race to the bottom
It wasn’t true what they taught us in fourth grade about the ancient Mayans. Yes, they played a game that was kind of like basketball, with the rubber ball and the stone rings. But they never sacrificed the winning team, offering their best citizens to the gods for the welfare of all. Not the Mayans, not the Aztecs, not the Olmecs.
The notion has poetry though, doesn’t it? Winners go out on top and the losers stick around to try, try again. So despite the best efforts of archaeologists and anthropologists and real-life living Mayans to correct the record, the idea took hold and spread rapidly. Until it just seemed like common sense: if sacrificing the best among us had held back the Apocalypse eons ago, why not now?
Of course, in a globalized, merit-based society of go-getters and leaners-in, we have other ways of knowing who’s best. Forbes magazine ranks them every year.
With $86 billion in assets, Bill Gates had to be first to go. At the time, Gus and I still had a Brooklyn apartment, but our utilities had been cut off for non-payment, so we huddled around our neighbors’ TV to watch. There was Bill, escorted to a waiting jet, a bewildered, maybe even demented expression on his wrinkly face. When did he get so old? I wondered. I was used to his 1990s face, when he seemed to be on every magazine cover.
Atop the great step pyramid, with the green of the jungle in the background and an azure sky hanging above, Gates made a final statement, which included some cliché about education and imagination. They didn’t broadcast the actual part when his head came off, but I could imagine him kneeling at the block, face-down, his glasses dropping to the stone floor just before the blade landed; then blood trickling down all those steps.
Melinda announced at once that the estate would be donating ninety-nine percent of Bill’s fortune–the way he’d always pledged to do in his lifetime, remember? In the weeks that followed, I googled for updates. The Gates Foundation got most of it, then I suppose charter schools and public television took their cut.
Warren Buffet didn’t go as quietly. He called Gates’s death criminal and bragged about his unwavering support for higher corporate taxes, then contracted TigerSwan to take over his private security. By then, the whole world knew he had the controlling interest in Coca Cola, Wells Fargo Bank, and Delta Airlines; and we were not in a sympathetic mood. India had a heat wave that killed 15,000, and here a 6.0 earthquake hit Oklahoma and parts of Kansas. It was September, and my students were “co-locating” with another Staten Island P.S., classes stacked on top of one another. Clearly the gods weren’t yet appeased. Within ten days, a Kickstarter raised $1 million to hire Academi (formerly known as Xe Services formerly known as Blackwater) to take Buffet into custody. I put in $25, which was a lot for us when Gus’s hours had just been cut. But it was worth it when I heard Buffet’s last statement thanking the Clintons for their enduring friendship.
One month later, Facebook users changed their profile pictures to thumb’s up or thumb’s down, indicating whether Mark Zuckerberg ought to be safe or not. Most chose not.
The school year ended and I was laid off; they didn’t need both me and the latest crop of Teach for America cadets. Gas being cheaper than rent, we moved into Gus’s car, and started using the public library again, to stay cool and keep up with the news.
Immediately following the decapitation of Zuckerberg, The Washington Post ran a paean to their owner Jeff Bezos, the new world’s best/richest man, while Bezos himself went so far as air-conditioning Amazon fulfillment centers and raising wages to $19 per hour.
It didn’t save poor Jeff. Other billionaires were getting nervous, too, and taking steps to divest themselves–all more successfully (or less successfully) than Bezos. He made a pitiful sight on the news, bald and skeleton thin, crying all the way to the tarmac. Less than $10 billion to his name.
By year’s end, with typically understated style, the Spanish clothier Amancio Ortega offed himself with a bottle of tranquilizers. Carlos Slim, the Mexican telecom magnate, took a different angle, disappearing before anyone could pick him up. While the blood dried and the dust settled, the economists tried to analyze the situation. Worldwide, the GINI index was improving. Tax revenue was way up, from execs eager to pay, and so were charitable donations from top earners. Better safe than sorry. Reparations were popular too: the Ogoni tribe in Nigeria won a full clean-up of their farmlands from Shell Oil; in Honduras, the Lenca people got one million/head for each of their dead environmentalists, enough to buy up rights to the Gualcarque River. Losers the world over were becoming bold: the French were demonstrating for old-age pensions, Indians for food security.
Gus broke the news to the librarians, that they wouldn’t be seeing us so much. The city had accepted our application to the new housing program, started with a grant from Michael Bloomberg. One thousand units, rent paid for 60 years. Fair market value, too.
Yes, that one donation puts Bloomberg a comfortable $500 million behind the Koch brothers. May the best man win.
c.s. malerich lives and works near the District of Columbia. Her short fiction has previously appeared in Apparition Literary Magazine, Ares Magazine, and the Among Animals anthologies from Ashland Creek Press. A fantasy novel, Fire and Locket, is forthcoming from Thurston Howl Publications.