Part 11 of a series
by P. Orin Zack
Leetha Berismont, looking all the prosperous artist she wasn’t, gazed right through the lean stranger having lunch with her, trying valiantly to hide her anxiety. She registered neither his pleasant voice nor the bright yellow jumpsuit enclosing the server who had just collected her plastic. Her feigned smile drooped uncomfortably. Regaining mental focus, she found that her right hand, which normally spent its days cranking out presentation graphics for her freelance gigs, was clutching at nothing, and that the grate of split nails against table had stilled his voice.
“I’m… I’m sorry,” she said, self-consciously retreating. “What were you saying?”
Marlowe Swaine was a regular at the FW Diner, one of a dozen or so closet activists who had come out at the gentle urging of the staff. “Taxes,” he said. “You’d asked why they insist on taxing everything.”
She nodded, and glanced towards the entrance, where their server was handing the man behind the register her charge card. Like everything else at the newly bustling chain, the employees were dressed in prison theme.
Not so long ago, it wouldn’t have been possible to directly punish a corporation. But then the unthinkable happened. A federal judge ruled that corporations were to be treated as any other citizen, and the Supreme Court chose not to overturn it. At first, the business sector was overjoyed. But then the other shoe fell.
The first company to be tried under the new theory of law was terminated for murder. The second was the chain’s parent, Fremont-Wayfarer, which had stolen money from its employees’ self-insurance fund. The corporation was sentenced to three years of a new kind of imprisonment, a prospect that induced the late Edward Reese, its recently murdered CEO, to propose a scheme to capitalize on the situation by making the aging chain of marginally profitable restaurants over into family-friendly prison chow halls. Fremont-Wayfarer may have been the first company to spend time in lockup, but its newly unionized workforce, and the activist community that they attracted to its diners after the makeover, were determined that it wouldn’t be the last.
“I agree with you. If the government can’t possibly collect enough in taxes to pay for its delusions of global empire anyway, why bother doing it at all? It could just issue Greenback Dollars to pay for stuff, if the people we elect to Congress would only snap out of their lobbyist-induced stupor and realize that there’s no point to borrowing money into existence at interest from the Federal Reserve Bank.”
“But food?” she said. “I can accept maybe paying sales tax on luxuries, but why do I have to pay nearly as much in tax on this meal as I’ll tip our waitress?”
Swaine righted his palms. “It’s not the amount of tax that’s important. It’s the effect of paying it at all… the psychological effect of enforced compliance. You leave a tip because you want to. You pay a tax because they make you think you have to. And it’s not just people, either. Businesses are caught in the trap, too. By making a tax part of the transaction, the government can track everything a company does. That’s why the corrupt ones hire shady lawyers, to try to hide what they’re—.”
Their jump-suited waitress had returned, and she didn’t look happy. “Ms. Berismont,” she said, gingerly handing the card back, “I’m sorry, but the charge was refused. The machine says you’re over-limit.”
Leetha winced, letting the useless plastic slip from her shaking hand. She peered expectantly at the server. “I don’t know what to say. I’m…”
“Do you have another one? Don’t be upset. This sort of thing happens all the time.”
She set her bag on the table and fished out her wallet. After opening it, she ran a twitching finger along the edge of several cards, paused, and sank back in her chair. “No. I don’t. That was the last of them. I’m so…”
“Cash then?” the waitress suggested gently.
Before Leetha could reply, Swaine handed the server some money. “She’s my guest tonight, Rachel. I’ll cover it.”
She straightened reflexively. “That’s really not necessary. I think I’ve got enough in here for—.”
“Please. I insist.”
Her face fell and she balled her fist.
He slid his hand toward hers. “Please. You’re having a rough enough time as it is.”
She sat quite still for a long moment, breathing shallowly and scanning the room. Bits of chatter rose above the scratchy trade unionist song playing on the overhead. It was just one more detail that set the FW Diners apart from anything else. The staff spent their time cultivating a sense of outrage among the customers, using the company’s situation to encourage people to speak out about injustice elsewhere. It was what had attracted Leetha to the FW, and why she had accepted Marlowe Swaine’s offer to share a table. But talk was just a starting point. They had engaged one another, and she wondered how many of those around her had done the same.
When Leetha again turned her attention to her tablemate, he was writing something in a small notebook. She raised a few fingers tentatively. “Thank you.”
He stopped writing. “It’s nothing you wouldn’t have done in different circumstances. And it’s part of the process.”
Swaine closed his pen in the notebook and set it down. “Sure. Reversing the alienation that’s been forced on us. Building community. If we’re ever going to do anything about the social engineering that’s been wrapped around us like a security blanket, we’re going to have to reach out to one another, stand firm against the threats we’re sure to face. Because that’s all they really have, when you come right down to it. It’s all just threats.”
“We were talking about taxes, right?”
“From what I just saw, I’d say you just reached the end of your rope. I mean, hitting the limit on your last credit card, and being out of cash, even though you’re still working. All that’s really left to choose between is destitution and bankruptcy. And like so many others, you got there by following the path that had been laid out for you by all the institutions you thought were there to help. Only they’re not.”
Leetha relaxed a bit, distracted by conversation. “I tried so hard,” she said. “I paid all my bills, did what I could to keep my interest rates down, but the rules don’t make sense any more. It doesn’t seem to matter what I do.” Her finger hovered above the maxed-out credit card. “They sent a letter, changed my terms. Raised my interest to over thirty percent. But I hadn’t done anything. I wasn’t late. I didn’t miss a payment. So why’d they do it?”
“That’s actually a good sign, believe it or not,” Swaine said with a humorless chuckle. “It means they’re desperate.”
“They’re desperate?” she said incredulously.
“That’s right. The credit card industry has been playing millions of people along on a combination of gambling and psychological warfare for so long that they’ve dug a hole they can’t get out of. At first, there was at least some relationship between your actions and their response. Special charges and changes to your interest rate were all based on rules you could understand and abide by. But with all the bank buyouts and back-office deals, that changed. They made it so that if they had a business relationship with some other card company, so did you. Miss a payment on one bank’s card, and the others hike your rate.”
The couple at the table to Leetha’s right had stopped chatting about politics. Instead, they were openly listening to Swaine. At any other restaurant, it would have been rude. Here, it was welcomed, because it gave weight to the truths spoken.
“He’s right,” the woman said. “Their sweet spot – the state they’d like to keep you in – is heavily in debt, paying all your bills, but never actually paying them down.”
Leetha nodded. “That’s where I was, all right. But it’s a precarious balance.”
“Like walking a tightrope,” Swaine agreed. “Except a wire-walker can adjust his center of mass, spread his arms to help. They’ve got yours strapped to your sides. But their bottom line depends on you staying up there. And more and more people are slipping off. So tell me, why do you enrich them? Why do you pay your credit card bills, since most of it is interest?”
She shrugged. “Because they’re my bills. I bought stuff, after all. It’s an obligation.”
“Okay. But if you’re obligated to fulfill your end of an agreement, what are they obligated to doing? Is that a two-way street?”
“I don’t understand. They’ve extended the credit. What else should they be doing?”
“If I may,” the woman at the next table ventured. “They’ve done nothing of the sort. You wrote yourself an IOU by offering that card. What they do is hold the chit for you. They’re nothing but a collection agency, and you’re paying them to harass you to make good on the IOUs you write. It’s all in how you look at it. And they spend an awful lot of money making sure you look at it the way they want you to.”
“That’s the psychological warfare angle,” Swaine said.
Leetha turned the card over and read the notice beside the signature space. “So tell me this. If this thing says it’s not valid unless it’s signed, and I’ve written ‘Check ID’ instead of signing it, is it really valid?”
“Well, that’s the thing of it really, isn’t it? If you get right down to it, that card represents a contract between you and the issuing bank. They asked you to sign it, but they don’t check whether you did. They don’t keep a copy of the signed card as proof that the card is valid. And since you’ve declined to sign it, you’ve already chosen to void the deal. So anything you do with that card is strictly voluntary. Including paying the bill.”
The people at the table to Leetha’s left had stopped talking about intellectual property rights. Their jump-suited server had set down her tray, and was listening as well.
“But if I don’t, they’ll come after me,” Leetha said weakly. “I wouldn’t have the strength to…”
“All they’ll do is threaten,” Swaine said reassuringly. “That’s the gamble. They’re hoping that you’ll somehow manage to find a way to keep sending them money. Sure, they’ll call at odd hours and send you nasty letters, but they’ve worked the odds. They figure that most people will knuckle under with nothing more than a few threatening calls or letters. The cost to them is almost nil, but the payoff is big. Actually making good on those threats costs money, and everything they do is based on a calculated return on whatever investment they make. You’re just not worth it to them.”
She looked around the room. “But what if everyone did that? What if everyone just turned their back on their credit card bills and switched to cash? What would they do then? I mean, at some point, they’d have to call in the lawyers, wouldn’t they?”
“Even then,” he said, “they’d play the odds. Except then the play is different. If they’re forced to spend money on a legal collection action, they’ll pick a couple of really high profile customers, in hopes that the tabloid vultures will amp up the danger to increase circulation, and help them to rope in a few million weak-kneed refuseniks.”
“It’d probably work, too. I certainly wouldn’t want to have to go through that.”
“But what,” the man at the table to Leetha’s right said, “if that high-profile ‘refusenik’ as you call them, refused to fold? What if he let them drag him to court just so he could get a chance to call their bluff on both the six o’clock news and the entertainment shows?”
“You’re serious,” Leetha said. “You think it would be possible to mount a mass credit card strike?”
“I do. And I think it would be worth ruining my credit to pull the ground out from under them.”
“Sure, he said. I come here for the chance to talk openly about things my publicist would have me locked up for. It’s bad for business, he says, might sour a deal. But looking at the possible return on that sort of investment, I think it’s worth the risk. As your friend here said, it’s partly a gamble. And I’d like to beat them at their own game. Besides, if it works, there might be a book or a movie in it afterwards.”
She was almost afraid to look at the business card he passed her.