Not too many literary novelists tackle the big economic questions of our time. John Lanchester did it after the Collapse of 2008 with I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, but he didn’t write a novel. Now Lionel Shriver has actually done it with The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047.
I’ll be writing more about this interesting and fun novel, but for starters let’s look at how American English changes after a big economic collapse circa 2029. The country is majority Latino and they are “Lats” while white Americans are “honks.” A couple of decades after the U.S. defaults on its bonds, both principal and interest, where a present-day American might use the words “shit” and “asswipe” the corresponding words are “treasury” and “T-bill.”:
Maybe even Goog, who wouldn’t be such a T-bill if he didn’t work for the Scab. [Two brothers are named, circa 2020, “Goog” and “Bing”; the Scab is short for “Bureau for Social Contribution Assistance,” the rebranded IRS.]
“You’re always reminiscing about how brutal it was at Citadel. If Elysian is splug, why not go back? You took to that farm treasury more than most of us did.
“And you’re assuming that the chip’s self-destruct is treasury. Why would it be? You heard Goog. A whole unit at the Scab, he said. And doesn’t it sound like exactly what they’d program your chip to do, if you had the impertinence to throw down your cotton hoe, and the ingratitude to walk away from the greatest nation on earth? These people are motherfucking T-bills! Seems biggin’ likely to me that instead of allowing you to throw off your chains, they’d rather you be dead.”
Young folks change the way they greet each other:
“Full faith and credit, man,” Bing said, with a biff of solidarity on Willing’s shoulder. “Full faith and credit,” Willing returned, with a light biff back. The ritual greeting went over the heads of their elders.
Americans who reject the various transformations in society and move to the free state of Nevada are referred to as “Forty-Niners”. The transformations include chipping humans the way that dogs are currently chipped and confiscating guns:
Return to the city necessitated a proper job. Packing up at Citadel in ’41, he already suspected that a job meant being chipped. It was routine; everyone said so. Like applying for a Social Security number. A bureaucratic matter, a relatively painless, pro forma protocol of the modern day. Thus Willing had not considered the inevitability of the procedure with sufficient seriousness. 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. When Willing was small, people made a great brouhaha over pedophilia, and sexual abuse of any kind. Employees at daycare centers were required to get criminal-record checks. All scoutmasters were suspect. No one ever seemed to care if you were a murderer. Murderers were let out of prison and blended right back into the neighborhood. They could live wherever they wanted. Sex criminals were marked for life—shuttled from hostels to underpasses, and required to report their whereabouts, which were posted on the web—the better for local parents to start picketing campaigns to have the filth evicted. The no-go radius around schools and playgrounds widened every year. It was worse to be a rapist than a killer. By inference, rather than be raped, you were better off dead.
The foreign object was the size of a pinhead. A mere poke would be more painful, a squeeze, even. Parents were far better off anguishing over male circumcision, now roundly discouraged. Willing envied the newborns. The real trauma had little to do with physical torment. A baby’s clean slate would preclude any horror over what the “foreign object” was for. Since he was eight years old, Willing had understood that most systems worked badly. It was a surprise to discover in his young adulthood that they could also work too well.
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.
If anyone contacted your chipsite whose distinctive heartbeat didn’t synchronize perfectly with the pounding in your chip, your funds went into lockdown. So no one could pretend to be you, and the account that went everywhere you went was safe from predators. (The feds somewhat oversold this feature in the early versions. In a surge of “chipnappings,” individuals were forced to make online transfers at gunpoint. Updates guaranteed that when the chip detected high levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, or even heavy doses of tranquilizers that might suppress those hormones, transfers would not go through. The same bio-sensitivity ensured that gamblers could not place rash bets while drunk, which had a distinctly depressive effect on the casino industry.)
Much the same reasoning had led to the complete elimination of the cash dólar nuevo in 2042.
Who completely ignored the weapons amnesty in ’38?” “He didn’t completely ignore it,” Bing said. “When they canceled the Second Amendment—” “No one canceled the Second Amendment, you yunk,” Goog said. “It was clarified. Modern constitutional scholars now believe it was never meant to apply to individuals in the first place. A ‘well-regulated militia’ means the police and the armed forces. Not some lunatic with an AK in a shopping mall.”
The chip stuff interests me because starting about 15 years ago I have been waiting for humans to be chipped. I imagined that it would start with criminals as a condition of parole. Then it would be children because we don’t want them to get lost. Then it would be visitors to the U.S. and immigrants as a condition of getting in. Then finally it would lead to a much safer and more secure society if everyone were chipped. Shriver imagines that we get chipped primarily to facilitate tax collection.
What about when they turn on the tap and no water comes out? That’s a “dryout”. Old people soaking up an ever-greater share of the GDP with Social Security and Medicare? “shrivs”
More: Read The Mandibles.