The Banned-Aid Solution
by Morris J. Marshall
Why, of all times, did they ask me to come here on my lunch hour? George Saunders thought. I could be enjoying a nice quiet lunch right now with my wife, celebrating our 15th anniversary, if I wasn’t sitting here with...
The tall, slim guy with the black-rimmed glasses and short, spiked brown hair looked about twenty-two. Probably fresh out of university. He was droning on about taxes and government spending. A laminated grey tag attached to the lapel of his dark blue suit proclaimed “Alfred Tarkington, Intern” in black letters.
He and George were sitting at a long grey table in the boardroom of the Canadian National Ministry of Health in Ottawa, Ontario, visible to everyone else in the office through a glass wall. Tracks of fluorescent lights lined the ceiling.
It was June 7th, 2014. The temperature outside had spiked to over thirty degrees Celsius for the third consecutive day, but here in the government boardroom, where the air conditioner had been cranked up, George shivered. Annoying telemarketers regularly called him at dinner, but last night it had been Tarkington, requesting that he come in for an interview at noon the next day. The Ministry of Health was seeking to fill a prestigious new position, and he’d been selected as one of three final candidates.
George wore his lucky short-sleeved green dress shirt, which his wife, Karen, had bought him for his 30th birthday several years ago. He’d worn it for the interview that had scored him a tenured professorship.
“I must say, Mr. Saunders, the Ministry feels that you’re a good fit for this position. My supervisor is particularly impressed with your research on government debt and economic growth. He wants you to work for us.”
George wiped chalk from his dark blue slacks and peered through the boardroom’s glass wall into the office of the Ministry of Health. Workers in cubicles were entering data into their personal computers. A queue had formed at the photocopier. Two men in suits looked in George’s direction, and then resumed talking. For all he knew, they could be discussing the parking ticket he’d failed to pay last year or the questionable deduction he’d claimed on his income tax return. He twisted his fingers in his lap. He had to be back in class in forty minutes.
Tarkington took out his smart phone, touched the screen then looked up. “Do you know how much we currently spend on health care each year, Mr. Saunders?”
George had some idea, but couldn’t settle on an exact figure. He shook his head and knew from the smug smile on Tarkington’s face that the intern would enjoy giving him the answer.
“Over half of Ontario’s government spending is allocated toward health care. The percentage is similar in other provinces. Much of that stems from people who’ve made bad choices and end up in hospital. Chain smokers, fast-food addicts, alcoholics, drug addicts, late-night snackers. They’re a drain on the system. People don’t want to take responsibility for their consumption choices anymore, but they want government to pay for their health problems.”
In university, George had enjoyed his share of burgers, fries, fried chicken and alcohol. Sure, he’d gained weight, but he rarely touched fast food or booze anymore, opting instead for the chicken breast, kale and blueberries endorsed by Karen, a health fanatic.
Cola was another matter. In graduate school, he’d had a two-liter-per-day pop addiction largely fuelled by the need to stay awake during marathon study sessions. He still had cravings for the stuff. Karen’s own weakness was chocolate marshmallow cookies.
“Heard of Paternalism?”
George had missed what Tarkington was saying. “I’m sorry?”
“I asked if you’d ever heard of the term Paternalism. Being an economist, I assume you—”
“It’s a political term in which the government makes economic decisions for individuals, believing that it knows what’s best for them. Of course, I don’t subscribe to that view at all.”
Alfred Tarkington sighed. “Your personal beliefs are of no consequence to me, Mr. Saunders. Saving money for the government is.”
George’s stomach rumbled. An image of a hamburger with a thick beef patty topped with bacon and onions wafted into his mind. He was growing tired of this government bean-counter and looked at his watch. Twelve thirty-five. Only 25 minutes left for lunch. If this drip didn’t stop talking soon, George would miss his lunch hour altogether.
Tarkington leaned forward. “We’re taking extreme measures. The world economy is going into a tailspin because of inflated government debt. There’s rioting in Europe and governments are going bankrupt in the United States. Canada can’t be far behind. National health care spending must be slashed. We need to focus on preventative measures instead of reactive ones.”
George shrugged. “As long as people make bad choices, health care costs will keep on rising. Junk food is addictive, so people will still buy it even if the price increases. You can’t do anything about that.”
Tarkington looked mildly annoyed, as though a fly were buzzing around his head. “Oh, but we can, Mr. Saunders. As we speak, Canadian citizens are being informed by Internet, television and radio that, as of six o’clock tomorrow evening, anything deemed unhealthy by the Ministry of Health will be classified as unfit for human consumption and banned.”
“What does that mean?”
“Soft drinks, cigarettes, alcohol, processed foods, fast foods, fatty snacks — these indulgences must be discarded from all Canadian households and businesses by six tomorrow evening.”
This guy is loony, George thought gravely. He believed in individual choice, the mantra of every economist. Besides, his mentor, John Maynard Keynes, had always maintained, “In the long run, we’re all dead.” What harm was a little indulgence in the meantime? Was the government trying to usher in a modern-day Prohibition? It hadn’t worked in the 1930s and definitely wouldn’t now. The unemployment rate would skyrocket once you banned junk food and, even if you wanted to do it, how could you monitor peoples’ homes?
Alfred Tarkington smiled, almost as though he could read the professor’s mind. “It’s easier to accomplish today than ever before. We have long-range satellites and visual tracking systems placed in household appliances, personal computers and smart phones by the manufacturers without consumers’ knowledge.”
Karen, who always had the latest smart phone or tablet computer, had once teased George about being a Luddite. He’d only recently obtained a basic cell phone and eschewed Facebook and Twitter on concerns of privacy violation. He also shunned texting and Internet banking. After some arm-twisting, Karen had convinced him to buy a new smart television with Internet capabilities.
“Suppose you catch someone hoarding cigarettes or pop?” George asked. “What then? Force them to watch Dr. Oz episodes? You can’t legislate healthy behaviour.”
Tarkington was not amused. “We’re exploring a new public-private health care initiative for people who can’t — or won’t — follow the rules. One year in a private prison hospital for a Harmful Consumption Offence. The cost comes directly from the offender’s assets. Those with low incomes will be subsidized by government.”
“But it’s still going to cost you money for health care,” George insisted.
“Up front, yes, but think of the long-term benefits and cost reductions. We’ll reconfigure the tastes and preferences of inmates to, shall we say, something more desirable for the health care system. In a generation, we’ll have eradicated childhood obesity, diabetes, heart disease and a host of other diseases.”
“What about children?” George pressed. “They consume the greatest percentage of junk food. You can’t imprison them.”
Tarkington smiled. “We’re not monsters, Mr. Saunders. We’ll have separate health units for young people, complete with in-house education, nannies, toys and video game time on weekends. In moderation, of course.”
This guy actually believes what he’s saying, George thought. He imagined prison camps filled with fast-food addicts, chain smokers and pop drinkers facing... what? Torturing exercise regimens that would induce heart attacks or strokes in all but the fittest people? Impossible diets consisting of spinach, broccoli, tofu and a multitude of other bland foods? Needles filled with medications designed to eliminate cravings for processed foods?
Then there was the unnerving prospect of addicts turning on each other in the exercise yard as the withdrawal symptoms became unbearable. After a year of incarceration, only the healthiest people would survive and be reintroduced back into society — a twisted new form of Darwinism.
George stood up to leave. “Your cost reduction plan isn’t enforceable, Tarkington. I won’t support it.”
“Sit down, Mr. Saunders.” The intern’s voice sounded like ice cubes clinking in a glass. Two burly men in dark suits and sunglasses had stationed themselves at the door to the boardroom. One of them slipped open his jacket to reveal a revolver.
George sat down again.
“Wise choice, Mr. Saunders. We want you to do a detailed cost-benefit analysis of this plan for a ten-year time horizon. Your job is to convince the public that the marginal benefits outweigh the marginal costs. You’ll be well paid. Of course, your employment is conditional upon adherence to the rules of the ban.”
George’s mind turned to his fall teaching schedule. “I just remembered that my Chair added a new course to my workload. Is it too late to reconsider your employment offer?”
He knew the answer before it came.
* * *
The next morning, George kissed Karen goodbye and drove to the college. He had a three-hour Macroeconomics class from eight to eleven, followed by Microeconomics in the afternoon. The Macro class went smoothly, save for a few students texting near the back and a student in the front row whose head remained on his desk for most of the class. George got good participation from everyone else. They discussed the importance of government spending in generating economic growth and stabilizing the economy in a recession.
At noon, he left the college to meet Karen for the lunch he’d missed the previous day, when he’d been talking — wasting time — with Alfred Tarkington. Students hovered outside the school, trying to elicit the last few puffs of their cigarettes before the next class. A few of them had two or three cigarettes poking out of their mouths, trying to smoke them before the anticipated ban that evening.
George arrived at the restaurant to find his wife already seated in a booth, drinking a strawberry smoothie. “I thought you were going to pull another no-show,” she said, half joking.
He sat down. “Would I miss our anniversary lunch twice? I couldn’t help yesterday. The guy who interviewed me liked me so much he wouldn’t stop talking.”
“You got the position then?” Karen asked.
George nodded. “They confirmed it this morning and said they wouldn’t consider hiring anyone else. I can’t really say more. Government business.”
The server, a short heavy-set woman in her late fifties with greying hair, approached George. “What would you like to drink?”
He smiled. “I’ll have a cola. This may well be my last kick at the can if what they say is true.”
Karen rolled her eyes and brushed a lock of dark hair away from her forehead. She stared at the large screen television at the back of the restaurant. The newscaster was warning viewers about discarding their pop, fast foods, cigarettes and other undesirables by six that evening.
“Do you really think there’ll be a ban?” she asked.
George shook his head. He didn’t want to concern her. “The government promises a lot of things it doesn’t deliver, like affordable housing and a fair minimum wage.” My health-obsessed wife is the last person who should worry about a junk-food ban, he thought. We have the healthiest pantry in the country.
They made plans to split the dinner duties that evening. She would make her special curry chicken breast and he’d provide a nutritious salad. Then they’d enjoy their first quiet night together in months. No paperwork, television, smart phones, personal computers or Internet. Just good old-fashioned conversation.
* * *
George stopped at the grocery store on his way home from school. The entire junk food aisle, where potato chips, candy, chocolate bars and pop had been just the previous day, had disappeared. Hamburger patties and TV dinners had also vanished, but the Fruits and Vegetables section was still intact.
George purchased some spinach, purple onions and a bottle of Greek dressing to make his special Greek spinach salad that Karen liked.
Her car was already in the driveway when he arrived home so he parked beside it and removed the groceries from the back seat. Sweat coated his face and his feet were swollen from six hours of lecturing. Just leaning back in his recliner and putting them up would be blissful.
He opened the front door and stepped into the living room. “Karen?”
He turned the air conditioner dial to “high,” walked into the kitchen with the bag of groceries and set them on the floor. The stove was on and the smell of curry filled the air. A half-eaten chocolate marshmallow cookie lay on the kitchen table beside a package of Denton’s Decadent Marshmallow Chocolates. He’d purchased them for Karen as an anniversary gift the day before his interview and hidden them in their bedroom dresser, intending to be home early today to wrap them up.
“Hon?” Maybe she went next door to borrow some spices from the neighbours.
He went to the living room window and peered outside. Children were playing street hockey and a young woman was pushing her baby carriage along the sidewalk. His next-door neighbours were sitting on their front porch.
George turned off the stove, then opened the refrigerator and looked inside. A lone can of cola glared back at him. He’d left it there two nights ago after hearing on the Weather Channel that the heat wave was expected to continue for several more days. He glanced at his cell phone. Six-thirty.
George looked back at the cola. It was so far back in the fridge that a thin film of ice had formed on it. He imagined the sweet frosty pop trickling down his throat, through his esophagus into his stomach, the heat that gripped his body melting into a wonderful icy oblivion. Then the brain freeze. As a kid, he’d hated the sharp, paralyzing headache he’d get from drinking something cold, but right now, with sweat pouring down his face, he welcomed it.
He removed the can of cola from the refrigerator and went into the living room. He picked up the TV converter and turned to the six-thirty sports report. Sitting down in his recliner, he put his feet up and pulled the tab off his cola. The sudden hiss reminded him of a striking snake.
Before George could raise the can to his lips, the sports announcer’s voice muted. In its place, a familiar voice came from the television. “Do you know what time it is, Mr. Saunders?”
“Where’s my wife, Tarkington?”
“She’s in our custody. You’re both in violation of Statute AA77350, the Harmful Consumption Ban.”
The sports report faded and Karen appeared, blindfolded, on TV. Her arms and legs had been bound to a chair with duct tape. Remnants of chocolate and marshmallow still ringed her mouth. George noticed other people in the background in the same position as Karen, but he wasn’t sure of their location.
Sirens sounded in the distance, getting closer with each passing second. George’s first instinct was to run, but his feet remained anchored to the floor like the base of a heavy marble statue. In minutes, blinking red lights were visible through his curtains.
George stared back at the TV. “You know what you can do with your ban, Tarkington,” he said, surprised by the calmness in his voice. “I hereby terminate our employment agreement.”
With one final burst of energy, he dashed to the front door and bolted it. He returned to the kitchen, grabbed Karen’s chocolate marshmallow cookies and wolfed them down. Then he removed a bottle of rum from his wife’s baking cabinet. Ignoring the rhythmic pounding against his door, he poured a double shot into a glass, topping it up with cola. By the time the police smashed through and grabbed him, the alcohol had begun to work its magic.
Copyright © 2014 by
Morris J. Marshall
photo by Fred Taylor