Sep 24, 2015

Retrotopia: Public Utilities, Private Goods

via The Archdruid Report

Archdruid's Note: This is the fourth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator, having arrived in the capital of the Lakeland Republic, discovers that things are even stranger there than he thought.

I’d already guessed that the hotel lobby probably wouldn’t look much like the ones I was used to seeing elsewhere, and so I wasn’t surprised. Instead of the glaring lights, security cameras, and automated check-in kiosks I was used to, it was a comfortable space with sofas and chairs around the edges, ornate chandeliers overhead, and a couple of desks staffed by actual human beings over to one side; off to the other side, glass doors framed in wood led into what looked like a full-service restaurant. A bellhop—was that the right word?—came trotting over to take my suitcase as soon as I came through the door, said something pleasant, and followed me over to the check-in desk.
“I’ve got a reservation,” I said to the clerk. “The name’s Peter Carr.”
I’d been wondering whether the hotel would turn out to use an old-fashioned computer system with a keyboard and screen, but apparently even that was too complex for local standards. Instead, the clerk pulled out a three-ring binder, opened it, and found my reservation in about as much time as it would have taken to input a name on a veepad and wait for a response to come out of the cloud. “Welcome to the Capitol Hotel, Mr. Carr. We have you down for fourteen nights.”
“That’s right.”
“Looks like everything’s paid for in advance. If you’ll sign here.” She handed me a clipboard with a sheet of paper on it and an old-fashioned ballpoint pen. Fortunately I hadn’t quite forgotten how to produce a non-digital signature, and signed on the line at the bottom. “Anything you order in the restaurant here—” She motioned toward the doors on the far side of the room. “—or for room service can be billed to the room account. How many keys will you want?”
“Just one.”
She opened a drawer, pulled out an honest-to-Pete metal key with a ring and a tag with the room number on it. “Here you go. Stairs are right down the hall; if you need the elevator it’s to the left. Is there anything else I can do for you? Enjoy your stay, Mr. Carr.”
I thanked her and headed for the hall with the bellhop in tow. My room was on the third floor and the stairs didn’t look too challenging, so I asked him, “Do you mind if we take the stairs?”
“Not a bit,” he said. “Comes with the job.”
We started up the stairs. “Do you get a lot of people here from outside the Lakeland Republic?”
“All the time. Capitol’s just four blocks away, and Embassy Row’s between here and there. We had the foreign minister of Québec here just last week.”
“No kidding.” There had been rumors for years that the Québecois started tacitly ignoring the embargo even before Canada broke up; we had decent relations with Montréal these days, but that hadn’t always been the case, and so any news about what was going on between Québec and the Lakeland Republic were worth my attention. “Big official visit, or what?”

"Pretty much, yeah,” said the bellhop. “Really nice lady. Had a bottle of champagne sent up to her room first thing every morning.”

I laughed. “Heck of a breakfast.”

“Nah, breakfast was a couple of hours later, with more champagne. Go figure.”

We got to the third floor, left the stair, and went down the hall to my room. “Just leave it inside the door,” I said, meaning the suitcase. “Thanks.”

“Sure thing."

I didn’t have any Lakeland money to tip him, but guessed the couple of Atlantic bills I had would do. Fortunately I was right; he grinned, thanked me, and headed back toward the stair.

The room was bigger than I’d expected, with a queen-sized bed on one side and a desk and dresser on the other. I knew there wouldn’t be a veebox, but thought there might be a screen or even an old-fashioned television in the room, but no dice. The only things even vaguely electronic were a telephone on the desk and a boxy thing on the dresser that had a loudspeaker and some dials on it—a radio, I guessed, and decided to leave turning it on for later. Curtained windows on the far wall let through diffuse light; I went over and pulled the curtains open.

The bellhop hadn’t been kidding. There was the Capitol dome, half-complete, rising up above a ragged roofline right in front of me. That would be convenient, I decided, and let the curtains fall again.

I got my things settled and then went to the desk and the big envelope of yellowish paper sitting on top of it. Inside was the notebook Melissa Berger had mentioned, a couple of pens, a packet of papers that had BANK OF TOLEDO printed across the top of each sheet, an identification card with my name and photo on it, a wallet that was pretty clearly meant to hold money and the ID card, and a letter on government stationery welcoming me to Toledo in the usual bland terms, over President Meeker’s signature. Then there were half a dozen pages of instructions on how to get by in the Lakeland Republic, which covered everything from customary tips (I’d overtipped the bellhop, though not extravagantly) to who to contact in this or that kind of emergency. I nodded; clearly the bellhop hadn’t been exaggerating when he mentioned plenty of foreign guests.

I dropped my veepad in a desk drawer and got the wallet and some of the papers settled into the empty pocket. First things first, I decided: visit the bank and get the money thing sorted out, then get some lunch and do a bit of wandering.

Down in the lobby, the concierge was behind his desk. “Can I help you?”

“Please. I need to know where to find the Bank—” All at once I couldn’t remember the name, and reached for the papers in my pocket.

“Out the door,” said the concierge, “hang a left, go a block and a half straight ahead, and you’ll be standing right in front of it.”

I considered him. “You don’t need to know which bank?”

“There’s only one in town.”

That startled me, though I managed not to show it. “Okay, thanks.”

“Have a great day,” he said.

I headed out the doors, turned left, started along the sidewalk.  A cold damp wind was rushing past, pushing shreds of cloud across the sky, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why most of the other people on the sidewalk were wearing hats and  long coats; they looked much warmer than I felt. Still, Philadelphia has plenty of cold weather, and I was used to the way the chill came through bioplastic business wear. What annoyed me a little, or more than a little, was the way that my clothing made me stick out like a sore thumb.

In retrospect, it was amusing. Everybody else on the sidewalk looked like extras from half a dozen random history vids, everything from fedoras and trench coats to the kind of thing that was last in style when Toledo was a frontier town, and there I was, the only person in town in modern clothing—and you can guess for yourself who was the conspicuous one. The adults gave me startled looks and then pretended that nothing was up, but the kids stared wide-eyed as though I had two extra heads or something. As I said, it was amusing in retrospect, but at the time it made me acutely uncomfortable, and I was glad to get to the bank.

That was a three-story brick building on a street corner. Fortunately it had BANK OF TOLEDO—CAPITOL BRANCH above the doors, or I’d probably have missed it, since it didn’t look anything like the banks I was used to. Inside was even weirder: no security cameras, no automated kiosks, no guards in helmets and flak jackets pacing the balcony waiting for trouble, just a lobby with a greeter inside the door and a short line of patrons waiting for tellers. The greeter met me with a cheery “Hi, how can we help you today?” I got out the bank papers, and a minute or two later got shown into one of three little office spaces off the main lobby.

On the other side of the desk was a middle-aged African-American man with a neatly trimmed beard. “I’m Larry Jones,” he said, getting up to shake my hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr.—”

“Carr,” I said. “Peter Carr.” We got the formalities out of the way and sat down; I handed him the papers; he checked them, we discussed some of the details, and he then unlocked a drawer in his desk and pulled out a big envelope.

“Okay,” he said. “Everything’s good. The only question I have at this point is whether you’ve ever used cash or checks before.”

“I’m guessing,” I said, “that you ask that question fairly often.”

“These days, yes,” he replied. “Bit of a change since before the Treaty.”

“I bet. The answer, though, is cash, yes; checks—well, I’ve seen a few of them.”

“Okay, fair enough.” He looked relieved, and I wondered how many people from the cashless countries he’d had to walk through the details of counting out coins. “Here’s your checkbook,” he said, pulling the thing out of the envelope, and then opened it and showed me how to write a check. “Up here,” he said, flipping open a notebookish thing in front, “is where you keep track of how much you’ve spent.” He must have caught my expression, because he broke into a broad smile and said, “Long time since you’ve done math with a pen, I bet.”

“Depends on how long it’s been since never,” I told him.

He laughed. “Gotcha. Glad to say we can help you out there, too.” He opened a different drawer in his desk, handed me a flat little shape of brass. “This is a mechanical calculator,” he said. “Adds and subtracts for you.”

I took the thing, gave it a baffled look. “I didn’t know you could do that without electronics.”

“I think we’re the only country on earth that still makes these.” He showed me how to use the stylus to slide the digits up and down. Once I had it figured out, I thanked him and tucked the calculator and checkbook into my pocket.

“Do you have a minute?” I asked then. “I’ve got a couple of questions about the way you do things here—about banking, mostly.”

“Sure thing,” he said. “Ask away.”

“The concierge at the hotel said there’s only one bank here in Toledo. Is that true everywhere in the Lakeland Republic?”

“Yes, if you’re talking about consumer banking.”

“Is it the same bank everywhere?”

“Good heavens, no. Each county and each city of any size has its own bank, like it has its own water and sewer district and so on.”

“That makes it sound like a public utility,” I said, baffled.

“That’s exactly what it is. Again, that’s just consumer banking. We’ve got privately owned commercial banks here, but those do investment banking only—they’re not allowed to offer savings and checking accounts, consumer loans, small business services, that sort of thing, just like we’re not allowed to do any kind of investment banking.”

I shook my head, baffled. “Why the restriction?”

“Well, that used to be law in the United States, from the 1930s to the 1980s or so, and it worked pretty well—it was after they changed the law that the economy really started running off the rails, you know. So our legislature changed the law back after Partition, and it’s worked pretty well for us, too.”

“I don’t think banks were public utilities back then,” I objected.

“No, that was mostly further back, and only some banks,” he agreed. “The thing is, the way we see it, there are some things that private industry does really well and some things that it doesn’t do well at all, and public utilities like water, sewer service, electricity, public transit, consumer banking, that sort of thing—those work better when you don’t let private interests milk them for profits. I know you do things different back home.”

“True enough. But isn’t it more efficient to leave those things to private industry?”

“That depends, Mr. Carr, on what you mean by efficiency.”

That intrigued me. “Please go on.”

Unexpectedly, he laughed. “I give a talk on that every year at one of the homeschool associations here in town. Efficiency is always a ratio—more or less efficient at producing an output in terms of a given input. A chemical process is efficient if it turns out more product for the same amount of raw materials, or the ssme amount of energy, or what have you. We get people from outside all the time talking about how this or that would be more efficient than what we do, and you know what? None of them seem to be able to answer a simple question: efficient for what output, in terms of what input?”

I could see where this was going, and decided to head onto a different tack. “And having consumer banks as public utilities,” I said. “Is that more efficient for some output in terms of some input?”

“We don’t worry so much about that,” the banker said. “The question that matters to most people here is much simpler: does it work or doesn’t it?”

“How do you tell?”

“History, Mr. Carr,” he said. He was smiling again. “History.”

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