Two Towns - an allegory

Once upon a time, there were two towns named Paynow and Paylater. Both of these towns were quite similar to one another. They both had banks, factories and big box stores, libraries, bars, and a city hall. They had newspapers that published local stories and community groups that hosted vibrant cultural events.


The people of the towns were similar, too. There were professionals and hard-working blue collar workers, families with children and retirees. Some people had lived in the towns their whole lives while others had travelled from distant countries to take-up residence there.

In fact, the people of these two towns were exactly alike except for one striking distinction.

When faced with adversity – regardless of origin – the people of Paynow always confronted the challenge directly. Every individual acknowledged their part in the problem – no matter how small – and looked for ways they could be part of the solution. They didn’t expect their leaders to make any changes they were not willing to make themselves. They had difficult conversations, disagreed with one another – but were never disagreeable – and found solutions that usually resulted in everybody being somewhat displeased.

The practise of upsetting most segments of the populace actually gave rise to a Paynow proverb that was often evoked during difficult times – “A little displeasure usually makes for fairer weather.”

Meanwhile, the people of Paylater had real problems dealing with hardship. Whenever troubles came their way, they looked for someone to blame. They held their public officials to unrealistic standards and when the officials inevitably failed to live-up to their expectations, they voted them out of office. Those officials were then replaced by other officials that – not surprisingly – had to lie about what they could accomplish in order to gain the trust of the electorate, as well as secure their votes.

Repairs to public utilities in Paylater were always done behind schedule because nobody wanted to put up the money to get the work done. And when a task couldn’t be delayed any longer, the jobs were usually tendered to the lowest bidder possible, who used cheap materials and labour in order to save the people of Paylater a few bucks.

Still, the people complained about the cost. So instead of raising taxes or increasing utility rates, public officials decided to borrow the money needed for repairs. “What does it matter anyway?” they said to one another. “When the debt comes due, we’ll be long gone.”

This sort of practise gave rise to a well-known Paylater colloquialism, “Why face facts when you can put it on another’s back?”

The people of Paynow and Paylater lived in relative tranquility for many years until one day there was an explosion at the power plant that supplied both towns with their electricity. An assessment of the damage revealed that the plant’s aging technology couldn’t keep-up with the voracious energy demands of the two towns. Obviously, something needed to be done.

As one would expect, the towns approached the problem in very different ways. In Paynow, it was determined that a new facility should be built. But when they took the proposal to the town council of Paylater, the politicians balked.

“Don’t you know how high our taxes are already?” the politicians of Paylater said incredulously and laughed. “If you want to build a new power plant, your people will have to build it on their own.”

So that’s just what the people of Paynow did. But it wasn’t the only thing. As well as outfitting their new power plant with the latest technology, they also implemented a conservation regiment that all residents were expected to follow, regardless of income or social status. The cost of the plant was significant and following the conservation rules was difficult – especially when the people of Paynow had been used to having energy whenever they wanted it. But they pulled together, realizing that everybody had been all been part of the problem, so they all needed to part of the solution.

Families helped elderly relatives on fixed incomes to negotiate the conservation rules and higher taxes with the gift of their time, sharing food, and opening their homes. Factory and retail workers turned-off lights and curbed their computer usage while their employers put the savings towards the power plant project. People washed clothes by hand, or used their machines during off-peak hours. And there were fundraisers – bake sales, charity concerts and outdoor barbeques - all geared towards financing the new power plant.

The people of Paylater called the residents of Paynow “socialists” or even worse, “communists”. But Paynow’s populace didn’t see things that way. The town had been a proud municipal democracy for many years, just the same as Paylater. The only difference was that people in Paynow understood that rights in a democracy cannot exist without responsibilities. It was that value that lay at the very heart of every collective endeavour undertaken by the town’s residents.

In Paylater, the people were hardly bothered by the fact that their neighbours were building a new, more efficient power plant. They were happy to replace the broken components in the old plant and continue along their way, with tax and utility rates intact. When their neighbours began the arduous task of building their new plant, Paylater’s newspaper got a copy of the town’s recently implemented energy levy and conservation regime and published the document under the headline “Socialist Swindle”.

This sort of thing brought a great deal of pleasure to Paylater’s populace, who were eager to show-up the folly of their neighbours while making themselves out to be superior. The newspaper also benefitted from the rivalry and circulation increased with every editorial lambasting the new power plant project. “In Paynow, they say ‘nothing is certain but death and taxes’,” wrote one popular editorialist. “I guess that means we in Paylater will live forever!”

Just before winter set-in, Paynow’s new power plant was completed. After many tests and safety inspections, engineers deemed it was finally ready to go online. To mark the occasion, there was an event scheduled where Paynow’s politicians thanked the town’s residents for their perseverance and sacrifice. As well, there was a colourful ribbon-cutting ceremony that featured fireworks followed by a delicious banquet.

The banquet was attended by most of Paynow’s population and, by all accounts, it was a delightful occasion made that much sweeter by the security the new power plant promised.

That winter was particularly brutal for Paynow and Paylater, with snow and frigid temperatures few in the region had ever experienced. Fortunately for both towns, their respective power plants kept producing the energy needed for heat and light. That is, until Christmas Eve, when an intense storm front blew-in and disrupted the power supply to the two municipalities.

In Paynow, the disruption was barely noticeable. The power went off briefly and was rerouted by a contingency circuit, which was one of the safety protocols made possible by the new technology. Clocks needed to be reset, but since the outage had happened on Christmas Eve, most people were off work for the holiday anyways. And as most people know, the only alarm clocks needed on Christmas morning are the pitter-patter of children’s feet as they travel from their bedrooms to inspect what’s underneath the Christmas tree.

But in Paylater, the situation caused by the outage was grave. Without the contingencies that had been built into Paynow’s power plant, the people of Paylater woke early Christmas morning to find their heat had gone off and all their food for the day spoiled. Children cried and shivered, parents scrambled for cell phones, batteries and radios to find out how long the outage would last. For these people, the loss of power was an inconvenience of epic – even tragic - proportions. But for others, the outage quickly became a matter of life-and-death.

Older residents of Paylater as well as people dependant on electricity to run medical machinery were suddenly in danger of losing their lives due to the loss of power. With the town’s emergency services stymied by the terrible storm, the call went out for help - a call that was eventually answered by the people of Paynow.

As luck – and good planning - would have it, the new power plant was able to temporarily supply Paylater with enough electricity to provide basic heating and light. With the flick of a switch, the skyline of Paylater lit-up and the town’s antiquated generators began producing energy again.

But it was too late. Christmas that year had been ruined. And – more seriously – several elderly people in the town died as a result of the precipitous drop in temperature caused by the blackout.

After power to Paylater was restored, the townspeople wasted no time clamouring for a public inquiry into the cause of the outage. The inquiry - which came at great financial cost - concluded that local politicians had failed to be good stewards of the existing public utilities, and recommended that the same politicians be thrown out of office. This was done – by way of a hastily-organized election (which cost even more money than the inquiry) – and the town council was replaced by a new council.

As their first official act, the new council voted to build a state-of-the-art power plant on the site of the old plant. But having spent all their money on public inquiries and elections, the town’s coffers were empty. Banks were unwilling to extend credit to Paylater as well, since the municipality still owed for repairs made to the old power plant.

Reluctantly, as a measure of last resort, the politicians proposed a new tax to the people of the Paylater. Not surprisingly, the response to this proposal was anything but positive and people blamed everybody – except themselves – for the dire financial crisis the town now faced.

Back in Paynow, taxes were still high – but not as high as the increase faced by their neighbours. As well, by connecting the people of the town in a common goal, community spirit had never been stronger. Businesses from abroad took note of Paynow’s innovative approach to citizenship and invested money in the town like never before.

New factories, shops and facilities sprung up, families got larger and with those changes, the general affluence of the town’s entire population increased. At last, instead of everybody in Paynow being somewhat unhappy with the decisions they had been forced to make, they could all share in the success that making one difficult choice had brought them.

(2010)