Jeff and Sarah have always worked to be the perfect hosts. Having his next door neighbors, Bill and his wife Janet, over for a nice dinner was pretty much a success. The conversation was light dealing with children who were all grown living in various far flung parts of the country.
Janet was especially proud of their daughter. “We almost gave up on Ellen.”
Jeff smiled and looked up to Heaven. “Oh, I remember!”
Sarah laughed thinking back to the many conversations she and Janet had trying to figure out a path forward. “But she went on to graduate from MSU near the top of her class. What a change!”
Jeff refilled everyone’s glass with a nice Merlot he always kept for the perfect dinner. “So let’s toast success!” They all laughed and raised the glass.
“Cheers!” they all said together clinking their glasses.
“Bill, want to enjoy a cigar with me out on the back porch?”
“I think that’s a great idea.” Bill said with a contented smile that was punctuated with a twinkle in his eye. “Got anything to go with it?”
“Bill, you know I do. I always do. Want a gin and tonic? I also have some whiskey -”
“Whiskey!” He said with a slap on the table – almost like he had just walked into an old western saloon after a hard day after a round up. “There’s nothing between me and my pleasure with a whiskey.” The women laughed.
“Then it’s done. Let’s go.”
It was dark outside. Bill took a draw from his cigar and blew the smoke out into the back yard. The flood light lit it up as it spread out and disappeared into the night. It was still early in the spring and it was mostly quiet with only the sotto voceof the small number of insects that populated the creek in the back. No mosquitoes yet.
Bill said, “You know the secret to enjoying a cigar?” He turned to look at Jeff who was still staring into the night. “Don’t inhale.”
“Jeff, great dinner. We always appreciate you inviting us over.”
Jeff smiled. But, it wasn't Jeff that invited them over.
“Bill, you asked to come over.” He quickly added, “But, I’m not complaining. We adore you and Janet. In fact, I felt bad I hadn't had you over sooner.”
“Yes,,,yes I did.” There was a slight pause. “I need to talk to you about something. I got hit with a double whammy.”
Jeff puffed on his cigar and took a sip of his whiskey. “Double whammy, eh? I’m taking you to mean the whammies weren't good.”
“No. Not good at all. We received a couple of letters last week. One was from the state of California. The other from my pension.”
“What? Oh. I’m almost afraid to ask, but go ahead.”
“You ever hear of Proposition 65?”
“Are we talking California? I know the people directly vote on these, uh propositions. I remember prop 13 back in the seventies. It limited how the state and localities could tax property.”
“Oh yeah. That was the good one. But this one, prop 65, is the bad one.”
“What does that have to do with you? What’s it about?”
The letter said I was in violation of prop 65. I didn't have a cancer warning on my products I sold there.”
“What? But…” Jeff stuttered. “I thought you sold shoes. Don’t you have some sort of import license thing? You get the orders online and then drop ship them to buyers?”
“And you are correct.” Said Bill.
“How many shoes do you sell?”
“It’s maybe a few hundred a month. We make a few dollars a pair. So, it’s a nice extra income to, uh supplement my…uh… pension.”
“But how many do you sell to folks in California?”
“I think in total it’s been maybe a hundred over the past couple of years.”
“That’s all? So, you’re in violation. Put the stupid warning on the shoes. Problem solved.”
“Well, it doesn’t work that way. I have to pay per violation.”
“W…what? Per violation? What is it, 10 bucks a pair of shoes? 20 bucks? What are we talking about?” Jeff was hoping against hope.
“I don’t know the exact number, but my lawyer says the total could be in the tens of thousands of dollars”
Jeff almost spilled his drink. “That…that doesn't sound fair at all, that’s- “
“- California.” Bill finished the sentence for Jeff. “That’s California.”
Jeff was flustered. It sounded…weird. It sounded unjust. It sounded perverted…and corrupt.
“Who gets the money?” Jeff asked.
“Anyone else? Maybe the people who bought the shoes?”
Jeff put his drink down swinging his head back and forth. “This just doesn’t seem right. Seems so…draconian.”
There was a pregnant pause.
Jeff asked “so what about your pension?” The question came out a bit more cynical then he meant it to.
“It got cut in half.”
“Half! Half? I thought when you retired from the steel mill in Birmingham it was fully funded.”
“It was then.” Bill took a deep draw from the cigar and ejected the smoke twenty feet out. Jeff hoped he didn't inhale it in order to achieve that feat.
“After the 2008 crash. The company never fully recovered. They took profits and floated bonds to buy back stocks to prop the stock price up.”
He turned to look at Jeff. “Every year I would get my statement on the funding of the pension. I saw it drop from a hundred and ten per cent, to ninety per cent to eighty six per cent to seventy five per cent, sixty per cent, fifty five, forty five, thirty per cent. Thirty per cent. And the company did nothing. Nothing to try to fund it.”
“Bill, I’m sorry. This is devastating. I..I don’t know what to say.”
Bill sort of chuckled. “Well, misery loves company. Everyone was hit. We’re talking a sum total of twenty thousand employees over fifty years’ time.”
“Sorry, Bill, I don’t see a lot of love in that.” Jeff was hoping he wouldn't be insulted by the comment. The comment was directed at those who ran the steel company into the dirt.
“Where does this leave you? Are you ok – as far as your income? To support you and Janet?”
“Uh, yeah. Oh, we’ll have to cut a few corners. I guess I’ll have to try to sell more shoes.”\
“But not to California, right?”
Bill chuckled. “Yep. Yep. Not California. Oh, and I’m not the only one.”
Jeff Perked up. “Really? How so?”
“Well…I wouldn't call it a movement. But I've been in contact with others who had fallen into this...trap with California. Would you believe dozens and dozens of other entrepreneurs now refuse to do business with people in there?”
“In California? Why does that not surprise me?”
“Oh yeah. And the list of goods and people is growing. We’re talking farmers. We’re talking contractors. We’re talking electronics. You name it. “
“That’s news to me. I didn't realize it was getting to that point. I had read a couple of articles of companies leaving, but this ratchets up the scenario a few notches.”
“Well…” Bill backed off a bit. “We’re not talking billions or even millions of dollars of business. But this is just the beginning.”
Jeff remembered something. “Ever hear of the term ’to absurdity’?”
Bill answered “I know what an absurdity is. But ‘to absurdity’? No.”
Jeff took a few puffs on the cigar to keep it going. “Take a scenario. Any scenario that is, say, at the beginning of developing. Now project it out to its absurd limits – to absurdity.”
Bill guffawed. “Yes! That’s California all over!”
“So, if we can take Prop 65 to its absurdity – and if they can say shoes cause cancer – what would they NOT find causing cancer?”
Bill was beside himself. He didn't know whether to laugh or get mad. “Damn, Jeff! That’s what happened! You can walk into some stores there and every article has a cancer warning!”
Things got quiet again.
Bill swirled his whiskey around, listening to the ice tinkle against the glass. “So…where do you think this is going to end for them?”
Jeff threw his head back, downing the rest of his whiskey…squashed the cigar into the ash tray and said:
“How do you think? No one will want to go in. And those left in the state won’t be able to get out.”