Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Dispatch from the future: Encounter at McZhang’s
2045. Life is grand. If you have insurance.
Traveler: John Lopez
Time of arrival: March 21, 2045
Place of arrival: Minneapolis, MI
At first glance, the future didn’t seem nearly as different as I had imagined it would be. Sidewalks were swept, clean, and planted with colorfully blooming flowers. Birds chirped. Butterflies fluttered by. The sky was clear and blue. And no one was flitting around in it wearing any jet packs. Quite the contrary; the thoroughfare in front of me was very congested, with vehicles starting and stopping fitfully in bumper-to-bumper traffic. A lot of the drivers cursed one another in a familiar fashion through lowered windows, and exchanged messages using a universally recognized sign language. Some things never change. Some things do. The cars were smaller—many had only three wheels. Most of them gave off no engine noise—presumably they were electric. Lots of small motorcycles zipped around. I was kind of surprised to observe that almost all of the riders steered their bikes between the lanes of traffic. Cops didn’t seem to notice or care.
After stepping out of the alley, I headed down the street looking for a place to unload some of the gold I was carrying. Within minutes, I had found a Quik Kash and exchanged several ounces of gold chains and such for some folding bills. I was astonished at how much I got—in 2045, gold is selling for $130,000 an ounce. The bored clerk counted out the cash and then, without comment, shoved a thick stack of well-worn bills across the counter. The largest denomination was $10,000, which made up the bulk of the stack. I was amused to see that the bill bore a picture of Barack Obama. The smallest note was for $100. No coins were available at all.
With lucre in pocket, I was in the mood for a burger. During the walk over to the Quik Kash, I had been pleased to see that the familiar Golden Arches were still around. Now I headed in that direction. But when I got closer, I noticed that the name indicated on the street sign and affixed in big, white letters across the top of the store was much different: McZhang’s.
Once inside, two things struck me immediately. First was the brightly lighted, colorful menu display. No prices were indicated, but the food selections were listed in two languages—English, and what appeared to be Chinese. Second, about three quarters of the staff appeared to be of Asian extraction. It was only at this point that I looked around and noticed that about a third of the customers were, too.
I stepped up to the counter and ordered my usual—a Big Mac, Coke and fries. A nice young lady rang it all up, and then gave me the total. $1,901 dollars.
Surprised, but trying not to show it, I pulled out two of my $1,000 bills and handed them to her. And as it turned out, the worst shock was yet to come. “I’ll need your insurance card,” she said.
“Your food insurance card. Or at least the member number, if you know it.”
I stated that I had forgotten my card, and that I didn’t remember the number.
“Sorry. The price without insurance is $53,850.”
At this point, I wasn’t able to keep my face from betraying my reaction. But there were no words to go with my dazed expression. I was speechless.
Her face softened slightly. “Look,” she said, “I’m not supposed to do this, but you look like a nice enough person. I’ll put it on my card.” She pulled a little white square of plastic out of her pocket, waved it over some kind of sensor on the register, and then took my cash. After tucking the bills inside, she closed the drawer with a sense of finality.
“No change?” I asked.
“It’s 2 kay even, with rounding,” she said.
“Yeah. Government mandated.” Now she gave me a knowing look. “You’re a time traveler, aren’t you?”
I admitted that I was.
“We get this a lot.” She hesitated. A line had formed behind me. “Look, I’m about to go on break. Have a seat. Enjoy your burger, and in a couple of minutes, I’ll come over and join you, and see if I can help you sort things out.”
The young lady was as good as her word. I learned that her name was Jiao Jing-Wei—but fortunately for my thick tongue, she went by the nickname “JJ.” JJ was a recent arrival to the States, having emigrated two years ago from the Chinese city of Fuzhou. Even so, she spoke without a trace of accent.
JJ proceeded to give me the one-minute version of recent history. In 2039, the U.S. announced it was about to default on its debt. Faced with the impending loss of health, food, Social Security and other government benefits, scattered riots broke out as frightened and outraged Americans took to the streets to demand their rights. JJ explained that because of aging demographics, overseas job outsourcing and chronic unemployment and underemployment, very few Americans were working at a wage level high enough to be taxed. 29% of the population was supporting all the rest. Collapse was inevitable. When it happened, America’s creditors were faced with two choices: let the world’s second-largest economy slide into a black hole, leading to a worldwide financial crisis that would have made the Great Depression of the 1930’s look like a Roman orgy. Or work something out. The choice was clear. As the country’s largest creditor, China got the best deal—the U.S. government agreed to eliminate all trade barriers and import regulations, greatly relax immigration rules, and hand over ownership of vast swaths of public lands. In exchange, China forgave great chunks of the debt and refinanced the rest. The result was a massive surge of immigration and business takeovers.
So what was up with the food card? JJ told me that back in the 20’s, companies formed to begin offering food insurance. For those who could afford a policy, life was fabulous. But for those who couldn’t, already high food prices began to shoot up. Before long, the cost of a decent meal was way beyond the reach of the uninsured. For those poor souls, government-run soup kitchens, typically featuring waits of 3 hours or more per meal, were the only option, and even then, by regulation no one could be served until their body weight fell beneath a pre-set government health and safety maximum. To address the disparity, in 2031 Congress passed an act affectionately known as “Clintonfare,” named after president Chelsea Clinton (yes, the daughter of Hillary Clinton. Mom was—will be—elected president herself in 2016.) This widely popular but very expensive entitlement program was seen as the final straw in causing the Great Crisis of 2039.
It was clear that I simply had to have a Clintonfare food card. “Where can I get one?” I asked.
JJ told me that I was in luck, because the open enrollment period for the year was still underway. And there was a public library just down the street, where I could get on the Internet and apply on line at no charge.
After finishing my meal and thanking JJ for her assistance, I scurried down to the library. The process was a bit cumbersome. A wide array of food plans was offered through the government-run Nutrition Insurance Marketplace Exchange, and each plan had different features. Trying to compare them side by side made my eyes cross. But the government site did its part by offering helpful comparison screens. Finally, I selected a plan, applied for it, and got an immediate response. I was thrilled to learn that, since I was not employed, the policy was practically free. While I was at it, I decided to apply for health benefits as well. Same result: great policy, at a very low cost (“low” in terms of the value of 2045 dollars, I should say). And then came a final and quite delightful surprise: I was able to sign up for unemployment benefits, even though my government file showed I’d last worked in 2014. Outstanding! And thank God for China. Within a few hours, I was leaving the library with a song on my lips and three brand spankin’ new government benefit cards in my wallet.
By now, I was feeling hungry again, so back to the McZhang’s I went for a fish sandwich meal. The price was still a shocker, but this time I was fully prepared. Smiling, I slid cash and card across the counter.
A handsome young Chinese immigrant waved the card across the sensor. But something wasn’t right. I noticed he was staring at his display, wearing a frown. He waved the card again. Then, shaking his head, he handed the card and the cash back to me. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said apologetically. “McZhang’s is not on your plan.”
“What?” I asked, astonished. “What do you mean it’s not on my plan?”
“Your plan is a NMO, sir. We’re not on it.”
“A what? What the heck is an NMO?”
“Nutrition Maintenance Organization. Most plans are either a NMO or a PNPO.” Noting my confused look, he asked, “Did you just sign up for this one?”
I allowed as how I had.
“And I don’t suppose you looked over the plan’s approved provider list?”
I conceded this to be true as well.
“You’ll have to check the insurer’s web site, or call the number on the back of the card, to see what your plan covers. Most of them offer several fast-food options.”
“Okay,” I said doubtfully. “Thanks.”
“I can still sell you the fish meal at the list price,” he offered.
I was afraid to even ask what that was, and politely declined. Besides, I was starting to notice that the burger I had eaten for lunch was still with me, and was making its presence increasingly known.
As I headed out the door and into the parking lot, I ran into JJ, who was just getting off work. Taking pity on me, she took me down to a nearby Starbucks and bought me a cup of coffee. I learned that I’m not the first time traveler to come down with a case of future shock.
By the time I’d finished my $651 dollar Caramel Macchiato--$700 with rounding—the undigested burger was kicking up a major fuss, and I was feeling distinctly green. Noticing my discomfort, JJ asked me if I were feeling okay, and I told her I could probably use a couple of Tums. Luckily, she had some in her purse. And as it turned out, this was no coincidence. She also carried with her a wide array of other pills and even some injections designed to guard against food borne illnesses and poisons. In explanation, she told me that the elimination of Chinese import regulations in 2039, combined with a steady rise in the rates of food contamination worldwide, had exacted a toll. The customer mortality rate for Chinese-owned fast-food restaurants was hovering at around 0.0001%. But most people who got ill didn’t actually die, JJ assured me. I even managed to feel grateful for that. I was starting to fit in.
Shortly the conversation steered to employment, which I was going to need. “Good luck with that,” JJ said. “There’s a government jobs office not far from here. But just about the only thing you’ll be able to find is something like what I’m doing, for minimum wage.”
“How much does that amount to these days?” I asked.
“Twelve hundred an hour,” she said. Under other circumstances, that might have sounded good. But I’d seen the price of a burger. “How far does that stretch?”
“Not far. It’s enough to scrape by on, I guess, if you live with your parents, have a bunch of roommates, or are lucky enough to get into in a subsidized unit. Congress raises the wage every year—thank God the Republicans are gone—but every time it does, prices rise in lockstep. You can’t win.”
“No, you can’t,” I agreed. “That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”
My next challenge was to find a place to flop for the night. JJ told me there was a Motel 6 about two miles away. This was farther than I was in the mood to walk after such a trying day. “Do they still have cab service these days?” I asked.
She laughed. “Certainly.”
I asked her whether she’d be so kind as to lend me her phone. “Well, that’ll be a problem,” she said, explaining that hers was surgically implanted behind her ear. “But I’ll be glad to make the call for you.”
“That would be great! I really appreciate it.”
Pressing an area behind her ear, she said aloud, “Yellow Cab, Minneapolis.” Then turning to me, she said, “I’ll need your transportation insurance.”
I wound up hoofing it. Which was no fun. It was quite hot.
at 10:19 AM