Friday, March 29, 2013

Sneak Peek at Manifest Destiny...

I'm working on Manifest Destiny, my third "Ben Kane" novel. I thought I'd toss his fans a bone, pull back the curtain a bit and give you a peek at how things were shaping up.

In this scene Governor Kane places a call to the CEO of Phillip Morris to discuss an idea he's been kicking around. All of the major tobacco companies have left the United States and have relocated to the Middle American states in order to avoid the usurious taxes, the never-ending legal settlements and the ever-growing list of burdensome regulations:


Ben spoke with Calderone for a while longer, working their way through the presumptive military chess game that they were facing. When the meeting ended, Ben spent some time considering his next move. He had a long list of people he needed to consult with—legislative leaders, cabinet administrators within his administration, the other governors and Kim, of course. But in the end, as with all difficult calls, any decision would be his to make. He picked up the phone and called Phillip Morris; moments later he was on the line with Jeffrey Johnson, the Chairman and CEO.
“Governor,” Johnson said. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Ben allowed about thirty seconds for small talk before asking his first question. “How many smokers are there in the U.S.?”
“The number’s been holding pretty steady at about twenty-percent of the population, call it 61 million. That’s including our free states, so figure 60 million outside of our borders.”
“That’s a lot of people.”
“The industry’s been demonized for so long most people—smokers included—never give much thought to how many of them there are out there. That number has dropped considerably over the years as a percentage of overall population, but the actual number of smokers hasn’t changed as much as you might think. Back in 1960, about 40-percent of the population smoked. But the population back then was only, say, 180 million, so there were 72 million smokers, verses the 61 million today. But that number is still roughly equivalent to the combined populations of California, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.”
“I never thought of it that way,” Ben said. “You would think that they’d have more political clout with those kinds of numbers. Why do they let themselves get pushed around by the health Nazis the way they’ve been? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of smokers pushing back against the regulations, restrictions and taxes aimed at them.”
“Guilt, I imagine. They’ve got grotesque, graphic warnings on each and every pack directed at them, and television and print ad campaigns have been haranguing them at every turn, for decades. And keep in mind that most of those regulations, restrictions and taxes were never proposed as being against smokers, they were always pitched as being for the benefit of non-smokers. Add that to constant reminders about how smokers are a burden to the health care system, and are accused of killing their children and neighbors with secondhand smoke, and you make it difficult for the average smoker to stand up in his or her own defense without looking like a selfish, anti-social, self-destructive serial killer.”
“So everyone just swallows their guilt, pays their tobacco taxes, and smokes their cigarettes in exile, out in the snow or under a narrow awning in the rain.”
“Welcome to my world.”
“I was always surprised that the industry didn’t push back harder against the state and federal government, especially with those sorts of numbers behind you.”
“The truth is they never really bit into our income much, so we settled for a seat at the table whenever they were ready to cook up a new batch of regulations. The taxes and fines were meaningless—they just got passed on to the customers, so they never affected our bottom line. The sad reality was that the industry long ago got into bed with the government and got comfortable with it. When I took the helm three years ago, I started looking west to what you folks were doing and thought: why not us? Then the new administration took office and started making noises about extending the Tobacco Agreement beyond its original terms. At that point I started talking to my counterparts in the other companies and—you know the rest. Here we are.”
“So how’s business? Are you able to move your product into the states without too much of a problem?”
“We’re stumbling along. We fly the product up through Canada and then to warehouse distribution centers either in Mexico or the Bahamas. We’ve been given a “special dispensation” from the new black market restrictions—they can’t afford to give up the sales taxes they collect on cigarettes. Rumor has it they’re going to increase the federal tobacco tax to try to fill the gap left by our missing settlement and income tax payments. They’re cracking down like crazy on a whole array of other black market products—retailers are being heavily fined and even threatened with felony convictions if they’re caught with anything originating out of the free state region.”
“I know. It’s really getting ugly out there. So how come you’re warehousing the product outside the U.S. if they’ve given you a green light to do business there?”
“We don’t trust the administration; it’s as simple as that. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to wake up one morning to a phone call telling me that the government had seized our warehouses for one fabricated reason or another. Remember, we’re the devil incarnate to begin with, and they honestly feel that they were robbed when we left the states to come work here. So we sell the product to wholesale distributors in the states, deliver only what’s been paid in advance and let them worry about it. It’s the same way we operate with third world military juntas. We keep our assets out of their reach and essentially just dump the product on the beach and let them do what they want with it.”
“This is a really sad conversation, isn’t it?”
“You bet. The tobacco industry was here before the founding of the country. It breaks my heart to see what’s happening—both to the industry and to the country. Thank God for you, Governor.”
“Thanks, but I wasn’t fishing for the compliment. Let me ask you something—how big a hit would you take if you suspended all cigarette shipments to the U.S. market? Just cut ‘em off, out of the blue.”
“Believe it or not, we’ve considered it. I think I told you the first time we met that we could sell everything we produce here overseas. Financially, we’d come out ahead, because the American made products are so popular we can position them as premium brands and price them accordingly. Why do you ask?”
“You might recall that during my televised address I promised everybody that, one way or another, I’d turn this embargo back on Washington. I can’t think of any one better way of doing that then cutting off tens of millions of smokers cold turkey. I really hate to drag Joe Six Pack into this mess, but it’s time everyone had a little skin in the game. Plus it allows me to piss off 60 million or so already maltreated second-class citizens and dump them on Washington’s doorstep. I have to tell you, the idea has some appeal to me.”
“Let me kick it around a little, talk to a few people. If we were to stay out of the market for too long it would probably cost us fifty-percent or more of our customer base as people who wanted to quit took advantage of the situation and gave up the habit for good. But we might be able to arrange some manufacturing delays or product recalls or something along those lines that would result in nationwide product shortages for a few weeks or a month or so. Would that do?”
“I’m glad I don’t smoke anymore.”

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