A Fresh Start

by Mark Koerner


part 1 of 3

An Interview with Jed Black; March 17, 2128

Jed Black sits in a wheelchair in his second-floor apartment, a checkered blanket over his legs. At 124, he looks ancient; his newly-grown front teeth make a jarring contrast to his slack lips. Although the room is neat, it smells faintly of urine.

Certificates, awards, and aging campaign posters are taped to the walls; house plants near the window provide a more conventional decorative touch. A Fakeradio plays annoying music of an indeterminate genre.

Black claims that he is unable to hear the hustle and bustle on the sidewalk below.

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[Interviewer] Once known as the “boy wonder of the Motherboard,” you are now the oldest surviving member of President Amaranga’s inner circle. You’re also the 707th oldest living American. What is the secret of your longevity?

[Jed Black] The anti-aging drugs?

They say you brought the Democratic Party back from the dead.

Yes and no. There were about a dozen of us; a reporter called us “the Motherboard,” and the name stuck. It’s all in my book, Twenty Years Later. So, yes, along with President Amaranga, we brought the party back from the dead, as you say. And Democratic presidents governed for a generation, from 2052 to 2080.

And what did you do?

Of Guns, Crime, and Postcards

Well, guns were the first thing. In those days, people saw Democrats as anti-gun. That came out of “gun control,” which you don’t want to hear about. The truth is that “gun control” alienated our own people: working-class voters, farmers, African-Americans in the Black Belt, and so on. Saying “gun control” to them was like saying “debutante cages” to the super-rich. It didn’t matter what it meant; it just sounded bad.

Today, almost by definition, being left-of-center means supporting free hunting licenses for anyone below the poverty line. And extended hunting seasons, too. But most important of all: if you’re poor and you maintain your hunting license, then every five years, the Bureau of Firearms sends you a shiny new hunting rifle.

Didn’t the Republicans object?

Sure. To them, everything that helps people is just a government boondoggle. But to us, Gun Rights guarantees every American his birthright: the right to keep and bear arms. How can that be a meaningful right if you can’t even afford a gun? Well, we took care of that. Now only a few extremists want to abolish Gun Rights.

Of course, you were trying to pull poorer, or poorish, voters back to the Democratic Party, and that was part of it. Wasn’t it you who said, “It’s time to forget about the people who want a vacation house in France—

“And target the people who aren’t quite sure where France is!” Yes, I did say that, a long time ago, and I still believe it.

Didn’t Gun Rights make crime go up?

Not noticeably. But we did a lot to reduce crime. We legalized drugs. That eliminated prison overcrowding, so the real bad hombres — the murderers, the rapists, the price-fixers, and so on — could serve longer sentences.

What about capital punishment?

Since the dawn of the Third Republican Era, no Democrat opposed to the death penalty had ever been elected President, though a hapless few did try, like Mondale and Dukakis.

William Jefferson Clinton knew better. He favored the death penalty, as have anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of the American people going all the way back to when opinion polls were invented. You can’t ignore that.

And a woman’s right to choose?

[Silence]

Um, and a woman’s right to choose?

Oh, I know what you mean. By the time I came along, abortion was no longer an issue. By the time I came along, women had moved to do-it-yourself abortions.

You mean coat hangers and back alleys?

Hardly. I mean that women got over-the-counter drugs to end their pregnancies long before they needed surgery. Surgical abortions were so rare that doctors came from miles around to see one.

[Sigh.] There’ll always be people who say that poisoning an embryo is the same as poisoning a Girl Scout, but most Americans don’t agree, and they never have. It’s a non-issue.

Let’s go back to crime. We made sure that just about every regulatory law had criminal penalties, just like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. It used to be that you only got fined for discriminating against members of the Feline Chromosome Movement, for example. Now you can go to jail, too.

The more things we did like that, the more people thought we were tough on crime.

So you eliminated drug crimes and then created other crimes to make up for it. What about the environment?

Postcards. If a company got a serious fine for breaking pollution regs, the EPA sent postcards publicizing the fine to everyone who lived within five miles of the offending plant.

The postcards made the neighbors mad at the company, which is what we wanted, but we had an ulterior motive: we wanted to show people that the EPA was on the ball; it wasn’t asleep at the switch or, worse, in bed with the corporations, big or little.

I haven’t kept up on it, but I think the EPA still sends out half a million postcards a year.

Couldn’t you just make it a matter of public record?

There’s nothing as hidden as a public record. No, that was the old way. It was a failed policy. This works better.

You’re afraid of corporate power and you want as many people as possible to know about corporate abuses. I may be missing something; I may be missing a lot, but it sounds quite anti-business, frankly.

Well, to the extent that we believed in finding new ways to fight old abuses, then I suppose we were anti-business.

But at the same time, we worried a lot about America’s position in the world economy. That was the rub: how could you be “anti-business,” as you say, and pro-competitiveness at the same time?

We certainly didn’t like the traditional policies: a subsidy for one industry to turn hemp into car seats, a tax credit for another to make coal slag into bricks. It seemed like welfare for the rich.

So what did you do that was different?

For one thing, we paid people to invent. We thought there was a lot of under-used scientific talent out there, somewhere, waiting to be tapped. And we thought this talent was concentrated in people under 23 and over 76.

Because they were either too young or too old to have regular jobs?

Exactly. So we set up a new agency: the Tom Swift Project. Anyone who patented anything in a dozen “Areas of Need” got $17,000. You got $17,000 for your first patent, $16,000 for your second, and so on. But you had to be 22 at the oldest or 77 at the youngest.

The idea was to get the young into the inventing habit, and to get those last few inventions out of the old before they kicked off. We got some junk inventions, but some good ones, too. How do you think helicopters got so quiet?

Didn’t you also have a Nancy Drew Initiative?

What? I didn’t quite get that last...

Never mind. It’s not important. What did you do for the cities?

We gave them the Fingers. The 200 largest cities each got a finger of the nearest National Forest. It took years to buy all those slivers — some only 50 meters wide — but by the time we finished, long, green fingers probed deeply into the cities, stopping just short of the old downtowns.

The Fingers provided a direct link to some of America’s greatest recreational spaces. And even the people who didn’t use them had to admit that they looked pretty good.

But didn’t city streets cut through the Fingers like mad?

No, they didn’t. We made sure of that. A good question, though.

We also created the Wipeout Core. A lot of burned-out, rustbelt, brownfield, ghost-town cities had blocks and blocks of vacant houses, abandoned apartments, shuttered factories, blighted water towers, and so on, and the problem was getting worse.

Many cities were just too poor to tear anything down. We’d tried incremental approaches for years: brownfield tax credits, for example. But nothing worked.

The Wipeout Core did work. The Wipeout Core tore things down, hauled away the rubble, cleaned up any contamination, and left. Some of that land became parks, like the Detroit National Forest, but the private sector rebuilt most of it.

For the Wipeout Core, why use C-O-R-E instead of C-O-R-P-S?

Because the post-literate age was also the post-homophone age.

More to the point was what the cities did for themselves. Now almost every large city has a “Zoneless Zone” where you can build anything you want. You can build your own house next to a slaughterhouse. Or a porn block next to a church.

The suburbs didn’t want Zoneless Zones, so the Zoneless Zones made the cities more attractive places to invest, relative to the suburbs.

And the funny thing is: today, when you drive through one of these places, it looks pretty much the same as any other mixed-use neighborhood. If you didn’t pass the sign that says, “Now entering THE ZONELESS ZONE,” you wouldn’t notice.

Don’t people who live near the Zoneless Zones object?

Yes, and that’s a problem. In every city, they call the adjacent area “the Twilight Zone.” There’s no really good solution.

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Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Koerner

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