Short Story: “LA Scrip”

Nobody else knows what to do either, so you might as well just try something, and see where it leads. (This series of business stories on the aftermath of the Financial Meltdown started in “As Is“)

“LA Scrip”
Part 3 of a series
by P. Orin Zack
[1/5/2008]

Cristall Bellows, dressed more formally that she liked, and cradling a backpack in her lap, signaled the driver, and waited nervously for the bus to stop. She’d never been to this part of Los Angeles before, and the sight of all these unkempt McMansions was making her queasy. She shouldered the pack, and started towards the front.

The driver, who had been watching in his mirror, turned as she approached. “Is that LA Scrip you’re carrying?”

She clutched it defensively, pale blue textured paper in a dark brown hand. “Yeah. I just got paid down at City Hall. Don’t you take it? I thought all city services –.”

“We do, we do,” he laughed. “Thanks for helping out. It’s not everyone gets paid with Scrip just yet, only the folks working directly for the city. So what do you do for us?”

“Teaching, after a fashion,” she said as she stuffed her fare into the slot. “I’ve been going around explaining this new money to people. I get some of the strangest looks when I tell them the city just prints it up.”

“Well, that did used to be illegal, after all. Counterfeiters were offered special treatment by the criminal justice system back when the Federal Reserve had a monopoly on creating money.” He opened the door. “Who knew they’d end up getting hired by the city after the economy crapped out? Well, thanks for riding my bus, and good luck.”

As the bus pulled away, she glanced up at the street sign to get her bearings, and then wriggled into her backpack. She was headed for one of the houses that were handed out in last month’s foreclosure lottery. This particular one interested her because the previous owner had been deeply involved in the financial sleight-of-hand that yanked down the economy around everyone’s ears. And like a lot of the people who affect the world in outsize ways, he was a cipher, one of the shadowy villains who thought they were so smart they could run the world from behind a curtain of secrecy and deniability. What she didn’t know was whether the man that won the property, a Mr. Ryan Svorlin, had the first clue about what sort of a ghost roamed his halls.

“Gregory Davis?” Svorlin said with an amused grin when she asked. “Sure. He was still hanging around in the kitchen when I got the keys. Buried him by that tree over there.”

She turned to look at the mound of dirt and recoiled. “You didn’t kill him, did you?”

“Hardly. The creep politely offed himself. Tried not to make too much of a mess at it, too. I gotta say, though, he did leave quite a treasure trove back in the office.”

“Money?”

Svorlin shook his head. “Paper trail a mile wide. The guy was flat out apoplectic about trying to atone for what he’d done. He even tried leaving his fortune to help the people whose lives he helped ruin. Not that those securities are worth anything any more. Even his back-up plan – a safe in the basement – was a disaster. US currency. All of it. Listen, I get the feeling this chat’s going to take a while. Come on in. I’ll show you around Davis’ old digs. What’s your interest in him, if you don’t mind a nosy question?”

She stopped to study an incomprehensible collage hanging in the foyer. “He had odd taste in art, didn’t he?”

“If you ask me, the man’s taste was all in his wallet. While he was still flying high, he prowled the auction circuit, snatching up what he thought of as investment properties. Of course, things like that are only worth what someone’s willing to pay for them. All those bucks he poured into his collection is just a pile of washable paper now. So if there’s something you like, let me know. Maybe we can work out a trade.”

Cristall smiled privately, and then turned to follow him down the hallway to the back of the house. She glanced into a cluttered room in passing, probably the office Svorlin had mentioned, judging from the furnishings. “You asked about my interest in Gregory Davis,” she said, descending the two steps into the sunny den.

“Actually,” he said after holding eye contact for a moment, “I was surprised you even knew about him. Is it personal? The congressman who helped me bury the guy took some satisfaction in digging his grave. Said it gave him a sense of closure.” He pointed at an ugly conversation set by the big window. “Is wine okay? He left me a ton of it.”

She set her pack down beside the chair, and watched while he uncorked a bottle of something neither of them would have been able to afford, and filled two glasses. “I discovered who he was while preparing the economics seminar I teach for the city. The subject is hard for most people to grasp, so I’ve gone out of my way to make it real for them, to put some flesh behind all those antiseptic terms we’ve been bludgeoned with over the years.”

“Yeah,” he said, handing her a goblet. “I know what you mean. It’s been murder… I mean, it’s been difficult figuring out what all those papers he left behind are all about. Fortunately, he also had some reference books, so I can look stuff up easily enough. Still, it’s not exactly my field.”

“Oh? What did you do before the meltdown?”

Svorlin shrugged. “Software. Tech stuff. There isn’t a lot of call for that sort of work right now, though. Anyone with working computers is going to be stuck with whatever programs they’ve got, at least for a while. There isn’t any new development going on except for the open source projects, and even those are hobbled by problems with the Internet. If it weren’t for the Ham Radio guys’ do-it-yourself packet network, we wouldn’t have gotten what backbones we have hooked up again after the telcos went all twitchy.”

She stared at him like he was signing in Swahili.

“Um,” he said sheepishly, “that didn’t mean a lot to you, did it.”

“No, but it did give me a good feel for what my own students are up against. Thanks.”

“What’s your seminar about?”

Cristall fished around in her pack for a moment, and handed him a crisp light blue ten-angel note. “LA Scrip. Have you gotten any yet?”

He examined it and handed it back. “The city’s printing money now? What’s it worth in dollars?”

“It’s not convertible. Scrip’s a whole different kind of money. I guess you could say it’s the modern-day equivalent of the old Greenbacks. They’re issued by the city in exchange for work performed for the common good. So I get paid in these for teaching people what they are. Which is poetic, really, because unless I do that, they really aren’t worth anything. People have to be willing to use them as money for them to be money.”

“I don’t get it. If that bill represents ten angels worth of labor, what kind of labor was it, and how to I convert that to the kind of work that I do? I mean, some labor’s more valuable than others, isn’t it?”

“Not if it’s performed for the common good. Scrip’s egalitarian.”

Ryan took a thoughtful sip of wine. “Okay. I’m lost. I get that you traded an hour of your time for some number of those angels, but how do you buy bread with it? What’s an hour of your time worth in terms of apples?”

“That’s the point of the seminar. We’re just now working it all out. That’s only one of the questions we needed to answer.”

“So what’s the conversion? How much bread is that new bread worth?”

“At this point, we’re just working with the local bakeries, because they make it themselves. And our solution is still a bit clunky, but it’s a start. A loaf of bread takes a certain amount of time and materials to make. We can assign a value to the labor portion in terms of LA Scrip, but anything the baker still needs to pay in dollars for, like materials and the shop itself, are valued in dollars. We’re hoping to eventually get everything moved over to Scrip. Then we can dispense with the dollars entirely.”

He sat back and gazed out the window for a while. After another sip of wine, he said, “So if I offer my tech services to the city, I’d get paid in LA Scrip?”

“Uh huh. And then you could use it for bus fare, like I did on the way over. The driver gets paid based on the number of riders, so friendliness is a virtue. Your fare is what you think the trip is worth. We modeled that after how some musicians have started selling their recordings. And the extra goes to keeping the busses running.”

“What about rent? How would that work?”

Cristall thought for a moment. “Don’t know. We haven’t tried cracking that one yet. Got any suggestions?”

“Not suggestions, but I do have a problem to solve.”

“Oh?”

“Well, yeah. You’re sitting in it. This place has seven bedrooms. What does a single guy need with seven bedrooms? I figured maybe I could turn it into a boarding house or something.”

She chuckled. “In that case, I think you may have just answered your own question.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s a difference between running a boarding house and just renting out rooms. You’d be providing a service to the people living here, wouldn’t you? Meals, for example.”

“I hadn’t really thought it through that far, but okay, what if I do?”

“Then you can take angels for your time, at least. Are you serious about this?”

“Sure. Why?”

“Because I’d like to help you work out the bugs. I wouldn’t mind living here, if there were a chance to turn all these big lottery prizes into something of value. Once we’ve got the kinks worked out here, we can spread the word. So what do you think? Can we move in?”

He cocked his head slightly. “We?”

“Well, sure. I can’t keep leaving my daughter with my folks forever, you know. Daycare is a service, after all. It’ll be good for the new economy.”

THE END

[Afterword: There’s more in “Face Value“. Or for a taste of corporate pay-back, try “Logical Conclusion“.]

Copyright 2008 by P. Orin Zack

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6 thoughts on “Short Story: “LA Scrip”

  1. Nice story! 🙂
    I caught one typo though, I think: She stared at him like he was “signing” in Swahili.

  2. Thanks. I had fun writing it. There will be more to the series.

    That’s not a typo, by the way. I meant signing, as in American Sign Language. Talk about incomprehensible to someone who doesn’t even speak technical English.

  3. Phil,

    Reads well and introduces an essential theme.

    Consider, though, that a city or state may not issue “bills of credit.” Therefore it’s better to issue the money from a grassroots nonprofit as grants to the city for specific green economy purposes.

    This conformity with current law thus also transfers control of money to the people directly, away from city hall politicians and their developer/banker pals.

    You may have read my article “Labor: the New Gold Standard” http://paulglover.org/1107.html

    I’ve written a similar chapter for my own novel about L.A.’s future. Los Angeles needs many books and movies showing L.A. getting better rather than worse.

  4. Phil I like your stories! You’re doing a nice job of concsiely combining the character building with scene setting. Imaginative future building…and good idea to make a series of short stories instead of a book.

  5. Thanks, Gwen. One of my favorite authors, Zenna Henderson, used a series of short stories to explore different aspects of the world of her ‘people’. I think that may have set the stage for my choice to do something similar.

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