I had some questions for Jane Average, the viewpoint character of “Christmas Eve 2050,” and fortunately I was able to arrange an interview. We met in the lunchroom of the metal recycling plant where she works.
Q: Jane, thanks for taking the time for these questions. I’m afraid you may not want to answer some of them, though.
A: Like what?
Q: Well, for starters, how much money you and your husband make, and where it goes.
A: Oh, that’s nothing – you had me thinking you wanted to talk politics. I make N$250 an hour, like all the office staff. Flat tax is 30%, so for a fifty-hour week I take home N$8750. Joe’s on the factory floor so he makes less, even though he’s a foreman. The two of us make a bit over N$16,000 a week. That’s all in new dollars, of course, so figure $320,000,000 in old money.
Q: That sounds like a lot of money, even in new dollars.
A: Well, but remember that a bottle of milk is N$85. Half our income goes for food; even with rationing, it’s not cheap, so figure around N$8000 a week. Energy used to be close to half that in the winter, with our share of coal for the boiler, but it’s cheaper now that the new solar plant has gone online.
Q: Does the plant use solar cells?
A: Good lord, no—the raw materials for those hubberted years ago. No, they’ve got big dish mirrors and Stirling engines driving the generators. Joe Jr. could tell you more about it than I can. He wants to build them when he grows up. But where was I? Rent is a bit less than N$1000 a week—prices are coming back up, though they’re still pretty fair. I remember during the war you could get a place to live for the asking, there were that many empty buildings.
Q: Wow. What’s a gallon of gas cost?
A: Gasoline? I don’t have a clue. Jon? Any idea what a gallon of gasoline costs?
Jon (at the next table): N$450 if you can get a ration coupon. If you’re off book, the sky’s the limit; start around N$1500, maybe, if you’re lucky.
Q: Off book?
A: Under the table from an illegal dealer. If you get caught and the judge is in a bad mood, you could do a year in labor camp, too, so add that to the price.
Q: You mentioned labor camps in the Christmas Eve essay, too. How do those work?
A: Crooks used to go to jail, right? Well, after the war started they couldn’t be spared from the work force, and jails cost too much to run anyway, so the government moved the convicts to camps wherever there was work. These days convicts mostly do fieldwork on big farms, drought reclamation projects, that sort of thing.
Q: What are conditions like in the camps?
A: Well, convicts are supposed to get three meals a day and so on, but you know that doesn’t always happen. When food’s short, it’s twice as short in the camps, and convicts don’t get much health care. That was how we lost our friend Bill. He had some kind of heart condition, and he didn’t get medicine or anything, so he just dropped dead one day.
Q: That seems pretty harsh.
A: Yeah, but what are you going to do? There isn’t enough to go around, so one way or another you have to decide who goes without. Bill was a dear, but you know, a lot of people put everything they had into his firm, and lost it all in the crash of ’41. Joe and I tried to talk him out of going into derivatives in the first place, but you know how people are when they think they can get rich. It wasn’t anybody else’s fault; he hubberted himself.
Q: You used that word before, didn’t you? “Hubberted,” I mean. Do you know who M. King Hubbert was?
A: He’s the guy who figured out that oil was going to hubbert someday, wasn’t he? But it’s a word people use a lot. When you get to the point that you can see the bottom of the sugar jar, you say the sugar’s about to hubbert, but you also use it when something or somebody takes any kind of nosedive. A lot of banks hubberted in ’41, for instance.
Q: Tell me about the ’41 crash. What happened?
A: I don’t know much about it, really. The markets are always way up or way down, and there’s a crash every few years. ’41 was big, though. That was after the second currency reform, when inflation broke 500% a year, and they funded a lot of postwar rebuilding with derivatives sales. Things got really giddy for a while, and then of course it all fell apart.
Q: You mentioned the war several times in the essay. I don’t know anything about that, remember, and I’m curious about the details.
A: Oh, that’s true. But I’m not sure where to begin. We were fighting the Persians before I was born – they were called Iranians then, weren’t they? There were wars in ’07 and ’12, before Daryavush took over the country from those religious people – I forget what they were called.
Q: The mullahs?
A: Something like that. Anyway, Daryavush made himself emperor of Persia in ’20. At first people said he was going to side with us against the Chinese, and then he sided with the Chinese instead, and then we were fighting him, and then we were fighting the Chinese, and then we were fighting just about everybody. We sent troops all over the world, and you saw gold stars in a lot of windows by the end of the war; my brothers were drafted and never came home. Jeff was killed in action in Africa, and Matt’s unit got hit by a briefcase nuke in Mexico.
Q: I’m sorry. Did a lot of nukes get used in the war?
A: Mostly just the little briefcase bombs. A few big ones got tossed between Persia and Israel around the time Jerusalem fell, and we used some tacticals in Africa, but that’s all. Toward the end of the war, when we were trying to hold onto Mexico in ’34 and ’35, everyone was scared to death that we were going to go nuclear with the Persians and the Chinese in a big way, but the peace treaty came first. You can’t imagine how it felt when the bells started ringing all over town and we knew the treaty was signed. We still had hungry days after that, with reparations and everything, but the war was over and we didn’t have to worry about the bombs.
A: Well, we didn’t win, you know.
Q: I didn’t. But another question one of my readers had was about your adopted daughter Molly. Why can’t she get into a school?
A: The charter school only takes kids who pass the entrance tests, and the public schools shut down during the war to save fuel and money. The government says they’re going to open them again one of these days, but I don’t expect it any time soon. I worry about Molly a lot. She tries, but reading is just hard for her. If we can’t get her an education, she’s going to have a hard life.
Q: But Joe Jr. is doing well.
A: I’m so proud of him. He’s already talking to engineers about an apprenticeship once he leaves charter school. As long as we can keep him out of the army he’ll be fine.
Q: What’s the problem with the army? Are you worried about another war?
A: No, but we’re getting a little too close to politics, you know. Let’s just say that the army has things to do on our side of the border these days.
Q: Got it. Maybe I should finish by asking what you think the future holds.
A: I hope it brings better times. I know we can’t go back to living like it’s 2000, the resources just aren’t there any more, but I’d like to see our money go a little further, and I’d like to see Joe Jr. and Molly have better lives than Joe and I have. Still, if we can hold on to what we’ve got now that won’t be too bad. I hope we can do that. I really hope so.