I am terrible at thinking on my feet.
Sure, I’ve uttered my share of witticisms and even profundities, but far more often than not they have been the result of past conversations or debates that I’d had wherein the other party left me dumbstruck or unsuccessfully scrambling for an answer. I’m the person who has the perfect comeback . . . five minutes later. In short, I am one of the last people you want spearheading your side of an argument in an impromptu debate.
A couple of months ago a dear friend of mine posted on his Facebook page his belief that a large (and growing) federal government has given us, as Americans, more freedom than the much smaller and limited one that we started with. This felt profoundly wrong to me, but pontificate as I might (and did), I still couldn’t put my finger on why his reasoning was flawed. I’ve been chewing on the matter ever since; what follows is the result of my ongoing mental mastication.
This is the story of Jim. Jim was an average young man in an average American town. He earned above-average grades in high school, and went on to attend an average American college. Jim’s parents, while not destitute, were in no position to help him with finances, so Jim worked full-time at an average college job to support himself, riding his bike to school, then to work, and then back to his far-below-average studio apartment to study, eat average college food, and fall asleep. The next day began the whole process again.
One day, while Jim was enjoying a rare free moment, his uncle paid him a surprise visit. Jim’s uncle was a wealthy man, though no one quite knew what he did to amass his fortune. He entered the tiny rented room with a warm greeting, and sat on the edge of the bed. After exchanging pleasantries and small talk, Jim’s uncle asked if there was anything he could do to make Jim’s life easier. Jim didn’t want to impose, so he politely declined. Jim’s uncle pressed his point, saying, “Jim,I’ve known you for longer than you remember, and it pains me to see you having to struggle this way. Here,” and he pulled a small black card out of his jacket pocket. Jim tried to refuse, but his uncle insisted. “Use this as you see fit,” he said to the young man. They talked awhile longer about various family members and Jim’s classes, and then, after affectionate goodbyes, Jim’s uncle left.
Jim followed his uncle to the door, and shut it after him. He then turned over the small black card in his hand. It was a credit card. . . sort of. There was a sixteen-digit number on it and a magnetic strip , but no expiration date, no name, no logo, not even a signature bar. Just a wholly unremarkable, glossy black card. Jim wondered how it could even work, and then decided that he would not find out. He was determined to go it on his own, just like his parents had taught him. “Earn what you get, or there’s no joy in having it,” his father liked to say. Jim went to throw the card away, but hesitated. It couldn’t hurt, after all, to have options, could it? That’s really all he was doing, was being careful, he told himself as he put the card in his desk.
For months, Jim rarely even thought of the card. Then, one day he noticed a letter from the college in his stack of mail. Times had grown tough not just for Jim, but for everybody, and money was tight all around. Though Jim had carried his above average grades with him to college, they were no longer enough to maintain his scholarship. Jim sat crumpled in his chair, head in hands. He would have to delay his schooling and spend the next semester saving for the following term. The thought was not at all appealing — hadn’t he suffered enough? He worked his heart out and sacrificed so much; how could this happen? Suddenly, that little black card loomed large in Jim’s mind. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to use it for his living expenses. Not luxury items — just the stuff he was already using. Then he would work even harder, improve his grades so he could get his scholarship back, and then put the card away. Other students lived on credit — was it really so wrong?
Jim put his plan into action, knowing full well that he might regret it when the bill came. He determined he would cross that bridge when he came to it. He was a little nervous the first time he swiped the little black card, but it worked just fine. All he needed to do was sign. He stayed true to his word, using his credit judiciously. A month passed. Then two. Jim checked every day, but no bill came to him. Worried, he called his uncle. “Don’t worry about it, my boy, it’s all taken care of,” Jim’s uncle reassured him. “But…” Jim started to protest, but his uncle cut him off: “It’s all taken care of. I meant what I said — use it as you see fit. I’ll tell you what: I’ll arrange with your employer to automatically deduct payments from your paycheck, alright?” This eased Jim’s mind, and he let the matter go.In the ensuing months, Jim came to rely on the card more and more. He asked his boss to move him to part-time hours: With all his needs paid for, he could start focusing on his wants, and one of those was more leisure time. The money he earned could also go to wants, rather than needs. Jim felt as if the weight of the world had been removed from his shoulders. His wants, however, soon outstripped his income, and he found himself pulling out that little black card more and more often. The card seemed to have no limit; though his purchases grew progressively larger, the card was never declined.
Jim was coming out of the store after one of his larger purchases when he saw a man standing at a nearby intersection holding a cardboard sign. Jim walked over to talk to the man, and found that the man, Andrew, had fallen on hard times. He had lost his job, could not find another one, and had a family to feed, so he stood on the corner begging strangers for money. Andrew’s story troubled Jim; he’d experienced hard times himself, and could not imagine having to face unemployment with a family to feed. Jim quickly told Andrew about his little black card, and offered to use it for Andrew’s family’s expenses as well. Andrew, overcome with emotion, threw his arms around Jim and sobbed thanks into his shoulder.
Word of the miraculous card spread quickly, and soon Jim was inundated with requests for help. Some seemed more legitimate than others, but who was he to judge? Jim accepted them all, and it seemed that in no time half of the town was dependent on the card Jim’s uncle had given to him. Jim was thrilled that he could help so many people. Gone were his days of counting change for food; now, because of him, those days were gone for so many others, too. “This,” Jim thought to himself one night, “is freedom.”
Jim’s philanthropic ventures weren’t the only thing on his mind. There was a young lady he’d met in class. Sharla. She was beautiful, intelligent, kind — everything Jim was looking for. And, though he could hardly believe it, she reciprocated his feelings. It wasn’t long until he had a ring on her finger. Money no longer being an object, he made sure that their wedding was everything she had ever wanted. He thought nothing could have made him happier, but he had to admit he was wrong on that point on the day that Sharla gave birth to their first child, a darling baby boy who they called Sam.
Sam was just a few days old, sleeping in his mother’s arms in their comfortable home, when there came a knock at the door. Jim ran to answer it and found a delivery man standing there with a package. Jim signed for the package, thanked the man, and went back in the house. He turned the box over to see not his name, or Sharla’s, but Sam’s. Thinking it was a gift for the new baby, he opened it. He was puzzled to find not gifts, but a stack of official-looking pages, each covered in very small print. He grabbed the first one and began to read.
Jim could feel the blood draining from his face. His hands began to shake. This had to be wrong, this could not be possible. He raced for the phone, punched in his uncle’s number, and demanded that the old man get there NOW. Jim paced the floor while he waited, unable to continue perusing the pages in the box. Not possible. Not possible.
Jim’s uncle knocked on the door in short order. Jim nearly wrenched the door off its hinges, grabbed his uncle by the arm, dragged him to the box, and thrust the first paper into his face. “How?” bellowed Jim. “How is this possible?!”
Jim’s uncle stepped back, stroked his white goatee thoughtfully, and calmly said, “Jim, I told you it was taken care of. You never asked how.”
Jim’s eyes grew wide. “How could you do this to me? To him? My son, he’s just a baby! How on earth can he pay this off?” Another thought gripped Jim, turning him paler still. “Half the town is living on this card! They depend upon it! I can’t just cut them off! But if I don’t…” His sentence trailed off as he stared in anguish at his son, who had somehow slept through Jim’s outburst.
Jim’s uncle nodded gravely. “I’ll tell you what, Jim. I can help you with this problem as well.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out another card, just like Jim’s, but with a different number on it. “Give him this when he’s of age.”
Jim was flabbergasted. “You cannot be serious,” he said. Another thought occurred to him, and he grasped at it like a drowning man lunging for a piece of driftwood. “What about the payments that were being taken from my paychecks?”
Jim’s uncle laughed. “My boy, surely you don’t believe you made this much?!”
“Well, no,” admitted Jim, clinging to this last tiny piece of hope, “but it’s got to count for something, right?”
Jim’s uncle laughed again. “My boy,” he said again, slightly shaking his head from side to side, “how do you think I’ve made my fortune?” He stuffed the second card into his stunned nephew’s hands, nodded to an equally stunned Sharla, and escorted himself out, leaving a horrified silence in his wake.
And now I will ask you the question that was surely running laps around Jim’s beleaguered mind: If you have to steal from and enslave your own children to achieve it, can you truly call it freedom?