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--."