Invisible Hand – Chapter Twenty-Nine: Dorm Life

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In which Niall finishes in the office, gets his books, and learns more about what happened while he was away.

Niall was feeling less certain that the apparently simple statements were really as simple as they appeared. They seemed to have consequences that would never have occurred to him. This payer principle was the longest of the ten, so there was bound to be something here that was not what it seemed. It was time to tread warily.

Niall cautiously began, “The key word in this principle seems to be ‘evaluate’. The Payers evaluate each person’s work and pay them according to the value of that work. What does ‘value’ mean in this context?”

Brenda smiled as if pleased with his question. “You do understand that value is in the eye of the beholder. Each individual evaluates things for himself. There is no sense in which one person can be said to correctly know the value of anything for some other person. That is, if I think I know the value of something to you, I am almost certainly wrong. Only you can know what value you place on some object or service and that value can and will change over time. Are we agreed on that?”

“Oh, yes. That’s pretty obvious.” Niall nodded in agreement.

“So let’s consider how prices are set in a free market. The price of an item can and will vary over time. Each trade in which that item is bought contributes to what is thought of as ‘the price’ of the item,” Brenda said, making the quotes with her fingers. “But each individual trade shows only some aspect of what one individual thought the item was worth to him. It only shows that the individual was willing to pay at least as much as he did pay. He may well have been willing to pay more. Therefore the ‘going market rate’ or ‘price’ (more fingers) is not an accurate or true measure of the value that any individual places on the item, either. Yet the free market works quite well and the individuals who participate in that market are able to pursue, and achieve, sometimes at least, their ends.”

“But so far all you have said is that the actual value is unknowable.”

“Yes,” Brenda nodded vigorously, her smile broadening. “I think it probably is unknowable. But useful prices are being set. Evaluations are being made in the free market. And in the same way, Payers are evaluating, they are setting prices on various kinds of benefit. Some Payers may pay a little more and some a little less for specific benefits, but rarely is there a great discrepancy between two Payers. Just as there is rarely a great difference in the prices paid for specific items in a free market.”

“Therefore, the word ‘evaluate’ in this principle is only referring to that assigning of a specific amount of pay. It does not in any way represent some sort of measure of true value or value to some specific individual. For example if a doctor is paid $500 for saving someone’s life in an operation, what does that have to do with the true or actual value of the doctor’s action? To the individual whose life is saved the act is probably worth a lot more than $500. For someone else who doesn’t know the person who was saved, it might not be worth anything.”

“Right after talking about the free market you said ‘in the same way Payers are setting prices’. What did you mean by that?” Niall asked.

“The Payers actually constitute a free market for people who work. But that’s taken up in some depth in your classes so I’d rather not get into that just now. I’m sure you’ll have a full treatment of it before long.”

“All right, then. How about principle eight? ‘Only Payers can increase the money in an account.’ Didn’t we already get that in one of those early principles?”

“No,” she said. “That’s just the closing of the circle, so to speak. We talked about how money can be removed from an account and this shows how money can appear in an account. Do you have any questions about it?”

“No, but I do have questions about the ninth principle. It says that all Payers must be volunteers. Why do they have to be volunteers?”

“What kind of Payers would they be if they didn’t want to be Payers at all? Why do you think we go to such pains here to weed out those who wouldn’t like being Payers? But most fundamentally of all, to force someone to be a payer would be a form of slavery, especially when you consider the tenth principle.”

“Oh, yes. I can see that. But the ninth principle also says that all volunteers must be accepted. Doesn’t that mean that you might get a lot of bad Payers?”

She smiled, “From your question, one would think that being a payer was a wonderful thing and that we have thousands of people demanding to become Payers beating on our doors. Most people don’t want to be Payers. This is good because we need only about three to five percent of the adult population to be Payers. Second, wanting to be a payer is the most important characteristic in a good payer. Unless one likes that life, one will not be able to do it really well.”

“Most important, though,” she continued, “is that it gives everybody the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is in an almost literal sense. If you don’t like the way Payers are paying, then become a payer and do it yourself. Back before the transition, we used to have all sorts of talk about discrimination and affirmative action and glass ceilings and what not. Now you hardly ever hear of that sort of thing. For one reason, it reduces your pay to discriminate on any basis except performance. For another, there are many Payers of every ethnic and racial group I ever heard of. If you don’t like what one payer is paying, change location, change the work you do, or wait a while and the next payer will probably pay better.”

“We do get some bad Payers. After all, Payers are just people. They’re not saints and they don’t have godlike powers. Some are definitely biased. There have been some scandals among the Payers. But oddly enough, they mostly do get better or violate their vows and are kicked out or judge some work that doesn’t let their bias show. The Payers control each other because their reputation as a group is very important to them.”

“Okay. I’m sure you’re glad that we’ve reached the last principle,” Niall smiled. “Payers can’t ever have luxuries or money. Now I have to ask why anyone would want to be a payer?”

“Yes,” she smiled back. “That is the companion question to why do we let everybody who wants to become a Payer. The basic reason, I think, is that everyone wants to feel important to other people. We all want to think that others respect us and like us. Since Payers can give you money, everybody pays attention to them. Everybody notices what they do. So long as things are going well, we like the Payers in general. Also, Payers do make very important decisions. They really are important to everyone’s success and happiness. That’s a form of power which is very attractive to some people.”

“Another motive is that some people want to do good things for others. Payers can motivate other people to do good things. It might make a grandmother feel good to reward a mother for taking good care of her children, for example.”

“In a few cases people have wanted to become Payers to defend their group from being discriminated against by others. In that way they could be sure their group would not be underpaid.”

“One of the most important reasons for many men is that they can no longer do their former work but don’t want to just sit home all day. As Payers they can still be involved in a meaningful way.”

“There are as many motivations as there are Payers, I guess. No two are the same, but they also are not completely different.”

“Why can’t Payers have luxuries?” Niall persisted. “That seems unfair to make them give up things they may have worked hard for.” He was picturing what his own life would be like without the luxuries he enjoyed.

“Payers must have the trust of the people who work. Otherwise those people will ignore, or even worse, attack the Payers. One of the most valuable things a payer has in his favor is a reputation for being fair and unbiased. How would it look for a payer to have an expensive car? It would look like he’d accepted a bribe. Or how about if all the Payers lived in the expensive part of town and never went to the poorer sections? It would mean that they were separated from the very people who have the least power and can least defend themselves from those with power.”

“But these reasons pale beside the most important reason. If Payers can never have luxuries, then it’s easy to tell if they’ve accepted a bribe. Anyone who observes a Payer consuming a luxury knows that that Payer has been bribed. There’s no other way, other than theft, that the Payer could have acquired the luxury. This ease of detection not only keeps the Payers from temptation, it also gives the people who work confidence that those who pay them are not corrupt.”

“If Payers could have money, that would mean they were paying each other or worse, themselves. If they could pay each other and have luxuries, I think you can see what would happen. They’d be completely out of control. As it is, Payers must live among the people at the bottom of the social pyramid.”

“Since they live at the bottom, everyone else is at least as well off as they are. Thus, Payers have a powerful motive to raise the quality of life at the bottom. The poor can serve the same function for society that canaries served in the mines. Just as the birds would faint from poisonous gases before the miners did and thereby give them warning that there was poison gas in the air, so does the condition of the poor indicate when things are going wrong in the economy. With the Payers right there and with the power they have, such problems are addressed quite quickly.”

“But why can’t they have money or luxuries after they can no longer pay? That seems a cruel thing to do to them after years of service.”

“That restriction prevents deferred bribes. ‘I’ll give you luxuries later if you’ll pay me now.’ This provision is to prevent suspicion. As a practical matter, when a person is too old to pay, there aren’t many luxuries left that one can easily consume, anyway.”

“When I was sent here by the judge, I rode on a bus that had decorations like I’ve never seen before. It was like a Wild West saloon in there. One of the other passengers told me that it cost the driver over $10,000 to decorate it that way. That means that such decorations were a luxury. But we had some Payers riding in that bus. Weren’t they consuming a luxury and shouldn’t they have been disbarred or whatever it is you do to cheating Payers?”

“What did it cost you to ride that bus?”


“So the ride was a necessity?”

“I think, given my sentence, it certainly was for me,” Niall grinned.

“Were any of the other riders asked to pay to ride?”

“Not that I could tell. It looked like it was free to all as your item six says.”

“If a person has some luxury which is made freely available to others and which the person does not have to give up in order to make it freely available, they may share it with any and everybody without penalty. It isn’t a luxury for those other people. They don’t have to pay for it. If you sing on the street, for example, anyone may hear you. But if you sing in a theatre, you can charge money to people to hear you perform, and that makes your singing a luxury.”

“On the other hand, if you had a box of chocolates and were handing those out, a payer should not take any because what they take someone else could not have. That is, they would be reducing what was available to others. If there had been other passengers who wanted to ride your bus, the Payers would have left the bus and given their places to those passengers. The reason being that the resource would have become scarce. Do you follow the reasoning?”

Niall nodded and there was a pause. Finally he said, “I can’t think of anything more to ask, right now.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll think of plenty more later in class but I think that, for now, you understand well enough to not be lost in class. In fact, I think you’ll do rather well. Your experience abroad seems to have given you a flexibility of mind that many others lack.”

She stood and shook hands with Niall and wished him well in his studies and, more importantly, in not yielding to the temptation to drink or lose his temper.


Niall went to the bookstore to pick up his textbooks. He grinned at the thought of how Sam, from the Frobisher Mall back in Virginia, would have approved of his having actual paper texts. On the way there, he heard a clock chime three o’clock, or, more likely, a recording of a clock on a loudspeaker, and in a minute or two people began coming out of some of the barracks. “It must be class change. Boy, it’s like being back in high school,” Niall thought. Then he noticed that almost everyone he saw leaving the buildings was wearing yellow outfits. They were cut along the same lines as the standard issue whites, but just a different color. For a moment it struck him as being odd but then he remembered, “Payers can never have money or luxuries for themselves, even if they stop being Payers.” and remembered that it was part of the program to give them a taste of what it was like being a payer.

He also noticed that almost everyone was old. In fact, he was about the youngest person he could see. Brenda had been only about 35, he guessed, and the deputy was about 45 but these people were almost all obviously over 60.

It seemed strange at first but then he remembered that most of the Payers he had seen were also over 60. He guessed that it would be much harder to give up luxuries for the young. The thought that each of these people were giving up much of what made life pleasurable in exchange for something quite intangible gave Niall pause. The sincerity of these people was unquestionable. Acquiring the status of payer must be very important to them. Was there anything so important to Niall that he’d give up everything he’d worked for since he was a youth? Other than the lives and health of his immediate relatives, he could think of nothing.

The bookstore was almost deserted. Since very few of its customers could buy luxuries, there weren’t many people needed at the bookstore. As a result, he was waited on by an old woman in whites. She eyed him somewhat suspiciously because he was wearing neither yellows nor whites.

“What do you want these texts for?”

Niall handed over the sheet of stationary from the administrative office on which the list of his books was written. By good fortune, the letter had the administrator’s signature on it and indicated that Niall was a student at the school.

“Getting a pretty late start aren’t you, son? The rest of your class has already been here and gone.”

“Yes, ma’am. But better late than never.”

“You’re right there, sonny. I was over 60 before I found what I wanted to do. At least you are getting’ an early start on paying.”

Rather than get involved in an explanation that would reveal his sordid past, Niall let her believe that he was just another Payer-to-be in training.

Arriving at his home for the next six weeks, Niall was disappointed to see just how small the room was and how Spartan the furnishings. There was one single bed, a bookcase, a desk with chair, a rod across one corner of the room with a few wire coat hangers, and some sheets and blankets folded on the mattress. The single other door in the room was for the bathroom. It at least had a good bathtub with railings to hold while entering. He remembered jail and thought that it was more accommodating in some ways. Well, they told him that one of the points of this place was to let one know what it was like to live without any luxuries at all. He figured that wherever a payer went after this place would seem like luxury indeed.

As Niall changed into his “new” yellow standard issue clothes he wondered what he could do to entertain himself. There was no TV, of course. What was he going to do after class? There were his textbooks, but they didn’t promise to be exciting reading. Already bored with the room and the view of another barracks building out the single window, Niall went back into the hallway and along it to the lobby-like area near the front door. There were quite a few comfortable places to sit and most of the seats were taken. Niall recognized them all, of course, but couldn’t remember several of the names.

They seemed deep into a discussion of the transition, which Niall had missed completely. He slowly walked closer and took an unoccupied seat quite near, but not really part of, the circle involved in the discussion.

“But they had to do something like that, otherwise all the owners of stocks and bonds would have lost all their money,” D.W. was saying.

“I have no quarrel with the stockholders getting dollar for dollar, what I don’t like is that the people who were running the companies were given ownership of them,” Leyden (whose name Niall remembered quite easily) replied. “That doesn’t seem fair to me. My cousin knows a man who had been practically gutting a company before the transition who got ownership of I don’t know how many millions of dollars worth of capital equipment, you know generators and trucks and things, just because he was the Chairman of the Board when the transition happened.”

“So who would you have had assume ownership of the capital, some random guy off the streets?” Oscar said.

“No, I think the capital should have been given to the workers,” Leyden shot back.

“That’s just the old Socialist dream of the workers ruling the world,” the quiet man who had helped the black woman with her bags countered. “That would never have worked because each worker would have gotten a different piece of equipment or several small things and none of them would have been satisfied.”

“It could have worked,” Leyden said.” The workers could have voted on what to do with the goods.”

“Yeah, right, I’m sure they would have agreed on everything. You would’ve had one argument after another. It would’ve been chaos.” D. W. said.

The quiet man said, “I think it was just another way for the rich to keep their advantages. They had all those lobbyists working on Congress. They thought they were going to lose everything and that was how they thought they could save themselves and keep their undeserved wealth.”

Oscar replied, “But if you gave the capital to the workers, how would you have decided which worker got what? You’ll remember that Congress was adamant about no collective ownership.”

Leyden said, “I never understood why they did that. Seems to me that all the public property the government had was collectively owned all along.”

Natalie said, “Collective responsibility is no responsibility at all.” Then she added, “You should hear that repeated over and over in class. Each individual must be responsible for his own actions. You can’t get credit or blame for what some other adult does or fails to do.”

Leyden shot back, “Then how can we pay a person who makes capital goods when somebody else uses those goods well? Isn’t that paying one adult for the actions of another adult?”

“No, that’s paying people who are working together for the results of their joint efforts,” the quiet man said, “even though the work they each do is at different times and places.”

Niall was beginning to think he had better come up with some other way to think of him, since he seemed to be holding his own in the conversation.

“Yeah,” said D.W., “collective isn’t the same at all. If it were collective, the guy who uses the tool the other man made would get paid for all the tools the guy made. The credit would have to flow both ways.”

“What? That makes no sense at all. What do you mean?” Oscar asked.

“Say a group of people are a collective,” D.W. began, happy for a chance to defeat Oscar in verbal combat in front of the beautiful lady. “If person A makes a tool and person B uses it then the whole group gets the credit. So person C would get paid for person B using the tool and person A making the tool. So if person A made 10 tools, person B, who used only one of those tools, would get paid for the use being made of the other nine. They would all be paid the same. Don’t you see?”

“Besides, the CEOs of those companies were then responsible for the use made of their capital goods. If they did nothing useful with them, then they lost a lot of potential income,” Natalie said.

Niall addressed the group, “I was out of the country when all this happened. Why did they change the money, anyway?”

They all started to answer, then stopped, laughed, and turned to Oscar. “Why don’t you start, Oscar,” Leyden said and earned a glower from D.W.

“OK, Leyden. You know about the wars in the Middle East and the oil price rise, don’t you, Niall?”

“Oh, I am Niall Campbell. I’m afraid I have forgotten some of your names and I don’t think I ever heard others.”

“I’m Clayton Fielding,” the formerly quiet man said.

“I’m Natalie.”

“You I remembered,” Niall smiled at her.

“I’m Wendy,” the black woman said.

“And you’re Oscar and you’re D.W.,” Niall , looking at each of the men.

Okay, yes, I know more than I care to remember about the oil wars, but I wasn’t paying much attention when the oil prices were raised.”

“Okay, I’ll start there. About 2010 things came to a head in what was Iran and Iraq. Civil and religious wars had everybody afraid of everyone else and nobody wanting to let the other guy sell any oil. There were all sorts of terrorist attacks on the oil fields, the pumping stations, the storage tanks, and the ships that were in or near the ports. The problem also spread to other Islamic oil producers who, naturally, blamed the Christian West in general and the U.S. in particular. When the U.S. and the UN tried to put a lid on things to maintain their oil supplies using military force, the other nations started an oil embargo. This didn’t stop all the world’s oil flow by any means, but it did reduce the supply enough that the prices went through the roof. Inflation became rampant, the huge debts that the U.S. had incurred to pay for their military adventures had to be expanded enormously to pay for oil, and the rest of the industrialized world wouldn’t invest in our bonds, since they had problems just as bad or worse than ours.

Well, what with one thing and another, just what things aren’t important – and I won’t say since that will just start an argument – we got huge inflation and huge unemployment. There were Socialists, Communists, libertarians, anarchists, gold standard folks, and what not. It began to look like we were going to follow in the footsteps of Russia in 1917 or Germany in 1933 and end up with some kind of dictatorship. There were armed mobs in the streets in some towns. But then, in what was almost a miracle, this crackpot theory started to spread on the Internet. It offered a solution not only to the immediate economic problems we were facing, but to the problem of preventing their return.”

Oscar was in his element. He was preaching even though it wasn’t religion.

“Before you knew what was happening, it seemed like everybody was talking about the problems that physical object money caused and how it was silly to use antique money in the modern world. They were pointing out to one another that so and so wouldn’t be a problem with the new money. Other people were volunteering to be Payers. Even some prison in Alabama volunteered to test the idea on its prisoners. The elections of 2010 were in mid-stream and suddenly lots of the candidates were promising to try this solution. Now I figure that none of them thought it would work and we would have to back out of it, but that it would get them elected and eliminate this problem of inflation and the international debt for the time being. They figured that we would never get enough people to be Payers. But they were wrong. There were so many old folks who were hanging on for dear life with the inflation wiping out their pensions, that the prospect of never having to worry about food, housing, and medical care again sparked a flood of volunteers. Most of them said things like, ‘I ain’t got nothin’ you could call a luxury now, so I got nothin’ to lose becoming a payer and at least I’ll eat.’ I don’t think they really understood at first what it meant to be a payer. That’s why they started these schools to let them know what it was going to be like. A lot of volunteers never actually became Payers, but there were enough who did that we got by easily.

In any event, the new Congress got together and everything was coming apart in the economy. So they passed the new money law and said it would take effect in two years. They promised that all the debts would be paid by goods when the conversion took place. The international debt was to be settled after the transition and all we had to do was hang on until then. People who owned stock were promised dollar for dollar for the market value of their stock at the time of the conversion. People who owned property could keep it without paying taxes or give it to somebody who would use it and get a continuing income and us old folks would not have to worry about medical bills or inflation eating our pensions or not having anyone to take care of us when we could not take care of ourselves. It seemed to give just about everybody hope and we were able to last the two years, barely.

“The foreign nations were afraid we were going to refuse to pay our debts, especially the oil-producing nations. They threatened to cut off our oil supply if we went through with it. We did and they did. But we fooled them. We didn’t collapse. Everybody pulled together like we hadn’t done since WWII. Within two years, we were producing more oil than we needed and were offering to trade oil to our former debtors for what we owed them. Since the price of oil abroad was still very high, we did all right.

“Anyway, that’s why we changed the money. It was sort of a national hysteria. There are still some people right here in the U.S. who don’t think it’ll work, but they’re considered the lunatic fringe now. I even think the rest of the world is beginning to wake up to the fact that what we have here works.”

“And we Payers are the ones who make it work,” Wendy said proudly.

“You aren’t a Payer yet, Wendy, any more than the rest of us are,” Leyden said.

“But I will be, just you wait and see. I’m going to do it right and I’ll be one of the best.”

“Go for it, Wendy,” Oscar said patting her on the back. “Lead us on.”

Niall spent the rest of the evening until bedtime asking questions and getting answers about all sorts of things. He especially asked about the computer setup but none of them knew particulars, just that they started with these really cheap little TVs which connected to the Internet and had little computers which could identify voices and fingerprints. They put them in all the stores that were selling luxuries and in a couple of years they were replaced with ones that could also recognize faces and retinal patterns and still later, in the really expensive stores, they did a DNA match and scent analysis. The home TVs sort of came along with that. They became the universal interface with the outside world. They provided entertainment, telephone, Internet access, smoke and fire alarms, intruder warning, thermostatic controls, and they kept track of your medical condition as well for some problems. People had started personalizing them pretty early on and almost everybody had a name for their TV and the TVs started having personality as well. Just as Niall had Jeeves, so many others had servants or friends or even pets in their TVs. Niall discovered that Jeeves was one of the more common personalities. That explained why the TV had adopted so complete a persona so quickly.

No one seemed to question why the TV/computers should be in every home with access to private information about all who were near it. Niall figured that the average Payer had no more idea what the real purpose of those TVs was than the average citizen. They were just something that was part of everyday life. The conspiracy was still hidden. At least there were no obvious computers in the barracks. One never knew, of course.

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