The Mandibles - by Lionel Shriver

“Money is emotional,” Lowell pronounced. “Because all value is subjective, money is worth what people feel it’s worth. They accept it in exchange for goods and services because they have faith in it. Economics is closer to religion than science. Without millions of individual citizens believing in a currency, money is colored paper. Likewise, creditors have to believe that if they extend a loan to the US government they’ll get their money back or they don’t make the loan in the first place. So confidence isn’t a side issue. It’s the only issue.”

“Anyone in a position of authority telling you something unpalatable is ‘temporary’ is a red flag. The quick fix of capital controls can seem so alluring: ‘We’ll simply make the rabble keep their money here. We’ll pass a law!’ The hard part is lifting capital controls, which becomes unthinkable the moment they’re instituted. Who wants to keep funds in a country that confuses a bank account with a bear trap? The moment you remove the constraints, the nation is broke. So you can be sure that at least the freeze on making monetary transfers out of the US will stay in place for some time to come. Look at Cyprus. The capital controls levied in 2013 weren’t entirely rescinded until two years later. Know how long those controls were meant to stay in place at their inception? Four days.”

“the whole idea of the bancor is to restrict the money supply. From the 1970s, the G-30 have all been churning out Monopoly money as if drawing from a board game with the combined components of several sets. It’s going to ferociously mess with some heads that now you have to cover your expenses and pay your trading partners in a currency that has real value.”

“You loan me ten bucks. I photocopy the bill four times, give you back one of the copies, and announce that we’re square. That’s monetizing the debt: I owe you nothing, and you’re stuck with a scrap of litter. For years, the fact that one can swap dollars for tangible goods and services has been a miracle of God. Why do you think I’m invested in the market? In theory, stocks entail owning real things. Unfortunately, I didn’t take into account that most of those stocks are denominated in dollars. And I’ve been as vulnerable as the next idiot to the bias that keeping the majority of your funds in American companies is erring on the safe side. So I do apologize. Had I any idea what was in the offing, I’d have diversified quite differently.”

Good evening, fellow Americans. At the beginning of this century, extra-national terrorists hijacked our own airplanes to rupture the Pentagon and destroy the World Trade Center. More recently, in 2024, our vital internet infrastructure was cataclysmically paralyzed by hostile foreign powers. Modern warfare comes in many guises. During this past week, our nation has once again been under attack. No towering skyscrapers have tumbled. Both the physical and digital systems on which we depend continue to function. Yet the attack we are currently sustaining is potentially no less devastating than nuclear missiles hurtling toward our cities. What has been targeted is the very medium through which we trade with other nations and conduct commerce with one another—the medium through which our labors are rewarded, our debts are repaid, our tables are laid, and our children are secured medicines for their ailments. What is at risk is no less than the almighty dollar itself. Coordinating their chicanery, countries that wish this nation ill have played on the cowardly compliance of our allies. In the last ten days, a sequence of carefully timed financial dominoes were toppled—designed to raise the cost of financing our national debt, which would translate into you the American taxpayer keeping less of your hard-earned income. Our currency was also sabotaged on the international exchange markets. Most perfidiously of all, world leaders who resent the power, prestige, and success of our great nation have cobbled together the so-called “bancor”—an artificial, pretender currency with no history as legal tender. Make no mistake. The bancor is not intended as a harmless alternative to the dollar. It is meant to replace the dollar. In a move every bit as threatening as raising a gun to our heads, we have been informed that the crops and raw materials on which we rely for our daily lives and livelihoods must now be traded internationally in bancors. A gesture of exceptionally high-handed insolence: the United States Department of the Treasury has also been apprised that American bonds held by foreign investors must henceforth be redeemed in bancors, at an unfavorable exchange rate capriciously chosen by an International Monetary Fund gone rogue. American bonds sold to foreign investors must henceforth be denominated in bancors—which is a challenge to our very sovereignty as a nation. Ironically, the parties behind this organized fiscal coup immediately suffered from it. The American dollar is the lifeblood of international banking, and the backbone of financial markets around the world. That is why, as most of you know, we suspended trading on the New York Stock Exchange last week to prevent precipitous loss of wealth. But trading has also been halted in the wake of the same shock to the system in London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Hong Kong, and every other major stock exchange across the globe. International finance is holding its breath. As with every other crisis for more than a hundred years, the world waits for America to act. And this brave country never sustains insult without reply. Right before addressing you, the American people, this evening, I convened an emergency session of Congress. Almost unanimously, your representatives passed a bill deeming that, until further notice, for American citizens to hold bancors, either onshore or within the confines of our financial system, shall from this point onward be considered an act of treason. In the interest of preserving not only our present prosperity, but our future prosperity—in the interest of maintaining our integrity, our capacity to hold our heads high as a nation—Americans and American entities are also forbidden from trading in bancors abroad. For the time being, and only for the time being of course, capital above the amount of $100 is not to leave the country. These controls are temporary, their duration destined to be brief, and they will be lifted the moment that economic order is safely and securely restored. As with military confrontations, fiscal warfare demands weaponry, and the fashioning of weaponry requires sacrifice. As we mobilized our forces and our industries to defend the cause of liberty in World War Two, so must we mobilize our resources to defend our liberty today. Rest assured that the greatest burden of this sacrifice will be borne by the broadest shoulders. Using the powers vested in your president by the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977, I am calling in all gold reserves held in private hands. Gold-mining operations within our borders will be required to sell ore exclusively to the United States Treasury. Gold stocks, exchange-traded funds, and bullion will likewise be transferred to the Treasury. In contrast to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s gold nationalization of 1933, when FDR made his bold bid to rescue our suffering nation from the Great Depression, there will be no exceptions for jewelers or jewelry. All such patriotic forfeitures will be compensated by weight, albeit at a rate that does not reflect the hysterical inflation of gold stocks in the lead-up to this emergency. Hoarding will not be tolerated. Punitive fines of up to $250,000 will be levied on those who fail to comply. Retaining gold in any form beyond the deadline of November 30, 2029, will thenceforth be considered a criminal offense, punishable by no less than ten years in prison. All gold exports from our shores are henceforth prohibited. In retaliation for outside agitators’ attempts to fray the very fabric of our flag, all foreign gold reserves currently stored with the Federal Reserve are hereby confiscated, and become the property of the American government. Lastly: it is the intention of a conspiracy of foreign powers to yoke the government of this illustrious land with an intolerable and infeasible encumbrance from the interest on its debt. That debt was borrowed in good faith, and in due course, under any but the most extraordinary circumstances, would have been repaid in good faith. But when our probity is returned with malice and betrayal, continued good faith counts only as credulity and weakness. Both sides need to honor an agreement for any contract to remain in force. What’s more, this great country will not so honor its obligations as to destroy its very existence in the process. A nation conceived in liberty cannot conduct its daily business on its knees. As of this evening, myself, the secretary of the Treasury, and the chairman of the United States Federal Reserve have declared a universal “reset.” In the interest of preserving the very nation that would meet its obligations of the future, we are compelled to put aside the obligations of the past. All Treasury bills, notes, and bonds are forthwith declared null and void. Many a debtor has wept in gratitude for the mercy of a wiped slate, the right to a second chance, which for individuals and corporations alike all fair-minded judicial systems like our own have enshrined in law. So also must government be able to draw a line and say: here we begin afresh. Thus let us strike into the future, our step lightened, our hearts gladdened—confident in the endurance of the greatest country on earth. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America. Good night.

“Nollie does what she wants. Everyone else does what they’re supposed to,” Willing said. “Jayne and Carter say she’s selfish. That might be a good thing. It’s the selfish people, a certain kind of selfish, who you want on your side.”

“Interest rates rise with inflation. Your mortgage payments will keep getting stiffer.” “And why’s that, Mr. Expert—?” “Nobody wants to lend good money and get paid back with crummy money.” Willing’s bored monotone implied this was obvious. “But there’s always some inflation. Interest rates don’t always go up because of it. In fact, we need inflation. The alternative is supposed to be sort of terrible.” “That’s what they want you to think.” One of her few concerns about her only child was that he inclined toward smugness. “All right. What. Since I’ve heard we need regular inflation, like at least 2 or 3 percent, my whole life.” “I know you have. You’ve been brainwashed.” He sounded so cheerful. “We could easily get along with a small, steady, predictable rate of deflation. Inflation is a tax. Money for the government. A tax that people don’t see as a tax. That’s the best kind, for politicians. But inflation isn’t inevitable. Starting in 1300, the British pound pretty much maintained its value for six hundred years. And that was during the Empire, when English people practically ruled the world.

He had failed to tempt his sister into any support of their father and his pet wife, either fiduciary or logistical. Typical. Nollie had done as she pleased her whole life. The concept of duty was foreign to her, and it was only the people who acknowledged duty, and who had regard for duty, who got saddled with it.

For all his purported fascination with his father’s field, the boy didn’t really credit the primacy of economics. Lowell attributed the discrepancy to Goog’s particular brand of precocity: the boy’s involvement in the many topics about which he held such fierce opinions was essentially rhetorical. He’d yet to make a visceral connection between a high school debate over some barmy balanced budget amendment and an interstate highway system so underfunded that hundreds of Americans per year were dying in pile-ups on I-85 from potholes alone—a connection that registered the very real possibility that one of those casualties could be you. Distinguished by the same precocity at Goog’s age, Lowell wondered whether this purely rhetorical relationship to the pressing issues of his profession dogged him to this day. Avery constantly rode him for caring too much about being right. But maybe he didn’t care about being right, actually and truly right, which would have mattered. Maybe he only cared about winning.

“To participate, at all, in any economy, down to getting paid and buying pork chops, means having faith that the rules of that economy won’t upend. There is no insurance against game change. So whatever happens, you keep playing the game. That means when Apple is going for jack, you buy Apple. Exactly the way you always have. If that doesn’t work out, because of reasons beyond your control the whole game is out the window, nothing else would have worked out, either.”

Lowell had never received a bill that he couldn’t pay. He had long unthinkingly relegated folks who kept no cushion in their accounts, who spent merely because there was cash in their pockets, who reached out for payday loans to cover their electric bills, who were chronically in arrears and lived in fear of knocks on the door, to a remote category of the hopeless, the irresponsible, the feckless. As for debt, an economic wheels-greaser that ideologically he was quite big on, Lowell promoted getting into hock as a splendid idea for companies and whole countries, but paid off his Visa bills in full. His avoidance of credit was emotional. He didn’t like the sensation of being beholden, of being in someone else’s pocket. Which made him a sucker for the sad-ass Protestant values that most of the country had gleefully abandoned. The international economy had punished the frugal and rewarded the profligate for most of his professional life. It was an odd lesson for a man in his position to have failed to learn. Look at southern Europe, in the end. The euro zone’s Club Med took trillions, spent them, and didn’t pay them back. It wasn’t nice. It was smart. Economics doesn’t reward nice. It rewards smart. So Lowell felt pig-thick. With his spotless credit report, he should have borrowed up a storm, and then once the Renunciation hit he could have walked away. Whether through formal bankruptcy or by slipping quietly off-grid, that’s what everyone else was doing.

Mischievously, Willing had also described the conventional erosion of sovereign debt with inflation as “dishonest” to Lowell, and had enjoyed watching his uncle turn purple. Money, Lowell explained scathingly, has no moral qualities but is simply a “fuel,” and all that matters about an economy is that its engine turns over. An economy is a set of “mechanisms” that work well or badly, and to get hung up on irrelevant concepts of “justice” or “honesty” or “fairness” is to condemn those mechanisms to working badly. The only “good” that pertains, Lowell said, is the greater good of an efficient machine, from which all cogs benefit. It was one of Lowell’s finer moments, and once Willing decoded the tirade to mean that both government and capitalism were fundamentally unscrupulous, his uncle’s point seemed well taken.

“The best definition of wealth I ever came across is ‘money is stored energy.’ In other words, since ’29 this whole country has been running the air con with the windows open.”

“Douglas is right about the moral hazard. The Americans who’ve suffered the deepest losses are the ones who had a conscientious, caretaking relationship to the future. Who saved for the future. Who believed in the future. Who kept reserves on hand, in the expectation that they’d take responsibility for themselves and whatever befell them in the future. The pessimism that’s bothering you, Willing, is a result of that sense of betrayal. The people who believed in the future now feel like dupes. Like victims of an enormous practical joke.”

He removed one of the dinner knives, with a large scrolled M at the base, and the blade caught the light. “It’s magnificent!” Kurt exclaimed. He was the kind of guy who would resist class distinctions on ideological grounds, yet instinctively think more highly of their family for bearing talismans of noble birth.

It was Jarred who moved Willing to contemplate the geometrical validity of the political designations left and right. That is, if you turn left, and left, and left again, you end up on the right. Jarred had started out a radical environmentalist, a position only ninety degrees from survivalist. With one small last adjustment in the same direction, he transformed to libertarian gun nut.

He had been lulled by what was regular, by what was expected and customary. No doubt all ages have their usual things, about which no one at the time thinks twice. Their leeches and bloodletting, their homosexual “cures,” their children’s workhouses and debtors’ prisons. When drowning in the is-ness of the widely accepted present, it must be hard to tell the difference—between traditions like burying your dead and having dinner at 8 p.m. and other, just as mesmerizingly normative conventions that later will leap out to posterity as offenses against the whole human race. Maybe he was letting himself off the hook. He’d had misgivings, after all. Yet it is always challenging to choose otherwise when you are informed in no uncertain terms that there is no choice to make.

Oh, it wasn’t that he trusted the fringier theories on the net. He did not believe the federal government controlled his mind. He accepted that the chip performed the functions it was purported to. It registered direct deposits of his salary. It deducted the costs of any products he chose to buy. It debited his utility bills. Though Willing had no experience of either, it recorded investments and received state benefits. It subtracted local, state, and federal taxes, which totaled 77 percent of his pay. It communicated his every purchase to the agency known until 2039 as the Internal Revenue Service—what the item cost, when and where he bought it, and the product’s exact description, down to model, serial number, or sell-by date. It informed the American tax authorities if he bought a packet of crackers. Were the chip to accumulate an excess of fiscal reserves—an amount that surpassed what he required on average to cover his expenses for the month—it would dun the overage at an interest rate of -6 percent. Should the balance cross various thresholds, that interest rate would progress up to -21 percent. (Saving was selfish. Saving was bad for the economy. Negative interest rates also provided Americans a short course in mathematics from which an undereducated public could surely benefit. At -21 percent compounded annually, 100 was worth 30.77 five years later.) Any additional income, including gift coupons for a birthday, revenue from pawned possessions, bake-sale proceeds, and private-party poker winnings, would also register on the chip, and would also be taxed at 77 percent. Chipping solved the problem of the hackable, stealable, long dysfunctional credit card. Chipped, you were a credit card.

The chipped all seemed thrilled to see the end of tax returns. Rendering unto Caesar was effortless. Though that meant there was no more cheating on their tax returns, either. Much the same reasoning had led to the complete elimination of the cash dólar nuevo in 2042. Cash was an antiquated store of value. It created logistical hardship for Main Street small business. It leant itself to counterfeiting. It was the easiest form of wealth to steal. Criminals had long conducted business in banded stacks, in bulging briefcases, in whole suitcases stuffed with greenbacks, and now these cinematic clichés were obsolete. For cash was also one of the only forms of wealth that eluded jurisdiction. Willing remembered the furtive spirit in which his mother had plied the plumber with a rustle of twenties, as if to exchange physical money for services were against the law. Because cash is so hard to track, to trace, to tax, to control, Willing was astonished it took the government so long to get rid of it.

In short order, the whole population would be chipped, and savings, checking, and investment accounts would be eliminated altogether—at which point it would be impossible to buy anything, sell anything, or possess any monetary wealth whatsoever in the absence of a pinhead-sized spy rammed into the back of your neck. That was certainly the plan, and Congress was unapologetic about this intention—a benevolence portrayed as akin to the nationwide polio vaccinations of the 1960s.

Across the nation, Americans’ mental and physical health had vastly improved. Hardly anyone was fat. Allergies were rare, and these days if people did mention they avoided gluten, a piece of bread would probably kill them. Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia had disappeared. Should a friend say he was depressed, something sad had happened. After a cascade of terrors on a life-and-death scale, nobody had the energy to be afraid of spiders, or confined spaces, or leaving the house. In the thirties, the wholesale bankruptcies of looted pharmacies, as well as a broad inability to cadge the readies for street drugs, had sent addicts into a countrywide cold turkey. Gyms shut, and personal trainers went the way of the incandescent light bulb. But repairing their own properties, tilling gardens, walking to save on fuel, and beating intruders with baseball bats had rendered Americans impressively fit. Sex-reassignment surgery roundly unaffordable, diagnoses of gender dysphoria were pointless. If a woman leaned toward the masculine, she adopted lunging, angular movements and crossed her ankle on her knee; everyone got the message, and the gesturing was more elegant. As dreaming beat drugs, sexual fantasy had always been a cleaner, sweeter, not to mention cheaper route to gratifying a whole host of wayward inclinations, in contrast to the crude, painfully imperfect experience of acting the fantasies out. No one had the money, time, or patience for pathology of any sort. It wasn’t that Americans had turned on oddity; they simply didn’t feel driven to fix it anymore.

“What do you make of the proposition that the definition of a truly free society is a place where you can still get away with something?”

“I would rather be dead,” he said, surprising himself, “than stay here. It’s not only the taxes. It’s what I was trying to explain last night. A heaviness. I feel watched. I pay up, as if I have any choice. It’s splug how little is left, but that’s not what gets me down. I feel like a criminal all the time. When I think about it, I’m doing everything I’m supposed to. It’s what my mother told me it was like going through airport security—though I’ve never been on an airplane myself. She said you always felt like you were doing something wrong. Even when you took off your shoes, and removed your ‘laptop,’ and raised your arms in a full-body scanner, like surrendering when you’re under arrest. But I feel that way walking down the street.” “Of course you do,” Fifa said impatiently. “It’s called terrorism. Which isn’t only the ploy of religious lunatics. It’s a tool of the state. It works by making examples of a handful of people, and then there’s a multiplier effect of scaring everyone else shitless. Terrorism is a money saver.