Author’s note: This isn’t an essay. It’s an excerpt from one of my books. I don’t say much here on Glibs that is particularly thoughtful because I’ve already said it either in a book or on my blog. I work out what I think while I’m writing. I try not to be didactic in my storytelling, but I probably am.
This is a post-argument conversation between our (tidge naïve) bond trader math professor hero Jack and (street savvy) concert pianist music professor heroine Daisy while they are cooped up in a tiny dark room and tiny bed together. They’re both irritated over sex and why they aren’t having it right that moment.
• • •
“Talk to me about something.”
“What,” he snapped.
His eyes popped open. “What about her?”
“That. You called money ‘her.’ You did it yesterday, too. You talk about money like it’s a person.”
Shit, the second he thought she couldn’t surprise him, she turned around and did. He swung his foot up into bed again and laid on his back. She turned on her side and rested her hand on his chest.
“Money,” he began slowly, thinking. He hadn’t given this lecture in years because the people he taught were too analytical for anything but the math. They wanted skills, not philosophy. “Isn’t a person. She’s an entity. One who’s quiet and restful when she’s being kept in balance, well tended, appreciated. One who’ll rip you to shreds if you do something that upsets her equilibrium, not because she’s pissed off, but because that’s just her nature. She must be in balance. Like a ship. She’s fine when the weather’s good, but she’ll still sink if you’re not tending her, making little repairs so they don’t become big problems. When a storm comes along, she has a hard time getting back into balance.”
“What’s the ocean?” she asked softly.
“People. The ocean, the weather cannot be controlled but you’re forced out into it. The ship can be controlled to a certain extent, but you have to pay attention. No ship comes out of a storm without damage, without loss, but someone is going to pay for the repairs or the loss.”
“But what about rich people?”
“‘People’ is the operative word,” he said, winding up with the promise of a decent conversation with somebody who might understand after all. “That money is carefully tended, yes, but anything can happen. There are few things that can bankrupt the superwealthy. But economies can collapse. More and more worthless pieces of paper can be printed. A government can come in and take it all away from you. A revolution could happen and then you become Marie Antoinette. Those are things people do, though we talk about them in the collective. Economies. Currency. Governments. Revolutions. People make up those things.”
“What about Mother Nature?”
“She’s the supreme bitch and I don’t fuck with her, either. Coffee. Grain. Cocoa. Oranges. Hell, no, I’m not touching anything Mother Nature can get her hands on, but she’s not part of this discussion.”
“Okay. But if the ocean is people and not Mother Nature, then the metaphor still isn’t complete,” she returned, shocking him again. Even if people did humor him or even understand him to this point, they dropped out of the conversation, thinking it was complete. “Ships sink and then disintegrate.”
“But then,” he said throatily, suddenly very turned on and running a fingertip softly down her naked, lush body, “what you have left is wealth.”
“Wealth is knowledge. The knowledge that she was there, the knowledge of how to build another ship. Wealth isn’t paper money or gold or anything else you can barter. Wealth is being able to live a fairly decent life without having to worry about any of that. Wealth is having what you need and being happy with what you have and the knowledge to replenish.”
Silence. For a long time. While her thumb stroked his belly. It wasn’t his nipple, wasn’t his dick, wasn’t his lips, but fuck a duck, it felt good. “By that definition,” she finally said. Slowly. “Diogenes was wealthy.”
He wanted to kiss her. Right now.
“No,” he said, feeling her body twitch a little in surprise. “Diogenes was the ballast in the ship of money.”
“Um … but strangers gave Diogenes whatever he had and he was happy with it.”
God, he wanted to kiss and lick her from her chipped-neon-green-painted toes to the end of the longest strand of her hair. They were naked now. He could do that.
Maybe not. Because now he had things to say to someone who got him.
“Diogenes wasn’t happy with what he had because he wasn’t happy with what everybody else had. Diogenes made a virtue of poverty, which was stupid, because if nobody has anything, everybody dies. For real. That’s it. But strangers gave to him for whatever reason. Maybe giving made them happy. Maybe seeing him sitting there made them feel guilty for what they had that he didn’t. Maybe they believed in what he taught and wanted to support him in that. Doesn’t matter why. Diogenes’s philosophy was shit. His father was a banker, did you know that?”
Jack laughed. “Yeah. So money stayed in balance because people gave. When you have too much ballast or too much cargo on the deck, money is out of balance.”
For once in his meager acquaintance with Daisy, she was the one who was stumped. Unprepared. Unlearned. He liked this feeling, the feeling of meeting her on an intellectual field and having the edge. “Where do you fit into that?”
“I’m the guy up in the ropes walking on the beams and taking up the sails or dropping them or whatever they do up there. Trying to keep her moving when the wind’s against her. Trying to keep her steady when the storms are coming.”
“You love her.”
And now he wanted to make love to Daisy all fucking night long, which he couldn’t do because she was still pissy about the clothes.
“I do,” he answered, “but not like most people mean it. ‘I love money.’ No, I love her as an entity, as a philosophy, a concept of balance. Like a ledger.”
“Mmm, okay. Then I have a question for you.”
“Where do underground economies and black markets fit on the ship of money? They exist. They have to serve some purpose or, by your description, the ship wouldn’t be balanced at all.”
His mind went blank. Totally and completely blank. He was speechless. A fucking piano teacher had blindsided him with his own philosophical musings. “Daisy,” he said throatily. “Either you stop being so fucking brilliant or I’m going to jack off right here.”
She chuckled softly. “Answer the question.”
“I dunno,” he admitted easily. “Econ isn’t my specialty, so I never thought about it. I’ve never seen it. Until I got here.”
“The way I look at it is Diogenes isn’t the ballast. The black market is the ballast. Hidden, but important. Rocks, sand, ordinary things that do as much to keep the ship sailing as the sails do. The stuff that keeps the ship steady when the storm really starts rolling. Diogenes is on some deck inside the ship, being taken care of from the top and the bottom. And when the ship breaks up and sinks, the ballast floats to the bottom of the ocean, under all the people. But they’re still doing what they do. Sitting there, minding their own business, which is business. Pure business. Providing shelter to the deep sea creatures. Hiding them from predators. Feeding them when the ocean—people—makes moss grow on them.”
He said nothing. His chest was too tight and his dick too hard and his body too tense. She couldn’t talk and have sex at the same time. The stuff that dried her up got him hard and ready to whisper sweet economic philosophies in her ear while stroking in and out, slow and steady.
“People still come to power,” he finally said. “Even in the underground. Organized crime. Gangs. Using fear and intimidation.”
“The same thing the IRS uses.”
“You do understand the IRS is holding a gun to your head, right? Why do you comply? Because if you don’t, you’ll get thrown in jail. If you do anything somebody in power doesn’t like, they can use the IRS to somehow get to you. You don’t pay taxes because you’re ethical. You pay them because you have no choice. You believe it’s immoral not to follow the law, yes?”
“More or less, yes.”
“Have you ever considered that the law and regulations are immoral?”
“Stealing is immoral,” he said, irritated that she was diverting from the interesting part of the conversation.
“That is a natural law,” she replied. “The IRS is a manmade institution designed to control the populace. And by providing receipts, filing 1099s, W-2s, you are complicit in that control. You don’t have to report all that. You do it because you want the write-off and that’s where your thinking ends, but it’s not about you. The black markets, the underground, would rather take its chances with an enemy they can see and fight if they have to, to get ahead, to climb the economic ladder. No, I misspoke. They’re building their own ladder.
“Topside, with small businesses, they’re regulated to death. Margins are slim to none. One bad month can make them homeless. In a storm, you can hang on to whatever’s up there. Diogenes can cower somewhere inside the ship before it goes down. I, the black market, the ballast, can function anywhere under any circumstances. The mom’n’pops, the ones paying taxes and licenses like they’re supposed to because they’re ethical, the ones who really take care of Diogenes, but might also be paying protection money, they’re the ones who get washed overboard first. Almost nothing to hang on to. No walls to keep them safer until the storm passes.”
He was silent for a long, long time, turning all those concepts over in his head, so many of them packed into a few sentences, things he’d never thought about. But she was wrong about one thing. “I have to report wages. It is about me.”
“I won’t dispute that for you or any company like yours, you’d have to give the appearance of it. But it’d be easy to pay people from an offshore account—”
“But is immoral?”
He almost said yes automatically but stopped. Was it?
“Do you eat the cost of your employees’ withholding? Pay their share of the social security as well as yours? You could. If you have independent contractors, you can just not send them a 1099 and nobody would ever know because they aren’t going to report it and if they did, they do it from their internal bookkeeping. Likely they wouldn’t notice you didn’t send them a 1099 at all. You do it because it’s a write-off that feels like an obligation.”
“I’d go bankrupt inside six months if I did that,” he protested.
“And that’s how the IRS makes sure you’re complicit. Think about it. Your bottom line would improve if you could just pay people what they earned.”
She was fucking with his mind.
“That’s how the underground economy works. Do you know how many of your colleagues use illegal aliens to clean their houses and watch their kids? No, you don’t, because your domestics are on the record and you make sure all the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted. It wouldn’t occur to you to do anything else or that eighty percent of your peers hire under the table.”
“Okay, but exploiting those people is immoral.”
“Then you have to ask yourself if employing those people under the table is more or less immoral than letting them starve.”
“They choose to come here.”
“In hopes of a better future. Jack, look. I’m not trying to defend something you think is immoral or convert you. I want you to think about what the ballast really is.”
The only thing he could really think about at the moment was how Daisy was so much more than someone who listened to him even if she didn’t understand some things, but asked questions until she did, which meant she was listening. And then could give him something entirely new.
Not new information. Information was cheap and easy once one knew where to find it. New concepts. New principles. New philosophies. She made him think and thinking was his most favorite thing to do.
But when she didn’t say anything more, his thinking gradually turned to feeling—feeling her hand on his chest, caressing more, massaging, looking for the knots, going deeper into his muscles. It felt so good, he didn’t know whether he wanted her to keep doing that or give him the handjob his dick was begging for.
“There are more things involved in the balance you’re looking for,” she whispered, pressing her lips to his cheek. “It’s not just the money. Ethics don’t start with laws and stop with accurate numbers in a ledger. Morality and ethics involve people, and at your core, you just don’t like people.”