Unexamined assumptions can illuminate old stories in new ways. (This sequence started in the story, “Logical Conclusion“)
“The Tallysheet Bankers”
Part 9 of a series
by P. Orin Zack
John Frachetti stood in the hallway, contemplating a door. Not the one he’d just shrunk from opening, the formidable walnut-stained entrance to the executive conference room on the top floor of Fremont-Wayfarer’s corporate headquarters, nor the figurative ingress of a chamber that might serve as his access to the world stage, but rather, a more private one, the door to the inner sanctum of his soul.
Happenstance had tangled the thin cry of his blogger’s rant against the tallysheet bankers with the anti-corporate rage being husbanded in the prison-bedecked dining rooms of the company’s restaurants. Persons unknown had murdered Edward Reese, its Chief Executive, and left him, a message still to be read, in the motel room where he’d turned down the chance to avert the trial that had ultimately imprisoned the corporation itself. And now, John had been summoned to speak before what remained of its Board, to defend the call to action which had so galvanized the chain’s employees and patrons alike, and which had driven the talking heads to demand the shuttering of thousands of doors, and the diners behind them.
He closed his eyes and took a calming breath. The hot flame that warmed his soul and illuminated his world seemed to crackle, casting an otherworldly blue glow through the insubstantial aural cloak that surrounded his inner self, protecting him from the destructive impulses of those nearby. At peace with himself, he opened his eyes, reached out and opened the door.
“There he is,” a grating voice boomed, “the sorry little cretin responsible for trashing this business.”
John picked out the source, an overweight buffoon struggling upright behind the long table, and smiled. “I guess I found the right room, then.”
“The right room for your funeral!” came the retort.
Claire Fuller, one of the two people here he recognized, slammed her palm against the table. “Hold your tongue, Mr. Bouvior,” she said, rising to her feet. “Need I remind you that, as the prime enabler of the crime, you’re here only to answer questions.”
Frachetti smiled sardonically as the man settled back into his chair. He’d met Fuller, the parole officer overseeing Fremont-Wayfarer’s three-year sentence, in one of the chain’s restaurants, but he wasn’t expecting to see her tonight. “What are you doing here?” he asked warily as he approached.
“At a Board meeting? I’m the Chair. Now, if you’ll take the seat beside Mr. Klee, we can get started.”
Alizondo Klee was the other person he recognized. Besides being the night manager at the FW Diner where he’d first encountered Claire Fuller, he was also the union’s voice on the board. Prior to the trial, there hadn’t even been a union. Judge Clary had made workforce unionization a condition of the sentence, and the new union wasted no time making a mockery of Reese’s plan to humiliate the employees by forcing them to wear prison garb.
“I’m glad you could make it,” Klee said as Frachetti slipped out of his jacket.
“Wouldn’t miss this for the world, sir.”
“All right then,” Fuller said, returning to her seat. “Now that we’re all here, I suggest we get down to business. Mr. Frachetti, the man who was so eager to see you is Nestor Bouvior. Before the court remade this board, he was its Chairman. That might explain his irritation. The gentleman across from you is Norman Wells, from the Securities and Exchange Commission. During the corporation’s incarceration, he also represents any other agency with an interest in the operation of the business.”
Wells nodded a silent greeting.
“Now that you know who everyone else is, it’s time that we found out a bit more about you. We’ve been compelled to speak with you by the police and the FBI, both of which are quite concerned about the potential for disruption that you demonstrated simply by talking with the staff and customers when we had dinner in Mr. Klee’s store the other night. The fact that the CEO was found dead shortly thereafter does give the authorities reason to be concerned about you.”
Frachetti glanced around the table. He had expected to feel emasculated in the company of such people, but found that he wasn’t. To the contrary, he felt empowered. Being asked, or rather, compelled to speak truth to power put him in a position he never dreamed he’d be in. And yet, here he was. “What is it you want to know?”
Before Fuller had a chance to speak, Klee raised a finger. “May I?”
“By all means, Al.”
He turned toward Frachetti. “This company is in a very awkward position right now, John. With Edward Reese, the CEO, dead, the board is normally supposed to find a replacement, but one of the conditions of the sentence is a three-year lock-in of the executive staff. They’re not allowed to quit. Dying, or in this case, murder, is the only way out. The court’s directions didn’t include a contingency for this, which means the remainder of the board must decide what to do. The prison-themed makeover, which set the stage for the little revolt you triggered, was Reese’s idea. With him gone, we’re not obligated to leave that makeover in place. We could scrap it all and return to being a dull family restaurant chain. The thing is, neither Ms. Fuller nor I, nor the union, really want to do that. And from what we can tell, the customers we’ve fired up in the process don’t want that either. But leaving it in place means we’re sitting on an activist powder keg, and we’re not all that sure we want to find out what might happen if it blows. You’re here right now because it’s become clear to the police and the FBI that you could trigger it, even if you didn’t want to. So before we decide what to do, we need to know a lot more about you.”
“Okay,” he said, gathering his thoughts. “To start with, I never wanted to incite people to violence. The point of my blog is to get them to think, to see some of what surrounds them in a different way. Specifically, I’m concerned about what we’ve come to think about as money.”
“Come again?” Wells said. “What we think about as money?”
“Yes sir. Now, I don’t want to imply that none of you know your business, but there are a lot of things in our lives that are so base… so ingrained in the structure of everything we do, that we don’t really ever think about them. Money is one of them. Our idea of it stems from the kind we can touch, coins and bills. But we’ve extended that idea into things that aren’t the same at all, credit cards, bank statements, and stocks and bonds. People treat them as money, but they’re not. Not really. They only masquerade as money. And I think that’s a problem.”
“But why? All they do is represent money.”
Bouvior snorted. “Go home, kid. Get yourself an MBA and maybe we’ll talk.”
“Nestor,” Fuller said lightly, “would you like to be fitted with a gag?”
The former chairman crossed his arms and frowned.
Frachetti studied the man briefly. Derision was a defensive gesture. He must have felt threatened. Wells, on the other hand, appeared truly interested. “Yes, sir. Those instruments do represent money, but the difference is that they represent a variable amount of it. And even at that, the money they represent was created out of nothing.”
“I can see your point,” Wells said, “with respect to securities, since their value is based on people’s willingness to buy them, but how does it apply to credit cards and bank statements?”
“In a word, interest. Currency is always worth exactly what it says it is, but the moment you represent money, or the promise of it, in an account of some kind, that value can be changed. You can charge or pay interest, add fees. But the point is that those changes are not reflected in any exchange of actual money… that is, bills and coins. The US constitution assigned the new government the power to mint money. But the tallysheet bankers usurped that power. What we think of as money these days is a farce.”
“The what?” Fuller asked, visibly confused.
“Tallysheet bankers. I coined the term in one of my blog posts. Maybe if I used a familiar story. The essential conflict in the old Frank Capra film, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, isn’t really between good guy George Bailey and the evil Henry Potter, it’s between two different kinds of bank. The Bailey Building and Loan Association was based on the kind of money the founders intended us to have. It was essentially a warehouse for hard currency, and couldn’t lend money that it didn’t have. People turned loans against actual money into homes and businesses, and stored the money they earned in savings accounts there. Potter’s bank, on the other hand, operated the way banks in the real world do these days. It loaned money it didn’t have by making a set of balancing entries on a tally sheet. The people they loaned it to not only had to go out and get this non-existent money for Potter’s bank, they had to get an additional amount, the interest, for the privilege. In a sense, Potter’s business model is based on Maxwell’s Demon, an impossible character that violated the laws of physics.”
“That’s rubbish,” Bouvior said, and turned his back to the table.
“I think I can understand why you’ve created such a row,” Klee said. “So much of our lives, so much of what we do and why we do it, is based on our understanding of money. If it’s powerful enough to cause people to kill for it, it’s powerful enough to get them to rebel against the people, businesses and governments who use it against them. I think I’d like to ask you to speak at a union meeting. We’ll talk about that later.”
“Getting back to the point of all this,” Fuller said, “now that we know what you’re about, Mr. Frachetti, we have to decide whether the corporation we are here to oversee can afford to participate in a public discussion of this issue, and if so, how that fits into both the mission of the company and the purpose of its incarceration.”
“Not to mention,” Wells added, “what to do about a Chief Executive Officer. There is still that to consider. A headless corporation is like a leaderless army… nobody’s leading the charge. Someone has to be ultimately responsible, and to answer to the SEC and all of the other agencies.”
“I’ve been wondering about that, too, Claire,” Klee said. “And I had a thought. If this follows the model of a normal imprisonment, wouldn’t the warden be ultimately responsible for the well-being of the inmates? Under normal circumstances, wouldn’t the chair fill in until a replacement could be found?”
“Nestor?” she said to the back of Bouvior’s chair. “That was a question.”
His chair swung slowly around. “Finding an acceptable CEO is the most important job of any board of directors. I thought you knew that.”
“And if one cannot be found… if the search drags on? Who’s in charge then?”
“That’s up to the board. Why? Did you want to nominate me?”
She shook her head. “No thanks. You’ve done enough damage already, Nestor.”
“Under the circumstances,” Wells said, “if the court says we can’t hire a new CEO, then your choices look like selecting an acting chief executive, either from the board, or from within the company. And since you’re here to oversee the business’s sentence, if it’s from here, that leaves Mr. Klee.”
He looked doubtful. “I’ll have to think about it.”
John Frachetti, who had remained very still during the exchange, turned to the man beside him. “Think about this, then. If you take over as chief executive, labor will be in charge of management. It’ll be the biggest story in the business press for months, and it will empower workers everywhere.”
“When you put it that way, it’s even more frightening.”
“Just think about it as balancing the books, Mr. Klee. Labor’s been at a disadvantage for far too long.”
They both looked over at Claire Fuller, who had started nervously drumming her fingers. “I thought we were trying to quell the possibility of violence. We do that and we could all be tagged as enemies of the state.” She grinned. “But I think it’ll be worth it.”
[Afterword: The story continues in “Bank Shot“.]
Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack