Nov 5, 2015

Retrotopia: Inflows and Outputs

via The Archdruid Report

Author's Note: This is the eighth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator visits a city power plant that runs on an unexpected fuel source and a stock market subject to even less familiar rules.

By the time Michael Finch and I left the streetcar plant it was pushing eleven. “Where next?” I asked.
“We’re about four blocks from one of the municipal power plants,” the intern said. “I called ahead and arranged for a tour—that’ll take about an hour, and should still give us plenty of time for lunch. Ms. Berger said you’d  want a look at our electrical infrastructure.”
I nodded. “ Please. Electricity’s an ongoing problem back home.”
“It hasn’t always been that easy here, either,” Finch admitted. “Would you like to take a cab, or—”
“Four blocks? No, that’s walking distance.” From his expression, I gathered that wasn’t always the case with visitors from outside, but he brightened and led the way east toward the Maumee River. North of us I could see bridges arching across the river, and the unfinished dome of the Capitol rising up white above the brown and gray rooftops.
The power plant was another big brick building like the streetcar factory, and I looked in vain for smokestacks. Finch led me in through the office entrance, a double door in an ornate archway, and introduced us to the receptionist inside. A few moments later we were shown into the office of the plant manager, a stocky brown-skinned man with gray hair who came over to shake my hand.
“Jim Singletary,” he said. “Pleased to meet you. I don’t imagine you have anything like our facility over in the Atlantic Republic, so if there’s anything you want to know, just ask, okay?”
I assured him I would, and he led us out of the office. The corridor outside went straight back into the heart of the plant; at its far end, we went through a door onto a glassed-in balcony overlooking a big open room where six massive and complex machines rose up from a concrete floor.
“Down on the floor, you couldn’t hear a thing but the turbines,” he said. “That’s the business end of the plant—six combined cycle gas turbines driving our generators. We get almost sixty per cent efficiency in terms of electrical generation, more than that when you factor in the heat recycling to the facility. You know how a combined cycle turbine works?”
“More or less—you put the gases from the turbine through a heat exchanger, and use that to run a steam turbine off the leftover heat, don’t you?”
“Exactly. What comes out of the heat exchangers runs around 300 degrees Fahrenheit, which is more than enough to do something with. Here, a lot of it goes to heat the fermentation tanks.”
I wondered what he meant by that, but it didn’t take long to find out. Singletary led us along the balcony to another set of doors, and through them into another glassed-in balcony overlooking a double row of what looked a little like the top ends of a row of gargantuan pressure cookers.
“The fermentation tanks,” he said. “Feedstock goes in, methane and slurry come out. At any given time, eighteen tanks are in operation and the other six are being loaded or unloaded. This way, please.”
The balcony ended at another door, and a corridor led to the left. At its end was a balcony, this time open to the outside air. Below was the Maumee River, and a line of big blocky riverboats tied up along a quay. The one closest to us was having something unloaded from it through a big pipe.
“And there’s the feedstock that makes the whole thing work,” said Singletary. “I don’t recommend going down to the quayside—it’s pretty ripe.”
“What’s the feedstock?” I asked, even though I’d begun to guess the answer.
“Manure,” he said. “Cow, horse, sheep, human—you name it. We buy manure from an eight county region to supplement what gets produced here in Toledo.” I gave him a startled look, and he grinned. “Yep. If you’ve used the toilet since you got here, you’ve contributed to Toledo’s electricity supply.”
I laughed, and he went on. “We use a three-stage fermentation process to extract nearly seventy per cent of the carbon from the feedstock while the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium stay in the sludge. By the time it’s finished in the tanks it’s sterile enough you could rub it on an open wound. We use heat output from the turbines to dry it, and ship it back to farmers as fertilizer. So everyone’s happy.”
We went back to his office and I got a rundown on the economics of the plant. “How close do you get to breaking even, between feedstock costs and fertilizer sales?” I asked.
“Not as close as I’d like,” Singletary admitted. “Ever since the Maumee and Ohio canal got reopened, the farmers south of us can sell their feedstock to Dayton or Springfield—Lima’s tier three so it’s not in the market. North of us we’ve got Detroit and Ann Arbor to bid against; east there’s Cleveland, and the canal system west of the Maumee is still being rebuilt, so that’s out of the picture at the moment.”
“You depend on canals that much?”
“We can’t afford not to. Back in the early days, we used to ship in some feedstock by rail, but the costs are just too high these days. For any kind of bulk cargo, if you don’t have to worry about speed, canal shipping’s really the way to go.”
I asked a few more questions, and then we all shook hands and Finch and I headed out into the crisp fall air. “Interested in lunch?” he asked me; we discussed restaurants while waiting for the streetcar, and then rode it north into downtown. A bar and grill around the corner from the streetcar stop where we got off served up a very passable BLT sandwich, and then we wove our way through crowded sidewalks to the big stone building that housed the Toledo Stock Market.
“Vinny Patzek,” said the young man with black slicked-back hair who greeted us in a crowded office not far from the trading floor. “Pleased to meet you.” He had his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up, and looked like he spent a lot of his time running flat out from one corner of the building to another. “Any chance you know something about stock markets, Mr. Carr?”
“Actually, yes—I did two years on the NYSE floor before they moved it to Albany,” I said.
His face lit up. “Sweet. Okay, this is gonna be a lot less confusing to you than it is to most of the people we see here from outside. It’s not quite the same as what you’re used to, but the differences are mostly the technology, not the underlying setup. Come on.”
“I’ll leave you with Mr. Patzek for now,” Finch told me. “I promised Ms. Berger I’d check in after lunch and see how things are going at the Capitol.”
“Fair enough,” I said, and he left through one door while Patzek herded me out through another, down a corridor, and onto the trading floor of the stock exchange.
All things considered, it wasn’t much quieter than the turbine room of the power plant, but since I’d worked on a trading floor the noise and bustle actually meant something to me. There was a reader board, a big one, covering most of the far wall; it was mechanical, not digital, and flipped black or eye-burning yellow in little rectangular patches to spell out the latest prices. There were trading posts scattered across the floor, where specialists handled the buying and selling of shares. There were floor traders and floor brokers, enough of them to make the floor look crowded, and the featureless roar  made up of hundreds of voices shouting bids and offers.
“You probably still use computers in New York, right?” Patzek said in something that wasn’t quite a yell. “Here it’s all old-fashioned open outcry, with the same kind of hand signals you’d see in the Chi-town commodity pits. Lemme show you. All we need is an order.”
“I’ll take one share of Mikkelson Manufacturing,” I said.
He grinned. “You’re on.”
“You get a lot of small orders like that?”
“All the time. You get little old ladies, working guys, you name it, who save up the cash to buy a share or two once a month, that sort of thing, and come on down here to buy it in person.” He looked up at the reader board. “Mikkelson’s MIK—see it? Seventy-two even a share. Let’s go.”
We plunged into the crowd, and I managed to follow Patzek through the middle of it to one of the trading posts, where the traders and brokers looked even busier than they were elsewhere on the floor. Right in the middle of it, the yelling was loud enough I couldn’t make out a single word, just Patzek gesturing with a closed hand and then a raised index finger and shouting something that didn’t sound much like Mikkelson Industries. It only took about a minute, though, for the market to do what markets are supposed to do, and Patzek came out of the scrum with a big grin and an order written up on a pad of paper he’d extracted from one of his vest pockets.
“We’re good,” he said. “Seventy-two and a quarter—it’s pretty lively. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t hit seventy-five by closing. Let’s settle up back at the office; they’ll be sending the certificate there.”
We went back the way we’d came. The office, busy as it was, seemed almost unnervingly quiet after the roar of the trading floor. “So that’s how it’s done,” said Patzek. “A little different, I bet.”
“Not as much as it used to be,” I said. “When I first got on the NYSE floor, there were only a couple of dozen floor traders left, and it was as quiet as a library most days. With the satellite situation and some of the other problems lately, a lot of brokerages are putting trades back on the floor again. But of course it’s still done with handheld computers, not the sort of thing you’ve got in there.”
Patzek nodded. “The way I heard it, there were handhelds on the floor in the early days after Partition, but the first time the outside tried regime change here they hacked the system and crashed it, and the exchange just let it drop. Computers are just too easy to hack. Floor traders? Not so much.”
“I bet,” I said, laughing.
I wrote a check for the price of the share, then, and filled out a couple of forms covering my side of the transaction. When I got to the form for dividend payouts, though, I looked up at Patzek. “I’ll have to make some arrangements back home before I can finish this.” He nodded, and I went on. “What kind of dividends does Mikkelson pay these days?”
“Five, maybe six percent a year. Not bad, especially since it’s tax free.”
That startled me. “Mikkelson, or dividends in general?”
“Dividends in general. They count as earned income, like wages, salaries, royalties, that sort of thing. Most other investments, you’re gonna pay tax, and if you sell that share and make a profit on it, that’s speculative income and you’re gonna get whacked.”
“So earned income is tax free, but investment income isn’t.”
“Yeah—again, except for dividends.”
I remembered what Elaine Chu had said about taxes back at the Mikkelson plant. “So you tax what you want to discourage, not what you want to encourage.”
“Heck if I know,” said Patzek. “You’ll have to ask the politicians about that.”
A moment later a messenger came in through the door we’d used, plopped a manila folder on one of the desks, and ducked back out. Half a dozen people converged on the folder; Patzek waited his turn, and came back with a sheet of stiff paper printed in ornate script.
“Here you go,” he said. “One share of Mikkelson Manufacturing. Congratulations—you’re now a limited partner with Janice Mikkelson.”
I gave him a startled look, then glanced at the certificate. I’d read about printed stock certificates, but never actually handled one, so it took me a moment to sort through the fancy printing and read the line that mattered. Sure enough, it read MIKKELSON MANUFACTURING LLP.
“Limited liability partnership,” I guessed. “So it’s not a corporation?”
“Nah, it’s a little different here. Back in the day—and we’re talking before the First Civil War, forget about the Second—corporations had to be chartered by the legislature, for some fixed number of years, and only for some kind of public benefit, not just because somebody wanted to make a few bucks. After all the problems the old Union had with corporations claiming to be people and all that, we up and drew a line under that, and went back to the original laws. Here, if a business wants to sell stock, it becomes a limited liability partnership. The limited partners are only on the hook to the value of their stock holdings, but the managing partner or partners—their butts are on the line. If Mikkelson Manufacturing ever goes bust, Mikkelson can kiss her mansion goodbye, and if the company breaks the law, she’s the one who goes to jail.”
I took that in. “Does that actually happen?”
“Not so much any more. Back when I was a kid, there were some really juicy cases, and yeah, some really rich people lost their shirts and landed behind bars. These days, you’re in business, you watch the laws as closely as you watch the bottom line—there’s too many people in politics who’d be happy to buy their constituents a new streetcar line with the proceeds from a court case.”
That didn’t sound much like the politics I was used to back home. I was still processing it when the other door came open and Michael Finch came in. “Mr. Carr,” he said, “I just talked to Ms. Berger. They got everything settled around lunchtime. If you’re ready, the President will be happy to see you this afternoon.”
I glanced at Patzek who grinned and made a scooting motion with one hand. We shook hands and said the usual, and I followed Finch out the door.

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