Henry Penfeld and Jake Jacobson were friends and coworkers. Now on their twenty-minute lunch break, they were a portrait of misery. The men raced the clock to finish lunch as they stared at the giant debt board that took up a whole wall of the cafeteria. The name of everyone who worked there was lit up in bright red lights, along with their personal totals of debts, incomes, and whether they were current on paying their bills. Every company and retail store in the U.S. now had one. The old system of credit scores had been discontinued decades ago. The debt boards were a way to shame anyone who got behind on their bills, and to remind everyone they needed to work harder and longer as their debts climbed.
It had started with implanting electronic chips in debit and credit cards for “security” reasons. From there, it wasn’t a huge stretch to eventually convince most people to have the chips implanted in their heads instead. The credit companies said it was for the protection of the borrowers, and they offered incentives for people to authorize having the chips embedded in their brains. The deals were irresistible. It was like having a genie pop out of a bottle to grant wishes.
People with chips became known as “Chippers.” Credit was very easy to get for Chippers but almost impossible to obtain for those without them, the so-called “Chipless.” Interest rates were lowered to almost nothing for those with the chips, but Chipless borrowers had to pay a minimum of 25% more for even the most credit-worthy. It wasn’t long before most people had the chips.
Then laws were passed forcing everyone else who owed money to have chips implanted. “After all,” the argument went,” why should most debtors have chips and not all of them? It’s the only fair thing to do.” Since the majority were already Chippers, they supported the new law. Taxes were increased to the point where, with their other debts, most people could barely pay them. Those who owed money to the government were also considered debtors so, in effect, nearly everyone became a Chipper.
The law required interest rates to be variable with no caps. When virtually everyone was as heavily indebted as they and their creditors thought they could handle, almost overnight the creditors jacked up all the interest rates to 25%. Bankruptcies were banned. Incomes stagnated, for why should employers pay more when people stood in long lines for the few jobs that were available?
Hundreds of millions of debt addicts became virtual debt slaves overnight.
The chips could only be removed when the debts were completely repaid. A few people tried to have the chips removed before their debts were paid off. That was cheating. They mysteriously died, slowly and painfully. Word got out. The chips were left alone.
The debt treadmills were cranked up. Borrowers felt they had no choice but to run faster. Average work weeks gradually grew to eighty-two hours and were getting longer every year.
Then, when people thought they couldn’t take it anymore, those who were behind on their debt payments started getting headaches. If their debts became current, their headaches went away, but if they didn’t catch up, the headaches pounded nonstop. The pain increased if they fell further behind in their debt payments. For the most extreme cases, the pain was carefully kept slightly below the level that would trigger unconsciousness. It made no sense to knock out a motivated worker.
Henry asked, “Did you hear about Stan?”
“No. What happened to him?”
“He had a stroke. He was only 38 years old! Poor bastard had intense headaches for over two years and finally worked himself to death.”
“Maybe he’s the lucky one. At this rate I’ll never get out of debt. I’ve had those payment headaches once and never, ever, want to have another one.” Jake rubbed his temples at the memory.
Henry lowered his eyes a bit, and, in a despondent voice said, “I tried to talk my daughter, Martha, out of getting into debt, but you know how kids are. She thought I was exaggerating about the problems debt causes. They glorify debt in school, and she sees all her peers loading up. She can charge whatever she wants now virtually interest-free on those “teaser” rates, and lenders are even letting her slide on her payments a bit without any pain. They want her good and hooked before they flip the switch.” His eyes moistened as he knew he couldn’t protect her from an addiction that would soon enslave her.
“How did we ever get into such a mess?”
“A little at a time, Jake. A little at a time.
Across the cafeteria, Mimi Watter, Sheri Moon, Yvonne Laettner, and Melody Beckman sat together. They, too, watched the board but saw something no one else appeared to notice. Of the hundreds of names listed, the debt of one had slowly but steadily decreased. It was one of them. At the current debt reduction rate, she’d be debt-free in two weeks. Fifteen months ago, they’d come up with a plan they hoped would help them buy back their freedom. Instead of each of them focusing only on the losing game of trying to reduce their own debts, they agreed to work as a team to help pay down the debt of one of them while the other three kept their debts current. Then when the first teammate became debt-free, their salary wouldn’t be eaten up by 25% interest rates and could help get the next teammate out of debt much more quickly. Hopefully in two or three more years, they could all be debt-free.
They looked at the board again; then looked at each other and smiled. Their plan was working!