Lifespan
Copyright 2012 by J.E. Kronenfeld
A middle-aged man entered a non-descript office in an unremarkable building in the city's professional district. He was well dressed and tried looking confident. However he was clearly nervous. He fidgeted with his coat buttons and kept glancing around the room in the hope of getting some clue to his future.
But the room gave him no clue. Its furnishing was Spartan to an extreme, consisting only of standard-issue government gray metal conference table with two chairs. There was no superfluous adornment - no pictures on the walls, no books and no magazines (old or not). The dingy walls might have been pastel green at sometime, or pastel blue, or beige. Now they were merely clean and austere. Beyond that nobody seemed to care.
The man stood there for some indeterminate time facing a wall with a door in it. He faced the wall but was not looking at it. Rather he was staring into the void that he perceived represented his future. The future, like his vision, was an empty canvas, waiting to be painted.
At some point, a second man entered the room from the door the first man was facing. The second man pulled up short and consulted one of the papers he was carrying. Satisfied, he looked up and asked the first man:
"Mr. Davenport? Mr. Eugene Richard Davenport? National Registry Citizen Number 42781-DeCCV-5892?"
Startled out of his daze, the first man focused on the new man and responded: "Er, yes. That's me."
The second man took two steps forward, held out his hand, and introduced himself: "Hi. My name is Dr. Ridgeway, NRCW Number PWPM-1472. I am your case worker."
Moving to the table, Dr. Ridgeway motioned for Mr. Davenport to sit down on one side and then took the other seat for himself.
After taking a minute to arrange the papers he carried in front of himself, Dr. Ridgeway looked up and, speaking to no one in particular, declared:
"Begin recording. This is a meeting held on February 1st in the year 2062 in the public office building of the Philadelphia Metropolis. Present are Dr. Stephen Jason Ridgeway, NRCW Number PWPM-1472, representing the North American Metropolitan Association and Mr. Eugene Richard Davenport, NRCN Number 42781-DeCCV-5892, representing himself."
Turning to directly address Davenport, Dr. Ridgeway asked, "Do you know what this meeting is about?"
Davenport looked a little nervous but answered, in what he hoped was a calm, strong voice, "You are going to tell me how long I have to live?"
For the first time, Dr. Ridgeway looked a little startled.
"Certainly not! What gave you that idea?"
"Well, I was given very thorough physical at the office last week. This week I was released from my job and told to meet you, a Dr. Ridgewaw, here this morning. I assumed that something bad was found in my physical and you were going to tell me the bad news."
Looking both serious and amused at the same time Dr. Ridgeway shook his head. "No, no. Nothing could be further from the truth. We in the Metropolitan Civic government have done a terrible job educating everyone on the new Civil Code that has evolved over the last 15 years."
"In the first place," Dr. Ridgeway continued, "I am not a medical doctor. My doctorate is in Applied Actuarial Science. It's irrelevant anyway since it has nothing to do with our meeting this morning."
Sensing that a death sentence had been lifted, Davenport sat up a little straighter and asked "Why are we meeting, then?"
Dr. Ridgeway answered in slow, measured tones (ensuring that Davenport and whatever concealed recording device he addressed earlier could understand everything he was saying):
"Today, February 1st is your 35th birthday. Right?"
"Yes."
"For the past 15 years you have been employed by the Metropolitan Agricultural Transportation Bureau in various capacities related to the distribution of food among the citizenry."
"Right."
"This employment followed your standard, compulsory education that ended when you were eighteen and your two year stint in the mandatory travel program. "
Still not understanding where this was going, Davenport agreed again:
"Right."
Trying to exude cheerfulness, Dr. Ridgeway leaned forward: "Congratulations, you have reached the new mandatory retirement age and I am here to tell you what your long and productive work history has gotten you in the way of a retirement package."
Davenport looked worried again. "Retirement? But I don't want to retire yet. I am only 35."
"Most people don't. That's why its called 'Mandatory'"
"But I have no savings, no retirement fund. How am I to live?"
"Ahh. That is why we are here. I am going to go over the very generous retirement package that the Metropolitan Civic government is bestowing on you due to your many years of exemplary service."
Davenport no longer looked worried, but merely confused.
"'Exemplary Service'? But I never did anything except push whatever buttons on my desk console my supervisor told me to."
"Precisely." Dr. Ridgeway agreed. "You never questioned why you were told to push a button. You never posted a complaint or a suggestion. In fact you never did anything that might gum up the smooth workings of the organization. For that you will be richly rewarded."
Thinking he ought to be more worried and confused than he felt, Davenport said,"Ok."
"Ok," Dr. Ridgeway continued in a more monotone voice. "The retirement package represents both contractual agreement between you and your Metropolitan Civic government as well as a listing of all of the relevant laws and guidelines that might affect your retirement. We include the latter because we find that most retirees don't know their legal rights and obligations."
Davenport felt a little defensive at the implied criticism of he and his fellow citizens. "How could we know them, if the government never made their existence known?"
"We realize that the publication restrictions do present a small problem in that area, but we find that the whole mechanism works smoother if we maintain the secrecy of these laws."
"By the way, I should point out up front that this meeting, including all official and unofficial discussions engaged between us, falls under the General Secrecy Act. Under that Act, you may not discuss anything seen or said here with anyone, anytime. A violation will result in the immediate cancellation of your pension rights."
Speaking more to the unseen microphone than to Davenport, Dr. Ridgeway asked: "Do you understand these restrictions?"
Rather than answer directly "yes" or "no", Davenport asked "Can I get a copy of these regulations so I can understand what all of the restrictions are?"
"No" Dr. Ridgeway said. "All of the secrecy restrictions are secret and you are not authorized to that level. The only thing you really need to understand is that you would be in serious trouble if you repeated anything from or about this meeting."
Dr Ridgeway waited for about 30 seconds, staring intently at Davenport, and then prodded: "You do understand that, don't you?"
"Yea, I guess so" Davenport replied reluctantly.
"Please speak louder and more clearly." Dr. Ridgeway admonished Davenport.
"Yes, I understand that I shouldn't tell anyone anything even remotely concerned with this meeting." Davenport, almost shouted this time.
"Good" Dr. Ridgeway said, reverting back to his pleasant, friendly face.
"Now," he continued, "I will describe your retirement benefits in three parts: housing, taxes and fees, and your pension."
"Of course you cannot go on living where you are - those are residence halls for employees of your old agency. Since you no longer work for them, you must move out. However the Civic Government will provide generously for your needs. You will be assigned one of the units in the Riverside Retirement Hotel. It is located only a half mile from the Delaware River. On a clear day you can climb to the roof and see the river. Truly inspiring."
Davenport looked up and asked "Is it a one or two bedroom apartment?"
Dr. Ridgeway looked embarrassed to tell Davenport that, because of the current scarcity of units, there were only efficiency units available.
"Can I get on a priority list for a larger unit when they do become available?" Davenport asked.
Dr. Ridgeway looked even more uncomfortable. "Well, no. I am afraid that this will be your unit as long as you live. You will not be able to move out. If you get lucky and can afford it, you might be able to buy a second unit, but that is unlikely."
"So I have to live the rest of my life crammed into a tiny 400 square foot unit." Davenport expostulated.
"Well, actually it is only 265 square feet in size."
"You're kidding me?"
"Afraid not."
"But, there. . ." Davenport started to say but, Dr. Ridgeway held up his hand.
"I am afraid that's what it is. The policy is very precise and firm on the allocated size."
After a short pause Dr. Ridgeway continued: "We better move on since we have a lot more to discuss and I have another retiree coming in 20 minutes."
Dr. Ridgeway proceeded to put a second folder in front of Davenport. "Now the good news is that you will not have to pay taxes or municipal fees."
By this time Davenport was leery of anything that looked too good. "What kind of fees will I have to pay?"
"Only those that represent non-standard, extraordinary activities such as non-essential transportation, elective medical visits, and off-year clothes purchases. For example, if you want to have plastic surgery to improve you facial profile, you would have to pay for that. A bus ride to the nearest grocery store to buy a carton of milk won't cost you. However, if you travel across town to buy the same item, the bus ride will cost you."
"All of this is explained in detail by these brochures I am giving you. Since they are non negotiable and we are now in a hurry, I will leave it to you to read them."
Not waiting for any comment from Davenport, Dr. Ridgeway continued:
"That leaves only the question of your pension. As you may or may not be aware, the nature and role of money in our modern society has been changing. Actually, it has been disappearing. Money per se is no longer used as focalization of the barter of goods and services.
"Since you have been gainfully and dutifully employed for the past 15 years, you know that you were no longer being paid for your services. However, you could walk into almost any store in town, get what you needed and charge it to he association for which you worked.
"Sort of like using someone else's credit cards."
Davenport endeavored to break in and add a comment: "But I had nothing of my own. I did not save anything for retirement."
Dr. Ridgeway smilled. "No you didn't, but your association did it for you. It regularly paid into a retirement fund in your name. This pension, which is the primary reason for us meeting today, has been set up to allow you to retire in comfort with peace of mind for the future."
"Will I be able to continue to charge against the Association account as I have been doing?" Davenport asked.
"Ah, you are getting ahead of me" Dr. Ridgeway said. "As of today, with your acceptance of the retirement package, all association between you and the Metropolitan Council is severed."
Davenport felt uncomfortable with the whole chain of events winding out before him. "If I refuse to accept this package, will I go back to the old arrangement?"
"Well, no. Your association with the Metropolitan Council will still be severed. You just won't have the package."
"But what would I live on? How would I eat?"
Dr. Ridgeway looked companionate and concerned. "It would be difficult. That is why I urge you to accept the package."
Once again looking confused, Davenport asked: "Ok, if there is no longer any money as such and the Council is to give me something on which I will live, what will I get?"
Dr. Ridgeway looked relieved to finally address the reason for their meeting. He took the last of the folders he had brought (last and the thinnest Davenport noticed) and slid it across the table.
"'Money', which had no intrinsic worth, has been replaced by 'Calories' whose intrinsic value is evident every time you eat."
"Calories? How does the Council give me a calorie?"
Again Dr. Ridgeway smiled. He smiled a lot when he found himself on familiar, well traveled paths. "Well you don't exactly get paid in calories, per se. You get food whose caloric content counts toward your caloric account."
"Who chooses what foods will be used to fulfill my 'quota'?" Davenport asked skeptically.
With a certain amount of evident pride, Dr. Ridgeway explained: "That is the beauty of the system. You get to choose. You go out onto the open market and pick what you want. All foods are assigned an official nutritional label amount which details how many calories are nominally in each food you obtain. For all registered businesses this nominal amount is fixed.
"Of course if you go to one of the perambulating farmer's markets, what you pay is whatever you can negotiate with the seller. A totally open and transparent system."
"But what about other expenses, like bus transportation? How do I pay for that if I don't have any money?" Davenport inquired.
"With your calorie credits. Whereas you had a professional job and received a fixed level of compensation (calories into your pension plan), the bus driver earns credit from his riders. You will have a range of levels you can pay him. When you leave the bus you indicate how much you will give.
"Of course it makes the bus driver's job iffy, but that is the lot of the day laborer." Dr. Ridgeway's smile this time was almost conspiratorial.
But Davenport wasn't really paying attention to the problem of the day laborer. Instead, he was trying to think of issues that would affect him.
"Look this raises a lot of questions: How often does my account get credited? What happens if the Council's economic health collapses? What are the adjustments for inflation and such? I image the whole system gets very complicated."
"Actually, it doesn't" Dr. Ridgeway responded. "It is truly very simple. If you accept this proposal, then a ridiculously large lump sum will be deposited in your Calorie Account with the Metropolitan Credit Program (or MCP as we call it). After that only you have access to it. You manage it, use it, even invest it for the rest of your life."
Davenport sat there in silence.
As the time stretched out, Dr. Ridgeway began to fidget. He had other places to go and clients to see if he were to make his quota this day.
"If you have any questions, I am sure that they are answered in those brochures. All I need is you signature on this agreement signaling your acceptance of this settlement."
Davenport looked at the paper that Dr. Ridgeway pushed toward him but did not reach for it.
"But how much is this 'ridiculously large' pension I am being offered," he asked.
For the first time, Dr. Ridgeway looked flustered.
"Uh, sorry. I must have forgotten to mention the amount. We have taken so long and I am so rushed that it completely slipped my mind."
Dr. Ridgeway took a deep breath and visibly tried to achieve the state of assured serenity he had started with. He almost succeeded in spite of the time.
"Well, Mr. Davenport based upon your exemplar work record and numerous superior reviews, the council calculated that you deserve the lump sum distribution of 10,957,500 calories. However, given that outstanding record, the Council mediator has upped the distribution to an even 11 million calories.
"Congratulations. That is one of the most generous distributions I have ever seen and I have been doing this for almost fourteen years.
"Now, you can see that amount here at the top of the form. If you will sign the bottom, we can each take a copy and conclude this meeting."
But, Davenport would not be rushed. He sat there thinking for a few minutes, jotting some figures and notes onto a piece of paper he pulled from his pocket.
When he finally looked up, he looked both perplexed and angry: "But that is only 12 years worth of calories on a 2500 calorie a day diet. What happens after I turn 47?"
Again, Dr. Ridgeway was on solid ground. "Actually its over 15 years on the recommended 1500 calorie a day diet. Beyond that you need to either learn to invest your savings or get a job. It is not the Council's function to give you cradle to grave care. You have to take responsibility for your own life. This is the package that all professional's get. You will have to learn to live with it!
"After all, you are in the same situation as all professionals and are in better shape than most."
Davenport signed, of course.
Almost immediately, Dr. Ridgeway departed. Thankfully, he left without regurgitating any more words of encouragement.
Eventually, Davenport left also. He chose to walk home; it was only fourteen blocks and he wasn't sure if he would get reimbursed.
On the way home he thought about the 5 days he had to move into his new apartment.
He also noticed that there were not any elderly people on the street and that a hot dog was evaluated to be worth 2300 calories.