Levi Raffets was eating a late breakfast in the Old Ebbitt Grille, just across the street from the Treasury Department and the White House complex.
He loved it here. It was the only good place to eat near the White House and Treasury Department. Everyone said it was a tourist trap, but that was fine with him. Nobody looked for him in here, and there were still a few booths in the back that were secluded enough for a private conversation. The breakfast was great too — best French toast in the whole horrible city.
And no waiting, especially on Fridays. No one in the government worked on Fridays, which long ago became an unofficial government holiday.
The Senate started taking off Mondays and Fridays a generation ago. Then the House followed, and with all the loudmouths gone, there didn’t seem much need to have administration officials around, unless it was wartime or something else important was going on, like the lighting of the White House holiday tree.
So Monday and Fridays were owned by the tourists. That made them perfect days to get some real work done with his friend Bill Jacobus, who also loved the Ebbitt.
Or at least, Bill seemed to like it. Actually, Raffets wasn’t sure at all if Bill liked it here. Bill never complained about it, but then again, Bill didn’t seem to care at all where they ate. He looked at food the way a car looked at gas. Who cares about the brand, just pull over and fill up.
The only place Bill wouldn’t eat was those Korean buffet restaurants that had taken over the city. He even had a funny name for those places, with their endless rows of covered metal food trays suspended over hot water. What the hell did he call those things again?
Raffets was scanning several screens at once as he sat in his booth, but had his main screen opened on Josh Pinner’s story. It was written just the way Raffets had hoped. The story reflected all the information Bill had given him, and looked like it had some Wall Street input. Pretty thorough for a hack.
“Unconditional state of war…” he muttered as he read the story.
He laughed. It was true, Raffets thought. Every word. The Dawson administration was bombing the shit out of China because China didn’t want buy any more U.S. debt. That made China an enemy, so the bombs had to fall.
It was ridiculous, Raffets thought, that anyone would think the U.S. should have any other reaction. What was the U.S. supposed to do? The federal budget deficit was $3.8 trillion a year. The U.S. was supposed to just cut all that spending? Hurt families? Hurt kids? Hurt the military?
Hurt federal pensioners? He chuckled again. Well, it was true, that was a big part of it. If you cut spending, you’d hurt threaten the livelihoods and the futures of millions of federal workers, and none of those federal workers would stand for it.
The government was easily the country’s largest employer, and was feeding 6.7 million mouths, plus their families. Or, as some people liked to put it, it was the biggest racket going.
And yeah, Raffets was part of it. In a few more years he’d be fully vested with 17 years in, and could retire if he wanted with 120 percent of his average salary over the last three years.
It was a long way from the old days, he admitted, back when people worked their whole lives. And now, millions of people who were smart enough or lucky enough to work for the feds could do something that billions of others couldn’t: retire. For the rest of the world, retirement was a late 20th Century fantasy that proved unworkable.
Only the federal worker could retire. It was an embarrassment of riches for us, Raffets thought. And it did go against the older generation, who used to call it “government service,” and talked about the government helping people.
Who said it? Maybe it was President Lincoln, he forgot. But he said something like, “Help your country, don’t wait around for your country to help you.” Lincoln or whoever it was said it better than that, but still, it was a good point.
Raffets shook off his grim train of thought. Fine, maybe times changed for the worse. But the debt war it wasn’t just about him, or keeping millions of other federal workers employed. It was so much bigger than that. It was about saving the country. And really, it was about saving the world, since the United States was the only country with the ability and the resources to save the world.
The U.S. was the only force on the planet that seemed to know anything about civilization. Who else had the ability to fight the just wars? Who had the moral authority to control all the emerging technology, make sure it’s used for good, not evil? Which country had the expertise to use the United Nations, and the money to pay for it? Only America.
And the U.S. deserved a few things in return. Like a good standard of living, and a decent, thriving economy, propped up by continued overseas borrowing, which let Americans live decently, above the mud and grime that seemed to be splattered all over the rest of the world.
He looked around at how nice the Old Ebbitt Grille was. Could you find a place like this in Southeast Asia? No fucking way. He drained the rest of his coffee. A waitress noticed, walked over and filled it up.
“Here you go, hon,” she said.
No, this would all have to be protected. The world would have to keep paying up.
But now the big secret was out. Well, the truth will out, as they said. But that was no big deal. He wanted it that way. It fit in with Raffets’ new thoughts about governing and media how to handle a crisis. If you create the event, then you control it.
No one knew his mind better than Bill Jacobus, who had just entered the Ebbitt through the big revolving door. A waiter showed Bill to the table, even though Bill already knew where it was. Bill ordered his usual plain omelet on the walk over to the table, and the waitress left them alone.
“What do you call those Korean restaurants again?” Raffets asked.
“You know, all those buffet places, on every corner of every street,” Raffets said. “The ones you never want to eat at.”
“Korean Lunch Mafia.”
“That’s it,” Raffets said. “The KLM. Those bastards. We need to find time to do something about them, after we wrap this thing up. Do we have reports on them, any information from the State Department? We should impose tough sanctions on them, or something.”
“Close them all up. They’re an insult to General Tso,” Bill muttered as he rearranged his silverware. He hated chit-chat, was no good at it, and almost seemed nervous not to be talking about work. He looked around nervously, like a young kid left alone without his parents, Raffets thought. Poor guy. His work was his life, and he seemed to have no ability to simply exist for a few minutes, enjoy a cup of coffee on a nice morning.
“I suppose you want an update?” Bill said.
“Of course,” Raffets said. “Here we are, phase two. Looks like it went well last night. Where are we?”
“The usual place,” Bill said. “We created a pretty good crisis, now we just have to control it. But this is a much bigger mess than we usually make. That story from yesterday is getting some traction. It might take a lot more to clean up.”
“I’m not worried,” Raffets said. “All the pieces are lining up. Show me the latest.”
Bill dug a small device out of his pocket, put it on the table and waved his hand over it. Several small screens popped up, and Raffets silently started looking through them. Bill’s food arrived and he started eating it mechanically.
Most of the screens were just summaries of yesterday’s news, but there was one that showed Bill had sketched out a plan of sorts, one that outlined the main elements.
One of the elements was the senator, Flik Maynard. The guy who barked at him in that hearing, demanded that dumb report on how much the war costs. Raffets vowed never to write him that report, but it bothered him that the senator got the better of him in public, by ordering him to do the work.
It still grated at Raffets, being shown up in public by a freshman nobody senator. That cocksucker, he seethed. He wanted to deal with Sen. Flik Maynard personally.
“Let me handle this shitbagger senator,” Raffets said.
“I figured,” Bill said. “You need to get to him quick. He’s talking big about holding a hearing on all this. I think he wants to invite our reporter friend, maybe the Wall Street snoop too.”
Raffets looked back at Bill’s report. The Wall Street guy was interesting at least. He seemed to have figured out some of it on his own. Had a brain, potentially dangerous. But easy to handle. God, he was young. They were all so young. What the hell did they know about anything? The Wall Street jerk, he must have looked at a few charts and figured he knew what was going on, even though he didn’t know or understand anything. He was just a chart watcher, like they’d all become on Wall Street.
Same thing with that reporter kid from The Rumpus. He talked to just two sources and then charged ahead with a giant story about how the U.S. government was invading countries that chose not to buy U.S. debt. And he didn’t even name the sources. Talk about cocky. Take it from me, Josh Pinner: I know what’s going on because I talked to two people for an hour.
It still amazed him, that the reporter could say something so big without any due diligence. Never called the White House for comment. Never talked to the Treasury Department. Didn’t bounce it off anyone in Congress. Two sources, runs with it, and has the gall to sign his name to it. Like he was proud of it.
Raffets laughed again to himself. It was amazing, but predictable, and it was those exact flaws in the reporter that he was going to exploit.
Raffets felt himself calming down from the anger he had about that shitfuck senator, Flik Maynard. This would be easier than he thought.
“Why don’t you handle Zak, that stock trader,” Raffets told Bill.
“Right, sorry. Zak the bond trader,” Raffets said. “He hasn’t met you and I don’t think he’ll be too tough. DC stuff will be new to him. Just say you’re a big deal and you’ll impress him. How do you plan to handle him?”
“I was going to make sure I run into him over the weekend,” Bill said. “I’ll take the noon bullet up to NYC and catch him soon.”
“When you say run into him, you mean…?”
“Yeah, something big and loud and dramatic,” Bill said. “Something he’ll remember.”
“Good,” Raffets said. “And then let me handle the reporter kid. He’s already met you so you need to stay away from him.”
“What are you gonna tell him?” Bill asked.
“I’m not going to tell him anything,” Raffets said. “I’m going to send a few guys over, give him the runaround. These are just kids, it’ll all be over in a week. How are the undercover assets? Everything in place?”
“Yup, clockwork,” Bill said. “The trap is set. How about China? Any changes there we need to worry about?”
That was trickier. It was easy to manipulate the optics of war, what people were saying about it. By next week that part should be over. But no one could predict how a war would go, and Raffets didn’t control the National Security Council or the Defense Department.
They both knew that would be the wildcard in their plan. Errors, civilian deaths, other unexpected problems would make it harder for them to control it.
But modern warfare was modern. Nations didn’t aim at people anymore when they fought each other — that was barbaric. You took out a nation’s military capacity. Bomb the roads, bomb the fuel depots, bomb tanks and planes when no one is in them. After a few days of that, take stock of what’s left, let the computers calculate who would win the war if it came down to a real fight, and usually the losing country would get smart and surrender.
That’s how Japan went, and so far, it was how China was going.
“So far so good,” Raffets said. “It’s pretty much just robots fighting each other, and our robots are better. As long as people aren’t getting hurt, hard to imagine people here really caring all that much.”
“Good. Hopefully it stays way. We just need a week,” Bill said. “I’ll talk to you in a day or two after me and the bond guru have a chat. Have fun with the senator. When will you get to him?”
“I’m saving dessert for last,” Raffets said.