the guilty to change their ways. Sentencing has become far more creative than it was. State laws which used to prescribe long sentences have also been changing since keeping people in prison for long periods is very expensive and does the victims little good. Restitution has come to be very important.”
“So,” Niall said, “some radical gets elected by a tiny portion of the population and puts into office a bunch of judges with an agenda. Looks like everybody gets ‘hung out to dry’ on that one.”
Tony, in full lecture mode, responded,
“Judges serve long terms, so no one office holder gets to appoint a very large proportion of them. Also, judges get paid, too. If they’re doing off the wall things they won’t get as much pay. For criminal cases, if the District Attorneys think a judge is making judgments that are inappropriate, they won’t take cases to that court. Finally, in most States, the accused has the right to a change in venue if he doesn’t like the judge. If you aren’t in one of those States, then you’d have to depend on the appeal process. The system isn’t perfect but it wasn’t perfect before the transition either.”
“Enough already, Tony. Maybe Dad doesn’t mind hearing your lectures but I’ve heard enough for one night. Besides it’s getting late and we need to get the kids in.” Brianna was on her feet and motioning to the children.
Niall thanked Rose for educating him and told Tony that he’d heard far worse lectures when he was in college.
Lying in bed waiting for sleep to come, Niall reviewed what he’d learned. It looks like finding a freedom-loving underground will be difficult or impossible. If the political parties and voting are fading away, then the powers that be have already eliminated the most obvious threat to their staying in power. When the old government sort of evaporated, that left an enormous power vacuum and somebody must have filled it. But who are they? They’re not the administration. That’s obviously just a facade. There doesn’t seem to be any mention of a dominant church, so it’s probably not a religious group as it would be back in the Middle East.
I’ve noticed that these Payers keep coming up whenever anyone mentions control and limitations. They’re paying for the free food and housing. They pay the International Traders. They pay even the judges, for crying out loud. I can just guess how fair the judges would be if their paymasters were accused of anything. This business of living in poverty is probably just a front. Like in the Middle Ages when there were a lot of priests who lived in poverty but the Cardinals and Abbots and such lived in luxury. Perhaps that’s what’s happening here. If they control the computer, too, in addition to doing all that paying, then I can be certain that if anyone is pulling all the strings from behind the scenes, it’s a group of the Payers.
But how can I find out which Payers are the ones in control? Tomorrow I’m going to find a newspaper and see what that has to offer. You can tell a lot about what’s going on by what’s allowed to be printed and what isn’t. Also, I need to find a job. I don’t think Brianna likes hearing the truth about her educating the kids and if she’s as stubborn as her mother, I’ll never get her to let the kids go to school.