The Citizen's Financial Responsibility Act - A Short Story concerning Corporate Greed
I’ve sat in bright, sterile cubicles like this one since graduation. I hang printouts of memorandums and tell the managerial staff I’m intent on keeping my procedures current. The recycled paper does not reflect the light as badly. After my eyes begin bothering me, I know it won’t be long until my legs start cramping. When that happens, there isn’t much I can do but wait for my scheduled latrine break. If I leave my desk for any reason, the little electronic snitch around my ankle will sound an alarm and bring the Corporate security force down on me, carrying me off like ants. Refusal to work would land me in the mines; backbreaking labor until a mining accident sets me free. I’d rather be a slave than in that grave.
I don’t know what day of the week it is. I’m just going to guess and say it’s Thursday. It feels like a Thursday. I looked around to see Benny having a discussion with one of the managers. They all wear that black tie, the silver tie clip, and that ridiculous comb-over. I can’t hear the words but the conversation is animated.
I stamped the next few files in front of me, leaving a wet blue “Approved” on the upper right corner of the files’ cover pages. The ink smells like death for a poor soul who can’t pay his bills. I glance back at Benny and see him try to walk away. I stamp the next file without even looking at it, another approval. It must have been forceful because my neighbors looked at me over the cubicle’s walls, and then they quickly followed my gaze to Benny. He was yelling now, red in the face. The silver tie clip looked around, forcing each worker to lower their head below their wall and get back to work. It reminded me of that old amusement park game, Whack-A-Mole.
I’m fortunate enough to have a clear view of the situation. More of the silver tie clips have gathered but do nothing to stop Benny. He never saw the bald muscle-bound security officer behind him, but he sure as hell felt the baton that cracked his ribs. I’ve always liked Benny, and for a moment I had an urge to get up and help him. I put that urge aside, stamped a few more files, and watched the security guards pick Benny up and carry him off.
The silver tie clips milled about, reassuring everyone that what had just happened was in their best interest. Benny presented a danger to the others around him. Just like all the desks, Benny’s was bare of any personal effects. The only thing Benny left behind was the spot of blood on the carpet. It was gone by the time I arrived on Friday.
I slept through Saturday and Sunday, pretending my eight hour sleep was the weekend, before the alarm went off. Monday was here. The next five days went by quickly. They all do when nothing changes. Or maybe that’s just the way I remember them. All the files that came across my desk looked the same. Last name, first initial. Amount of debt. Summary of skills. Valuation of skills over the subject’s remaining working life to the Corporation. I stamp it approved.
During a meal break, Tim peeked up over the wall at me. He asked what I thought about what happened to Benny around a mouthful of food. I didn’t say anything, thinking about the inflated cost of my lunch being added to my debt balance. He asked again.
“Benny refused to do his job. He knew what would happen to him,” I said, not touching my sandwich. Tim had an angry look on his face, and one of the silver tie clips came over. I didn’t look at him, but I could see the black tie in my peripheral vision.
“Thomas, Brian. Latrine break.” I got up and walked away.
I find it’s unusual for me to dream, but that night I did. I was back in the world, on the floor of a large area. People ran back and forth wildly, scribbling frantically on small pieces of paper, many of which littered the ground. My father was beside me, and I had to look up at him. I smiled, remembering the man that taught me math and statistics above the level the Corporate elementary school was teaching me.
“Son, do you know that they used to trade corporations here?” He smiled down at me. Wrinkles lined his face. “People like you and I could place an order and own a piece of a company. Now, all Wall Street trades is debtors. It’s a slave market, son.”
“What’s a slave?” I didn’t know that word.
“That’s us, son. We work for the betterment of other men.” He pointed to the ankle-tether he wore. He was a great lawyer and won many cases they brought against others, but he was too old. He told me that I needed to find a way to be my own man. Security staff had pulled me away from my father. A buyer had been found, and I wasn’t part of the deal. Dad didn’t resist, he just smiled as I felt tears rolling down my cheek. I remember the last words he said to me now. “Stay out of the mines. Find a way to be your own. I love you.” They never told me which company bought him.
I sat up as my alarm went off and the lights turned on. I thought about that dream a lot at work. I stamped more files, paying less attention to the metrics I was to be monitoring, and instead thought about my journey to this desk. It wasn’t my first. I have been traded several times. Each time my valuation rose and I was given a new title. Now I sat here, stamping files. I make the final decision. The extra math lessons served me well.
I looked at my rubber stamps. I had one that said “Declined” in large, bold letters. The procedure I follow to approve a purchase is long and complicated yet I do it without any effort. It hit me then; I have never declined a file. Every possible avenue of research I knew terminated in an approval. I turned to my computer and brought up my procedural documentation. The computers in the office were fast, but it still took several moments for the digital document to load thousands of pages. I typed my query, “Search: Decline.” No results returned.
Was it possible that after writing thousands of pages of procedure, and then revising the procedure on a daily basis, the Corporation had not realized that it would accept every trade? If that were true, my position was worthless. This entire department was worthless.
I decided to hold an experiment. I picked up my unused rubber stamp and brought it down hard on the current file. I put it away, leaving a big, red “Decline” behind. Some poor soul just got a temporary reprieve. I shuffled this file to my outbox, and it was promptly carted away. I picked up the more familiar blue one used for approvals, and immediately finished off the rest of my stack. I opened each file, quickly stamping the corner without looking at it. The silver tie clips should be pleased with my production rate today.
The next day, I had a brief meeting with one of them. He had the file I declined. I told him I must have made a mistake in the underwriting procedure. He nodded and sent me back to my desk.
It must be true, we will accept any trade.
I received commendations. I finished my work quickly, blindly stamping “Approve” on every file I saw. My superiors were pleased. I was just careful to appear to be intently reviewing files when the silver tie clips were watching, and then approving them in batches of ten or twenty when they weren’t.
I decided to see if other Corporations also had open acceptance. I placed a lunch order for the entire department, except the silver tie clips. Tim thought it was a nice gesture, remarking how glad he was he wouldn’t have to borrow the inflated prices for a few scraps. None of us are paying this bill. The Corporation is, probably at a rate far below the one we’re quoted, and then adding the balance to our debt. I always thought myself frugal, always making the most conservative choice available, but my debt had not decreased. It was higher than when I was traded from school to my first position in the workforce. The lunch was delivered, the meals were all charged to me. I waited for a day or two, but never received any sort of reprimand for what I did. I decided to continue the practice. I was very popular in my department now, always treating the others to a meal.
Time went on, and my purchases became more extravagant. My new office shirts were very expensive, but felt nice against my skin. They breathed much better than the old ones. I also got hold of a watch. It kept track of time and day for me. Lunch came from expensive restaurants now, served to the entire department.
It was a Tuesday, months later, when the silver tie clip came to my cubicle with a chair and sat down. He wasn’t smiling, they never do. He told me that my spending had increased dramatically. Management said nothing since my production rate had also soared higher than the rest of the department. I don’t think they ever figured out my secret. But now we had a problem. My expenditures were outpacing my production.
I looked around. No other silver tie clips were in sight. I leaned in close and whispered to him. My debt has never decreased. Has his? He seemed shocked like a man just slapped after having too much to drink and approaching a woman at a bar. I kept going, laying out my entire plan for him. I want to be worthless. I want to drag down the Corporate balance sheet, until it appears just as bad as the people that I approve for responsible repayment under authority of the Citizen’s Financial Responsibility Act. The silver tie clip walked away, but I was not reprimanded. I like to think that he fabricated a report to appease the others and liked my plan.
I kept up my actions. I saw the silver tie clip that talked to me about my spending. Normally I couldn’t separate their faces, but I recognized his now. I know it wasn’t him that dropped off the memorandum at my desk. This one was different, on yellow paper. It stated that I was to cease my purchases immediately. I couldn’t refuse this order, and I wondered about what I would do now. They figured that I would stop to avoid being sent to the mines, and that would be that. Wrong. I found time to talk to Tim, and decided that he needed some education about how to handle things. I did the same with the others around me. I used what my father had taught me to produce a mathematical model on paper, showing each of us trapped to a life of debt and repayment. If it was not possible to repay our debts, why not let the Corporations work for us?
I heard them whispering to others I didn’t have access to. Soon, the office was full of expensive clothing, designer eyeglasses, and fabulous wrist-watches. I’ve never seen the silver tie clips so confused. Except the one that talked to me, he just seemed amused.
One morning my dorm didn’t unlock. I sat on my bunk, waiting for maintenance to come by and fix the malfunctioning equipment. I heard someone unlock the door a time later, but it was not maintenance. I was given a small bag of food and the door locked again. It dawned on me I wasn’t to be sent to the mines. I had never refused an order, refused to work, or abandoned my station. But I had spread dissention among the ranks. I was to be quarantined.
I played games with myself. I discovered the paint on the walls easily chipped, leaving behind dark scars. I used my fingernails to draw on the walls, murals of memories from my childhood. My mother, my father. An old house I remember living in. I can’t remember if we had owned it or not, but I know my family had spent a lot of time there before my father went into debt and then Responsible Repayment. I even drew pictures of my classrooms, where the Corporation had stuck me. Tuition was billed all through the years until I graduated. Instead of a diploma, I received an ankle-tether. I never had a chance. At least my grades were high enough to avoid the mines thanks to my father and nights of tutoring beyond the Corporate curriculum.
I don’t know if I was in my dorm for weeks or for months. They took my watch, and I lost track of the days again. I had a full beard and stank to high heaven. They pulled me out of there one day and brought me to a conference room with the gang of silver tie clips. They were funny, the way they looked, acted and spoke. I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity. My laughter echoed through that room, and I completely lost it when they showed me just how much debt I accumulated from my spending spree months (weeks?) before. I believe they would have tossed me back in my dorm room for another round of solitary confinement when one of the others pulled the rest of them to the window. I joined them, looking down at the one I recognized. The others were confused, not sure what was happening, but I know. They got the picture when the truck driver tossed the familiar silver tie clip a set of keys to a brand new sports car.
I was showered, shaved, and then had my tether removed. I was sent outside with nothing but the clothes on my back. My ideas and my debt were unaffordable.
I remember pictures of the city from old magazines that dad had. In them, the streets were always crowded with people. So many cars were on the road that they couldn’t move. Now the streets just seemed bare. There were some pedestrians, a few vehicles, but not many. I couldn’t see much but the streets, the high walls and buildings of the Corporations blocking most things out from sight. I began to walk.
It was difficult. I had to ways to pay for things. I couldn’t just charge purchases to myself any longer. I began to look for work, but only found tethered positions. One day I found myself offered a job at a magazine, as a writer. At first I was hesitant to accept. I didn’t want to be tethered at a desk, but I was out of options and had no money. The friendly old man who interviewed me laughed, and took me on a tour. I have never seen so many people working together so fluidly. They were much more productive than the best day my department ever had at the Corporation. He explained to me they were doing what they loved, and of their own will. The owner of this company didn’t believe in purchasing indebted citizens, there was not a single employee who wore a tether. I accepted the position.
The magazine was my link to the others. I know my Corporation had released the entire department, probably replacing them with new purchases that I had approved. The owner of the magazine wasn’t overly popular, but he still had friends among the elite. Some Corporations purchased this magazine and distributed it to their workforce in the dorms. My first article I wrote at my new desk was about how I devalued myself to freedom.