Invisible Hand – Chapter Nine: Tourist

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In which Niall sees some sights and begins to learn about Payers.

After breakfast, Tony left for the “library”, and Brianna organized the kids for a tour of the city to show Niall how things had changed since he’d last been there. The kids were excited and John insisted that he could tell his granddad all about the best things to see. Living near Washington, D.C., they had been to a number of the museums and the monuments on field trips before but such trips never failed to be a treat for them.

As they were going down in the elevator Niall had a thought, “How are we going to get around? Have you got a car?”

“No car. We always take the bus. The bus and a little walking always gets us where we need to go,” Brianna said.

“How about if I rent one?”

“That would cost you a lot, plus the hassle and then we’d have to spend a lot of time looking for parking places. It just isn’t worth it. We go places on the bus all the time. It’s easy.”

So they waited at the bus stop in front of the building. Sure enough, within a couple of minutes a bus pulled up.

“Is this our bus?” Niall asked.

John said, “They all go down town eventually. This is one of the express buses. It’ll take us only about 30 minutes to get to the capital buildings if that’s what you want to see.”

“He’s right. We should take this one.”

They got on the bus and a couple of people moved so they could sit together. There didn’t seem to be any Payers on this bus. Everybody was wearing at least one thing that looked like a luxury. Niall was surprised to notice that it was getting so he could pick a payer out of a group almost without thinking about it. He also noticed that there was no charge to ride the bus.

“Is everything free or is it just my imagination?” he asked no one in particular.

John said, “Lots of things are luxuries or have a luxury form. Most food’s free but some foods are luxury items. But if it’s something that helps you work, like riding the bus to work, that’ll most likely be free. Dad says that it used to be that everybody drove cars to work but that when the transition came, people started riding the bus more so they could save their money for the better luxuries.”

“Don’t forget that there was a huge gas shortage around the time of the transition,” Brianna added. “A lot of people couldn’t get gas for their cars so they had to ride the bus. Now that the shortage is over, people have found that they want to spend their money on other things instead of supporting their cars. They found out how really expensive a car is to run when they discovered that it was their biggest expense every month.”

“I’ll bet the price of gas went through the roof,” Niall commented.

“It got so bad before the transition that the government was rationing the gas; after the transition gas just sort of rationed itself. And, of course the price hasn’t changed since the transition.”

“How does gas ration itself?” Niall asked with disbelief obvious in his expression.

“It was the gas stations and the refineries and the distributors. They realized that if they sold gas to people for whom gas was just a luxury we’d run out of gas sooner so they only gave gas to people who were using it to do things that we really needed done. Bus drivers could get gas, for example, because people needed to get to work. But car owners had the choice of riding the bus instead, so they didn’t get gas. Also, lots of people found that they could do their jobs from home at least some days and didn’t commute every day. Lots of other people moved closer to where they worked at least temporarily. It was like rationing but there was no central authority saying who would get gas and who wouldn’t. It was up to every individual gas station owner. They each made their own decisions. And since the petroleum industry was making all their records public so everybody could see how much gas and oil we had and how it was being distributed and how much we used each day and what we had coming in from abroad, we could all see what a difference our efforts were making. In a lot of ways it was rather exciting.”

Niall thought, ‘No central authority my foot. I’ll bet government rationing was continued, they just called it something else.’

“It seemed like everyone was pulling together,” Brianna continued awash in nostalgia. “People found that by riding the bus or train and staying home more they spent far less on gas. We also found that we could produce all sorts of things without using petroleum. Corn farmers were supplementing their gasoline with alcohol, for example. These days, of course, we convert almost any organic material to natural gas and oil so we use very little petroleum. They say that within a few years we won’t be pumping any oil since we already have plenty of organic material available to just keep recycling it for the oil we need. We also don’t have a garbage problem any more. We just dump everything into the recycling bins and it goes to the TDP plants to be made into oil and fertilizer and such.”

“TDP plants? What are they?” Niall asked.

“I know, I know” Lora piped up. Trips are exciting but it’s more fun when Mommy pays attention to her best girl. “TDP makes gas.”

“I know,” said John with an air of superiority. “TDP is the thermal conversion process, also known as thermal depolymerization. They use heat and pressure to break big molecules into small ones. They keep the process going by burning the gas that comes out.”

“Yes,” said his mother. “Those landfills, garbage dumps and sewage treatment plants turned out to be full of things we could make into oil. For a while there it was as if everybody was going to get rich building those TDP plants. They sprouted up all over the country. They even put biohazard hospital wastes into those things and the result comes out absolutely sterile.”

“And,” John broke in. “We also get a lot of our electricity from burning the gas. And the water that comes out is sterile so we don’t have pollution from our garbage any more.”

‘It’s a family curse,’ Niall thought. ‘They all want to give me lectures.’

By this time, the bus had left the poor neighborhood with its large apartments and one could see the top of the Washington Monument in the distance. As they approached the bridge, the number of buses had increased so that almost all the traffic was trucks and buses with the occasional taxi.

“Dad,” Brianna said, “would you rather ride the bus around to sightsee or get out and walk? Lora can’t walk a long way but if you’d like to walk we can get a stroller for her and push her.”

Niall, remembering Washington as he had known it, didn’t want to ride through some of the bad neighborhoods and have derelicts and drug addicts get on the bus with them. “Let’s get out and walk around the capital buildings like the other tourists.”

When the bus pulled into its next stop, they trooped off and John said, “Let’s go to the Smithsonian first.”

“No, I want to see the dinosaurs,” Lora pleaded.

“This trip is for Granddad,” Brianna pointed out. “Let’s see what he wants to see.”

As they walked past one of the huge office buildings that had been built for Congressional staff, Niall noticed that it had been converted into a hotel. This surprised him.

“What did they do with the people who worked in those offices?” he asked.

“Most of them moved away when their jobs ended,” Brianna said.

“You mean they got fired?” Niall was incredulous.

“No,” said Brianna. “They just didn’t make enough money at what they were doing and went other places where they could make more money. Remember that this town was mainly for running the government. There are a few government agencies left like the Census Bureau. I think they still have their original offices. DC still has some colleges and a few military bases and a lot of tourists still come, but for a time there it looked like it would just dry up and blow away.”

“Where did they move the government?”

“Most of it didn’t move at all. It just ceased to exist. They didn’t have to enforce business regulations any more. There was no more welfare system. Almost the only laws that are left are State laws for things like marriage and crimes like stealing and assault. We even have a lot fewer things that are crimes. Oh, you still get arrested if you hurt someone or do something bad to a child. If you destroy something that doesn’t belong to you, it’s a crime. But if you want to gamble or take recreational drugs like alcohol, it isn’t against the law. And you can run your business any way you want. Of course you won’t make any money if you’re hurting people or making their lives unpleasant.”

‘A lot fewer things that are crimes,’ Niall thought, ‘I’ll bet they just don’t bother with trials and such. Off to prison or whatever and nobody even knows about it. That’s the way to reduce the crime statistics.’

“The biggest business here now is coordinating international trade.”

“So the government runs international trade?”

“Oh, no. About all they have to do with that is gathering information from our embassies in other countries. They make it available to our traders so they’ll have as much information as possible. The traders are given all sorts of things to exchange with other nations and businesses.”


“Sorry. Let me start that one over. You see, we want things from other nations and so we have to trade for them. So far, so good?”

“Yeah, that’s obvious.”

“So since we have no money of our own (for all practical purposes) we have to trade by barter,” Brianna explained.

“Barter is too inefficient,” Niall said. “That’s why a good money is necessary to a good economy. Remember how Germany suffered in the 1920s from incredible inflation? They fell back on barter and the economy almost collapsed.”

“But, Dad, when you have the resources of a whole nation and you’re dealing with huge quantities, barter is just as efficient as trade using money. Also, it doesn’t matter how the economy of your trading partner is doing, you can still trade, whether they have money or not and whether it’s suffering from inflation or not. Remember when Brazil had that 1000% per week inflation? It didn’t affect any of our trades with them. We still wanted their products and they still wanted ours. In effect, we were saying to them ‘So long as you produce things we want, we’ll give you things you want, so keep producing.’ This let them continue to work and produce knowing that they’d be getting paid in goods.”

“I wasn’t exactly reading the newspapers during that crisis so I can’t say I remember what happened.” said Niall. “But where do these international traders get the goods to trade?”

“People give them stuff to trade.”

“In exchange for what? Nobody gives something for nothing unless they’re forced to.”

“In exchange for money. The Payers find out what’s done with the stuff we got in exchange for our goods and when we use or consume that stuff, those who supplied the traders get paid.”

“But why in the world would somebody produce something and just give it to one of the traders and hope that he’d make a good trade? It might take months before anything came back so you could get paid.”

“Dad, why did companies in the old days hire salesmen? Didn’t those companies give their products to those salesmen and hope the salesmen would return with money? That’s what the international traders or ITs are, they’re salesmen for all the people who give them things. They’re just salesmen. It would be really hard for every producer to find and develop a foreign market for themselves. So they ask the ITs to do it for them. ITs are really experts in what they do. They’re very good at negotiating and they have all this information, like satellite images and such. And they help each other. You really can make a lot more money by giving your products to an IT than you can by trying to trade them yourself.”

“But how do you know how much you’ll get paid? They might just take the stuff and leave you flat,” Niall pointed out.

“How did any business know how much profit it was going to get in the old days? They didn’t know. They just had to do the best they could and hope for the best.”

“But what if an IT just took the goods and ran off with them?” Niall was determined to show it wouldn’t work. Just why he wasn’t sure, especially given that it was rather obvious that it already was working.

“Reputation, Dad. If they did that no one would give them more stuff. They get a lot of money for being good traders and that money would be cut off. If they just left the country, all the money that they would get for trades they had made previously would be unavailable. They have everything to lose and nothing to gain by running off.

“Look, basically the ITs find out what other people want and let our producers know what they think can be used to make the best deals. They don’t have to force anyone to give them things. If you make something that an IT can trade for something a lot more valuable, then you can make more money by giving it to the IT to trade for you than you can by putting it into a store here. It’s really the same thing as giving your product to a department store or whatever here. The IT just has his ‘store’ overseas. In some cases the big traders work out deals worth millions or billions of dollars to the producers.”

“You’re still evading my question,” Niall said. “How does a manufacturer know how much he’ll be paid for the things he gives to one of the IT guys?”

“No matter what you do you never know for sure whether you’ll get paid. All sorts of things could go wrong. If you’re a farmer, the weather or insects or fire or birds or any number of other things could destroy your crop before you can complete the harvest. If you make a product like luxury furniture, perhaps no one will buy it. Life just isn’t certain and I don’t think it was before the transition. Who can guarantee anybody that they’ll be treated fairly? The only proof I can give you is that it seems to work.”

“Mommy, are you lecturing?” Lora asked to general laughter.

“Yes, darling. Mama’s lecturing. It seems to be the family curse.”

“I don’t lecture. I just talk,” was the rejoinder.

Niall now began to see where the power had gone. He didn’t believe for a moment that those people were giving things to the traders voluntarily. That was just ridiculous. There was probably some ‘deal you can’t refuse’ going on, or Niall didn’t know people. With so much money at stake, there were bound to be power plays. And power plays, in the final analysis, came down to killing. Every nation Niall had worked in abroad had its black market and its secret police. They were bound to be here as well. They were just more secret and better hidden here.

Lunch was served in a standard food place which was quite crowded with tourists and not a few Payers. Two tables had been pushed together and there were six Payers, a little older than average for Payers it seemed to Niall based on the Payers he had noticed. They were eating together and discussing payments in the millions. The other diners were studiously not paying attention to the conversation. But you could tell that everyone at the nearby tables was listening attentively.

After they left the restaurant, Niall asked about the group of Payers.

“They’re one of the committees that helps decide on the pay of the ITs. They have to judge what difference the trades they arranged have made for our economy. I know one of them was an economics professor before the transition. He was the one talking about demand curves and how what we have been trading for will affect foreign economies. Each of the others has specialties as well. One of them was also a fabulously wealthy IT at one time. He was in the news for a week when he made the decision to become a payer. He must have had thousands of people asking, begging, and demanding to be given his luxuries since he wasn’t going to be able to use them any more. When he made his first payment he still had some 16 billion dollars in his account. That month everybody who earned money got a little more because his money wasn’t ever going to be spent.”

“And he gave up all that luxury? I don’t believe that. I bet he still has plenty of luxuries and you just don’t see them. He probably goes home to a mansion just like before.”

“Dad, he was so famous that after that first payment some people followed him around just to see if he’d be given special treatment. He couldn’t even ride the bus since it would fill with people watching him. He took an apartment very near the offices where he worked and walked everywhere. He’s still pretty well known but at least people gave up following him. I will say this, though; the other Payers respect his opinions on what deserves higher pay and what doesn’t because he actually did the job. Of course he can’t make payment decisions for the people he used to work closely with, so he had to switch fields of trade. But my main point is that he has to live and work among the common folks and they will notice if he has a luxury. He has to be particularly careful to avoid giving any grounds for your suspicion.”

She then turned to John who had been entertaining Lora.

“John, I expect you to write me an essay on reasons why a rich man would consider becoming a payer. It’ll be to help your granddad understand.” Her wicked grin showed that she was killing several birds with one stone and wanted Niall to know it.

Before they took the bus for home, Brianna insisted that they tour some of the old slum neighborhoods. Niall was expecting to see yuppie types in expensive apartment buildings. What he did see was the same old buildings on clean streets. The people living there were mostly wearing at least some whites. There were no visible bums or druggies. The children were well-dressed and seemed well fed. In fact, it looked very much like the street on which Brianna lived.

“What happened to the people who lived here before?” Niall asked.

“Most of them are still here. Some of them worked on redecorating the apartments and other buildings downtown. Lots of them work in the hotels and stores in the area. Once the government offices left, there was a surplus of upscale housing close in to downtown. So the owners didn’t convert them to luxury places.”

“Why did the owners redecorate the apartments?”

“Because some of the tenants are Payers, what did you think?” Brianna said. “The Payers won’t pay much for poorly maintained apartments. Also, in a lot of cases the tenants themselves just went ahead and redecorated. They could get the paint and tools and materials without paying, since those are capital goods and they did some really nice things with these places. I wouldn’t want to live with some of the decor they created but they like it and that’s what counts.”

On the way home the kids became quiet and Niall had time to think about what he had seen, today. The derelicts, the garbage, the run-down houses and idle children on the streets, the terrible poverty which had been obvious in the District when he had been there previously all seemed to have disappeared. But he was still not comfortable with what might have happened to the people. It was all well and good to say that the people were the same ones who had been there last time he had been in Washington, but he didn’t think that meant much. For all he knew the addicts and bums might have been put in camps and executed. Not that he thought that likely, but forced labor had been used to support a leisure class before and all those people who were eating free and riding the bus free and living in apartments free must be supported by some people who were working their tails off.

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