On the Virtue of Greed & Envy
“As his eyes opened, lying in his bed not too long ago, Stef knew he was surrounded by traitors, and that all was well with the world.”
Update: The longer version of this story is now available as part of my debut story collection, “Round Earth Delusions: and other happy afflictions” currently available on Amazon.
Greed and Envy, on one summer day,
Sauntered abroad, in quest of the abode,
Of some poor wretch or fool who lived that way.
Along the road, barely heeding where it tended,
Their way in sullen, sulky, silence wended.
For though twin sisters, these most charming of creatures,
Rivals in hideousness, and monstrous of features,
Wasted no love was there between them,
and to sinners they were silent preachers
— Liberally adapted from Victor Hugo’s “L’Avarice et l’Envie“
The Wake-Up Call
As his eyes opened, lying in his bed not too long ago, Stef knew he was surrounded by traitors, and that all was well with the world. He woke up just like this every morning knowing he’d likely been betrayed in one way or another. He wasn’t paranoid. It was just a fact he knew, and he knew it because he knew the kind of people he worked for and who worked for him. In a way, he supported and hired them because they were traitors, so he’d known they’d betray him from his first day on the job. He just didn’t know who or how yet, and so Stef was careful. He made sure his fingerprints weren’t provably on anything that could incriminate him, and he was surprised at how easy it was to achieve his heart’s most ghoulish desires through little more than maneuvering the worst of the worst. Placing them into positions where they could prove their loyalty by abusing the power he made sure they knew he had granted them. It was so easy, and nobody could touch him. Which is why he knew they’d betray him, want to get him, maybe even try to get him. But he also knew they never would, even though every last one of them was a corrupt traitor right down to their soft, pliable, thoroughly rotten souls. As Stef’s eyes opened, he knew he was surrounded by traitors, and Stef was happy.
Then the phone rang.
It was his mother, sounding worried. “Stef, did you see the news? You’re on the Bounty! Those demon-rat bastards are out to get you. Be careful! Be very careful. You are being careful, right? You haven’t done anything they can use against you? You’re o.k.! You’re o.k., right? Please Stef, tell me you’re …”
“I’m fine, Mom!” he cut her off sharply. She always worried too much. It was annoying. “Seriously, it’s nothing to worry about. It’s just more libtard stupidity. They probably just gamed the site to try to make us look bad. You know what they’re like,” he said quickly, trying to reassure her. Then in his sternest big-boy voice he added, “Their nonsense will not be tolerated!”
He knew she always got a kick out of the “will not be tolerated line.” It was from his most famous early TV appearance as part of the new administration. His political opponents mocked him for it, but they quickly stopped laughing when they saw he meant it. When he went after their precious immigrants. He showed them.
He got off the phone, and rushed to check the Bounty site. He’d lied to his mother. He’d suspected they might do it, but now that it was happening he was worried what the Bounty might be asking for. He was sure they couldn’t touch him in federal courts, and even if they tried, Barney (or Ba Ba Flab Sheep as he sometimes liked to call him behind his back, when he wasn’t calling him Huckleberry Hound) could be counted on to run interference as usual. But maybe, just maybe they’d figured something out through one of the states. They were harder to control than the federal prosecutors, since they didn’t answer to Barney.
His eyes were still a little blurry as he scanned for the post, and his head was throbbing slightly. He’d drunk too much last night. He needed it after the restaurant. Not that he’d had a chance to eat anything, making a quick escape shortly after arriving. Getting away from that scene those bastards had made. He winced, partly because of the pain in his head, but mostly at the memory of those customers chanting “baby cages” at him and the manager apologizing profusely, but somehow managing to do less than nothing to stop them. The manager had looked foreign. Maybe it was best that he didn’t get a chance to eat there. He was sure the wait staff were grinning at him as he was being shown to his table. It was a French restaurant, but who knew these days. They probably had illegals in the kitchen itching to contaminate his food (as if their mere handling of it wasn’t bad enough). And then he remembered the other diners. The gasps. The whispers of “shame” and “it’s him” turning into a chanting mob trying to humiliate him. Filthy immigrant-lovers. To hell with them all.
His eyes refocused on the Bounty page with its prize banner front and center, listing its current eye-watering total balance, followed by the legal disclaimer explaining how the prize was only awarded upon conviction, and how the convicting prosecutor would need to verify eligibility, and so on, until he came to the list of the watched. And sure enough, his mother was right. But he wasn’t just there among the watched. He’d just replaced the president at the top of the list. His shock was mixed with a sense of pride. He’d always known he was destined for better things, and the role of a senior advisor was prestigious enough, but here was a little recognition that confirmed he really was the power behind the God-emperor’s throne. “That bloated orange lard-ass would be nothing without me,” he thought smugly to himself as he started to read the blurb. He felt good. But he also started to feel that old feeling well up again. It had been gone for the last few months and now it was coming back. He was scared, and that little seed of fear quickly grew into a choking vine as he read the post, and realized that the banner was red. He’d earned sweep status. Nobody had managed that since the Bounty was still only in the six figures. But rather than pride at this particular achievement, he felt a chill, as vulnerable and fragile as if his bones had been turned to ice.
A History of the Bounty
When the Bounty was first launched, the payouts were small, but when the sweep was established people could really dream of big money. It had started as a simple cash for crime-stoppers scheme, a crowd-funding site, aimed at raising funds for cash rewards that were offered to help solve crimes. Its size grew, as did its flexibility. Since the Bounty was funded by members of the public contributing directly to the site, it shifted from a site hosting a collection of separate, local, rewards into a single large Bounty fund. This allowed it to leverage funds that went unused, for crimes that couldn’t be solved, to amplify rewards for crimes that could. This was before the idea of sweeps was introduced, explicitly giving it the appeal of a lottery scheme.
The more “the Bounty” grew to resemble a game, the more it caught the public imagination, as players bought ballots which they used to vote on the prize they wanted. But unlike a lottery, the prizes were not the payouts themselves, they were the targets of public prosecution, those individuals whom the players hoped to see prosecuted and convicted for a crime. They were “the watched,” as picked by the great unwatched. Each individual had a particular Bounty, but people could assign their money to any number of prizes they wished, and could specify the targets by name or title. Initially the most common prize was a generic “the government,” thereby making the money available to anyone who helped deliver the head of any government employee. At first, people objected to the seemingly blood-thirsty tone of this competition, fearing that it created a threat to public servants. But such criticisms were quickly discredited. The fact that the Bounty was only paid upon successful prosecution, and that the prosecutors (who could not profit from it) had to identify the critical evidence and the winner who provided it, made it clear that there was no financial benefit from anyone directly harming a target. The only way to win was to contribute evidence that in turn had to be deemed credible in a successful trial. That some psychologists and social scientists found that the Bounty served to defuse public frustration, and thereby offer a relief valve for anger that could otherwise prove murderous, only helped cement the Bounty’s position as a mechanism of public accountability.
Without a specific individual assignment on a ballot, only a tiny fraction of each contribution to the Bounty would go towards the payout for an individual prize being caught. Imagine the total Bounty offered for “the government” being divided by the total government workforce, and you can easily see why the payouts for catching individual government employees were initially so disappointing. But the Bounty quickly grew, and simultaneously, people’s contributions started to become more targeted. The tax man became a particularly popular prize category, and that’s why tax collectors maintain their reputations for honesty so tirelessly (and why they command such high salaries, as few people can handle the stress of being in that position).
But it was the sweep that really captured the public imagination, brought out the gold lust in people’s hearts, and skyrocketed the Bounty to a level where even tiny fractions became the kind of substantial payouts it currently offered on its prizes. Everyone pouring money into it wanted a shot at the real payout. The idea behind it was simple enough: if a particular prize was nominated by more than two thirds of the contributions, that prize became a sweep, allowing the winner to collect not just the portion of the Bounty specifically assigned to their prize, but to sweep the bulk of the overall Bounty account. No more winning a fraction of a fraction of the Bounty. With a sweep, people had a shot at a massive payday.
For a while, the president was a popular choice of prize. And being a government employee, that means that it was easy for a president to be deemed a sweep prize. But as people realized that bounties were invariably funded by those who did not vote for a particular president, the generic “government employee” prize became less popular, and people started to game the system in a way that both kept the money pouring in, and yet made a sweep designation very unlikely (since it would require a particular president or party to be “prized” by more than two thirds of the population). This trend became clearer to more people when they started adding Supreme Court justices to the list of the watched. Roughly equal amounts were pledged to the Bounty on the heads of the conservative members of the court as on those of the liberal members. And this partisan bidding tended to balance out, and the contributors had grown savvy enough to avoid listing categories that included their political favorites. Pledges that would have once gone to “government employee” prizes were now more likely to be split between “Democrat government employee” and “Republican government employee,” making it very difficult for any individual prize to become a sweep. But keeping “your team” from becoming a sweep did as much to keep the money pouring in as the hope for a sweep had done to trigger the start of this flood. And the fact that it continued was how the Bounty came to be the promise of a payout that dwarfed the annual GDP of most smaller nations.
Not Just Another Manic Monday
Stef reached the White House, and walked down the long hall to his office.
“Wow! To be worth that much? CNN just ran a story about how this sweep is the largest cash prize ever offered. Ever. Seventy five billion dollars. Can you imagine?”
“It must suck to be him. That’s enough money that people will be falling over themselves to catch him. Enough for them to make sure they can, if you know what I mean?”
“Don’t worry, sir. This can’t be legal. The courts’ll definitely stop this farce.”
He heard those words, but didn’t really register who had said them, as he got to the morning staff meeting. He needed to focus. And as he thought that, he focused on one of his colleagues in particular.
“Hey Alvin!” he called out to the chief of staff, no the acting chief of staff, who stared daggers back at him before quietly muttering, “You know that’s not my name, Stef!”
“Oh come on! You know you love it, you wascally wabbit. But more importantly, your boss, my boss, and everyone’s boss whether they like it or not, loves it. When he’s not golfing. So just quit your whining and report in, you worthless asshole!”
“Tough talk, Hair von-Spray-On. I’d say you should be careful someone doesn’t record you describing him like that, but with the Bounty focused on you today, I’d say you have billions of other things to worry about. It’s just under the annual GDP of Guatemala isn’t it? Seventy five billion dollars for whoever gets you. So just keep it up, Nosferatu, I’m sure everyone is just falling over themselves to cover up for a slimy little wannabe-Goebbels like you.”
“No Rick, calm down, there’s no call for that.” It was Ellie, smiling as if there was nothing at all wrong in the world. That’s all Stef needed: her alternative-smiles offering him alternative comfort, and about as welcome and helpful as a real kick in the teeth.
“Thanks Ellie,” he replied “but seriously, do either of you know if Blotus has heard about it yet?”
She held back a giggle, while the acting chief of staff just continued staring at him. “Blotus” was one of her favorites, and to tell the truth, which on occasion she could do, even Rick loved the game. They all played it when they didn’t have to pander and pretend in front of their boss. It was a welcome relief valve, and helped them feel a little less soiled by association. But love the game as she might, she couldn’t help but think how wonderful it would be if calling the president names was indeed a felony. She could be the richest person on earth with one little recording of Stef talking about him behind his back.
And then Rick spoke up, “actually he’s taking it pretty badly. He feels you’ve really let him down with this, Stef.”
“I’ve let him down!” he snapped. “Are you kidding me? That’s what he’s worried about? How are we going to handle this? That’s what I want to know right now. Is there anything Barney can do? Can we declare the Bounty a terroristic interstate threat? Freeze it by executive order? People are going to do everything they can to get me. This is terrorism isn’t it?”
“Actually, it’s not.” Rick was taking a little too much pleasure in this, for he smiled as he explained “since the Bounty is only offered to those who contribute evidence or arguments that lead to the conviction of the prize for a felony, it is not actually calling for anyone to harm you in any legal sense. The counter argument is that if there is no wrongdoing on your part, then you should be untouchable.”
“Are you touchable, Stef? Inquiring minds want to know, especially Sir gropes-a-lot” Rick added with glee on his face as he joined back in their long-running game (and also using a nickname he’d borrowed from a late night show). He was cheering up immensely at his tormentor’s predicament, and the clear stress it was causing him.
“Keep smiling you f—-ing chipmunk,” Stef snarled “just make sure you do your damn job, which is what? hopefully more than just staying out of sight like vermin, and making sure not to cough when Orange Julius-wannabe-Caesar is on camera. But for the life of me, I don’t know what you’re good for. Aren’t you the moron who went and told a press briefing about the the very quid pro quo we were trying to deny for God’s sake? And if that wasn’t bad enough, you useless chipmunk, you then tried to walk it back, letting all who might have a shred of doubt know for certain that you knew it was a crime.”
“Well, I’m good enough to break the really bad news for you,” Rick said, with positively maniacal joy in his eyes at this point, “I’ve already checked on whether it might be possible to freeze the money, tricky since it’s offshore, but not impossible to do if we got enough people behind it. And that’s where your goose is cooked my slimy little friend. Nobody likes you, aside from the colostomy bag with a twitter account who employs and loves you because he’s too big a great white dope to see you for the conniving little snake that you are. Even the vile cronies you pushed into key positions only pretend to like you for what they think you can do for them. What do you think every single person who might be able to help you is thinking about right now? Whether they should help you out in the hopes that you can help them advance to … what exactly? Is there anything you can do for anyone that would be worth more than getting a shot at the whole Bounty? Every member of Congress who might be asked to vote on a measure against the Bounty won’t favor helping you over the chance that they, or a potential new donor, might get a hold of that much money. You did read the terms of the post didn’t you?
Neither your boss nor Barney will help you. The Spraytanic Verses won’t help you, simply because he doesn’t care enough about you to bother taking that kind of heat. The Lowliest Bar of Justice can’t help you because it’s open season on you internationally, not just in the US, so no amount of inaction or obstruction he can pull off would protect you from a bounty hunter dragging your sorry ass to the Hague to stand trial for crimes against humanity. And Congress wouldn’t bother because regardless of which party controls either house, they’re all agreed on the fact that you are definitely not worth saving at the expense of losing out on a shot at that much cash, or being seen as taking that shot away from their constituents and donors. And they can feel good taking such a position, getting to act out naked greed and calling it the moral high ground. It’s every politician’s dream position. You put children in cages, set up a plan that ensured they’d wind up at the mercy of people who saw them as less-than-human, and who saw them as a way to make a quick buck, and you took pleasure in it.”
Rick was positively shouting at this point, “Do you think any one of the disgusting bottom-feeders you helped profit from that atrocity wouldn’t turn their own mothers in for that kind of money? You think they won’t greedily hand over anything they thought bore the merest whiff of evidence against you, you sick slimy bastard!”
Stef’s eyes had been gradually bulging as the bespectacled little man’s voice had risen. The louder the diatribe grew, the wider his eyes got, and the faster and more prominently a little vein at his temple was throbbing. It was at that final sentence that Stef realized his fist had connected with the now-screaming little man’s face.
He looked on in shock as he realized that his fist had broken Rick’s glasses, and Rick’s nose. He felt the sticky wet pain in his fist as agents, guards, or marines rushed into the room and leapt upon him. He couldn’t tell who was who in the confusion, but as he was being restrained and knocked to the floor, his eyes fixed on what seemed like the brightest point in the universe. Ellie’s false smile seemed to light up the whole room for an instant, until he realized it was the flash of her phone’s camera. And he suddenly knew why she was smiling.
Assault was a felony, and she had her phone in hand.
As Stef’s eyes closed, he knew he was surrounded by traitors, he was not happy, and all was not well with his world.
This story is entirely fictional. Any resemblance to real characters is, of course, entirely coincidental. The bounty is clearly a fictional scheme that does not exist. Yet.
“Et tu Brute?“
— A tyrant, his tyranny briefly interrupted.
“Without justice, courage is weak.”
— Benjamin Franklin
“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”
“Who watches the watchmen?“
— A broadcast or streaming network executive thinking only of ratings (presumably)
Update: The full version of this story is now available onAmazonas part of my story collection “Round Earth Delusions: and other happy afflictions.”