By 2050, everything was a lot simplerby Jonathan Rauch / February 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
At 6:45am murphy’s biochip awakened him. Janet and Caitlyn were still asleep. He had programmed the chip for an early start, to have a few quiet minutes before the day’s filings began. It would not be long until his starbux was ready, so he was brisk about choosing a hair colour. He put on a golden-arches shirt and a pair of slashpants and decided to try the new black Airs. Like most shoes now, they were free. They reported your location to McNikeSoft, which opticasted ads that danced across the bright little screens over the toes. In the bathroom, Airs advertised shavers and mouthwashes; in the kitchen, cutlery and mcfoodnikes. You could spend the whole day watching your shoes. The house had brewed his starbux to standard temperature. He wondered how starbux tasted when it was hot. His father used to talk about that. Hot starbux was still allowed back then, before the lawsuits of the ’00s put a stop to hot fluids. Today, no house could be programmed to prepare scalding fluids. No ice cubes either: people choked on them and died. As Plaintiff-in-Chief Rodham Bush liked to say, “Extremes are unhealthy.” Murphy’s biochip indicated that McPaper had arrived. “Wait,” he told it, while he went to the kitchen. McNikeSoft, alerted by his Airs, anticipated him. “McNikeSoft has detected interest in food,” said the mcfoodnike. “McNikeSoft is pleased to offer you a delicious, risk-free choice of omelettes.” He chose from the menu and told the biochip to display McPaper. The index of leading lawsuits was up again. Gross national litigation, adjusted for damages, was growing robustly. “We’ve got a healthy pace of activity, for this point in the cycle,” an analyst said. McNikeSoft reported settling more than 386,000 lawsuits a day on the Litigation Exchange-up 7.4 per cent on the last quarter. McNikeSoft was amazing. Everyone complained about it, but no one doubted its efficiency. Earlier in the century, many big companies had still existed. For a while, they had fought lawsuits, singly and in small groups, but by the late ’00s they had learned better. By piling lawsuit atop lawsuit, the attorneys could bankrupt any company that tried to fight them. Merely being mentioned as a possible target of litigation was often sufficient to tank a company’s stock. The companies had learned to settle, the sooner the better. Each settlement, however, financed more lawsuits. The companies had turned to government for help, but to no avail. Politicians had discovered that by joining in the lawsuits, the government could take a cut of the settlements. Regulators became litigators. The voters proved equally enthusiastic, as settlements replaced taxes. Gradually at first, and then in a torrent that became known as the Great Consolidation, large companies fell into one another’s arms. Each merger seemed to beget a hundred more. By 2018, the Fortune 500 had become the Fortune two dozen, and even those behemoths proved unable to match the attorneys’ resources. At last, they bowed to the inevitable. Now there was only a single large company: McNikeSoft. That meant there was only one large defendant to sue, which saved everybody a lot of time. It also meant that there was no point, for the attorneys, in bankrupting McNikeSoft, and no point, for McNikeSoft, in fighting lawsuits one by one. Instead, on the Litigation Exchange, McNikeSoft and the attorneys now settled billions of lawsuits a year. Profits flowed efficiently from the real economy directly to the attorneys. Everybody was happy. Well, perhaps not everybody. Attorneys saw little gain in suing small, poor companies: the settlements weren’t worth the trouble. Most workers who were not employed by McNikeSoft thus toiled at one of the millions of minnows: corner stores, garages, used Air dealers. Unless you were lucky enough to work for McNikeSoft, you were stuck in the minnow economy. A dark and stagnant place, that was. For minnows, thriving was deadly. Whenever a minnow grew large enough to be worth suing, it became a target. Any excessive profits could attract the notice of attorneys’ scouts. If a minnow was sued, it could try to sell itself to McNikeSoft. Usually, however, McNikeSoft declined to buy. Then the minnow was finished. It declared bankruptcy, cashiered its workers, and turned its assets over to the attorneys, who rebated a quarter of the proceeds to the company’s owners. Resistance, after all, was futile; the attorneys would keep suing you until there was nothing left to take. Better to capitulate and at least keep something. Best of all, however, was to keep your head down. Minnow managers thus expanded their businesses only rarely. They avoided unseemly innovation and ostentatious hiring. They stayed small and trudged on quietly. A tickle from the biochip told Murphy he had let his attention wander. Back to McPaper. In Washington, he saw, Plaintiff-in-Chief Rodham Bush had travelled to an inner-city legal clinic to dramatise the fact that six states still did not provide for lawsuits by the unborn. “Too often, problems are dumped into the future for the unborn to clean up,” she said. “No one chooses the time of his or her birth. This nation must not discriminate against tomorrow’s citizens.” On the whole, Rodham Bush had worked out well. She had been elected in 2048. “Choice Without Danger” had been her slogan. Last year, as the budget deficit swelled, she had negotiated a 3 per cent increase in the public’s share of settlements-the first such increase in almost a decade. The attorneys, of course, had been reluctant. But they were patriots at heart. There was a commotion on the stairs. “Daddy! Daddy!” Murphy disengaged McPaper and looked up in time to catch the blonde bundle that shot into his arms. “Caitlyn! Sweetie! You’ll be late for law school. Where’s your mother?” “She’s watching Celebrities Discuss Each Other, Early A.M. Edition. Can I have some Raisin Bran?” “Ask the mcfoodnike, honey. Did you do your homework?” The girl’s euphoria evaporated. She looked at the floor. “Honey,” Murphy said. “You’re a big girl now. You’re eight years old. Next year you’ll be filing your first lawsuits. Do you want to be left behind?” “No, it’s hard, though. Tammy doesn’t have to do homework.” “Sweetie, Tammy is a client. You know that. She’s not going to be an attorney.” Caitlyn put a finger in her mouth and pouted. “So?” she muttered. “So do you want to be a client? Do you want to be poor?” “No.” “Good girl. If you don’t become an attorney, you’ll be a client like Tammy’s daddy. You’ll have to work in a factory all day so that the attorneys can protect you.” “Oh,” the girl said. “How come?” “Sweetie, I’ve explained it, remember? Once upon a time, there were lots of people who always got hurt, shooting each other and burning themselves and being cheated by mean companies. There were other people called politicians who were supposed to do something about this, but they didn’t. So the attorneys realised they had to do it. They put all the people like Tammy and Tammy’s dad into a giant class and made them all clients and protected them by suing the bad companies.” “What did the plaintiff-in-chief do?” “That was before there was a plaintiff-in-chief. Back then, they had someone called a president, who couldn’t do very much. Then the presidents realised they could do a lot more if they worked with the attorneys rather than with Congress, and now we have Plaintiff-in-Chief Rodham Bush.” “Does she protect the clients?” “No. She protects the attorneys, and the attorneys protect the clients. That’s why there are so many attorneys now and Daddy is so busy. We all have to do a lot of suing every day to keep the economy running and protect everybody. That’s what you’re going to do someday, if you finish your homework.” Caitlyn’s face brightened. “Marcy got a Litigator McBarbieNike for her birthday!” “Attagirl. Now go ask the mcfoodnike for some breakfast.” He rose. Janet would be down in a few minutes, but he couldn’t wait. He needed to zip off a couple of hundred lawsuits before his first meeting, plus he needed to countersue his mother. He realised he was hungry. Where was his food? In the kitchen, the mcfoodnike was flashing. “Your breakfast has encountered a fatal exception,” it announced. He made a mental note to sue McNikeSoft. Before lunch.