The Shock of Taxes

A very expensive lecture for an innocent millionaire: An excerpt from a great novel about America today.


Mark Niven staked his life on finding the Flora, a treasure ship which sank in Bahamian waters in 1820. He lost the woman he loved because he thought that love was a waste of time; he wanted to do only one thing—to find gold and jewels somewhere among the reefs. He braved loneliness, sharks, ridicule, constant disappointments; he went through hell pursuing his dream of riches. And when he finally found them, he thought he was rich and safe. He thought: "There was a God after all, and He was a friend."

"Believe me, Mr. Niven, if you knew anything about taxation you would consider yourself lucky to be taxed in the Bahamas," said the Chief Valuation Officer of the Ministry of Finance, Nassau's top she-bureaucrat reigning in a top-floor office of the new Treasury Building. "We're nothing if not fair, ask any of our white people. We have tax refugees here from all over the world. Naturally, you can't expect to keep everything. The state must have its share, Mr. Niven, but once you satisfy me I won't ask for more." She flashed a smile at him across her desk to suggest that such a handsome young man had no reason to give way to suicidal despair. Having earned her bachelor's degree at the University of South Florida, her master's degree at the University of Toronto, and her doctorate at the London School of Economics, Dr. Mavis Rolle had the playful authority of a pretty woman with the right qualifications and a big job; she could crush a man and flirt with him at the same time.

Mark sat between his lawyer and his bank manager, staring at Dr. Rolle with a fixed look. He was too stunned to protest, while the lawyer and bank manager knew better than to start arguing too soon with the Chief Valuation Officer of the Ministry of Finance.

"I'm being truly generous to you, Mr. Niven," she assured him in that soft, warm, lilting voice which is the best music of the Bahama Islands. "You'd fare far worse in any of the overdeveloped countries." Her eyes glittered and her fingers located in the air as she pronounced the words overdeveloped countries. Dr. Rolle wore no jewels but she liked to display her gems of wit. "Most people in this world have to contend with more taxes than you could count! And that's people on the poverty linesalesgirls, bus drivers, poor people. Income tax right off their wages, then taxes on everything they buy or use. Sales tax, excise taxes, entertainment tax, road tax, property taxes, local taxesthey're taxed at work, they're taxed at home, and they're taxed when they go out to have some fun. People who are too poor to pay income tax at all pay at least as much as forty percent of their welfare checks back to the state in indirect taxes. I understand you grew up in Europe, Mr. Niven, so you know about the European Economic Communitythey put what they call a value-added tax on top of every other tax. You not only pay that yourself, you also have to collect it from everybody who does business with you. If you fail to collect it, they put you in jail. You work as a tax collector for the government, free of charge, or they lock you up. That's not even taxation, Mr. Niven, that's forced labor. Now you do fare better with us, don't you?"

"Dr. Rolle, what does it matter how they tax in other countries?" pleaded Mark's Bahamian lawyer, Franklin Darville, a handsome, lively, fat man in his thirties, stretching out both his arms in a theatrical gesture of supplication. "Leave that kind of argument to us lawyers. We can justify anything by comparing it to something worse. You're too fine a person to stoop to that sort of trick. The most atrocious crimesand I mean the most atrocious crimescan be made examples of shining virtue by comparison. " He dropped his arms, overwhelmed by his own eloquence, then drew himself up and lowered his voice to express the depth of his indignation. "Our own Abandoned Wreck Act of 1964 allotted only twenty-five percent to the Treasury."

"We couldn't take the 1964 Act as our guide in this particular case."

"Why not in this particular case?"

"There's too much involved," she explained with the calm air of authority which makes brazen remarks sound reasonable.

Thomas Murray, manager of the Nassau branch of the Royal Bank, entered the argument in an almost apologetic manner. "It appears that the salvaging of the wreck will have to be quite a serious undertaking," he sighed. "You might perhaps take this into consideration when setting the levy." A tall, bony Scottish Canadian with a narrow head and a commanding nose, Mr. Murray had the tentative, self-effacing manner of a man who managed billions of dollars and knew how touchy people were about money. "Mr. Niven has all but concluded the leasing of a special barge which is going to cost him, crew and all, sixty thousand dollars a week. He'll need professional divers, expensive equipmentthe insurance alone I'm afraid could be in the region of four hundred thousand…"

"There will be bank charges, legal costs…" interjected the lawyer, as much to warn his client as to argue on his behalf.

All the fun left Dr. Rolle's face as she listened. With professionals she was professional: she concentrated on looking unimpressed. "I don't see how you gentlemen can raise the question of expenses at all," she said dryly, tapping the files with her fingertips for emphasis. "Your own people at the bank, Mr. Murray, estimate that the cross Mr. Niven has already recovered is worth seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars! All the newspapers I read say that the cargo of that ship is worth at least three hundred million. And it's all there, according to Mr. Niven. There are several fortunes hereplenty for everybody. So what are we arguing about? Surely, gentlemen, you don't wish to dispute that I'm leaving Mr. Niven more than enough?"

"Just as you say, Dr. Rolle," exclaimed the lawyer. "There are several fortunes here, several fortunes, but Mr. Niven found them all!"

"What point are you trying to make, Mr. Darville?" Dr. Rolle asked with a hint of exasperation. The clearest things were obscure to her if they didn't prove her right.

Mark was petrified. He wanted to speak but he couldn't move his tongue. What did she mean, she would leave him more than enough? If he had been interested in enough, he would never have started to look for the Flora in the first place. And how could she leave him any part of his ship? A possessive husband advised not to worry about the number of lovers his wife had because they left him more than enough of her could not have been more insulted or bewildered.

"Of course, what Dr. Rolle says is perfectly true," Thomas Murray ventured to argue by way of partial agreement, "Mr. Niven would be taxed more frequently elsewhere. If he sold his find and invested the money, he would have to pay capital gains tax, investment taxI wouldn't dispute that. Some European countries are talking about adopting an annual wealth tax as well, which could add up to quite a bit in Mr. Niven's case, considering how young he is. And there would be an inheritance tax, eventually. On the other hand, we don't know what's going to happen to Bahamian tax laws either, so it might not be altogether unreasonable to argue that the initial tax perhaps ought not to be quite so high."

The Chief Valuation Officer saw no merit in all this. She wasn't in the habit of conceding anything. She was two women: she had a slim face, graceful neck, small breasts, slender arms, long delicate fingers, but she was heavy below the waist, spreading out monstrously, no doubt from sitting at her desk all day, broadening her power base. As a vulgar but possibly true saying has it, big shots have big asses, and Dr. Rolle sat on hers immovably.

She softened only when she switched back to Mark with a sympathetic smile to show him whose side she was on. "Believe me, Mr. Niven, most governments would keep at you until you were destitute. And if you were so clever that somehow you managed to hold on to something…Good Lord, they would take that something away from you when you died, so you couldn't pass it on to your children. Here you pay a levy and that's the end of it. What you're left with is yours to keep. It's yours. It will always remain yours. We don't have income tax, capital gains tax, investment tax, inheritance tax. Our local taxes are the lowest in the world. There's only one government you have to live with, and it's a small one. We go easy on you while you live, and we leave you alone when you die." She gave Mark a mischievous look which had nothing to do with death or taxes. Her quick glances, her smiles, her warm lilting voice carried the conviction that black was beautiful, sex was beautiful, intelligence was beautiful, and power was the most beautiful thing of all. "Truly Mr. Niven, if you think about it a little bit, you won't find a sixty percent levy so vexing!"

She raised her long delicate fingers from the files to demonstrate that a sixty percent levy had no weight.

The lawyer and the bank manager kept raising objections, and Dr. Rolle dwelled on her own points; they argued at their leisure, discussing every aspect of the problem, repeating themselves, voicing every idea that came into their heads, as people do at conferences, chatting on time well paid. In the end, however, Mark's bleak silence began to slow down the conversation. He sat hunched over in his chair as if he felt the heavy hand of the Treasury on his shoulder.

Darville put his arm around his rigid client to involve him, introducing his very flesh and blood in evidence. "Look, Dr. Rollea while back Mr. Niven had a really-truly close look at some sharks. Now nobody from the Treasury was there to be scared with him, were they? So how could the Treasury profit more from his troubles than he does himself? I'm saying what you could be saying, Dr. RolleMr. Niven enriched the world with these treasures, and he did it all without the help of our beloved government! If it hadn't been for his work, his perseverance, his bravery, there would be nothing for you to tax away, nothing to put your levy on!"

Dr. Rolle heard him out with an expression of moral rectitude; she knew that the lawyer was bound to make more out of this than she would, unless being firm about the levy got her a cabinet post. "You talk as if Mr. Niven had risked his life just for the money," she commented, assuming the patronizing sanctimoniousness so characteristic of public officials regardless of nationality, race, color, creed or sex. "Unlike you gentlemen, I don't believe that Mr. Niven is motivated by greed, I can tell that he isn't the sort of person who would want to keep all this wealth to himself. I'm sure he appreciates that the wreck lies in Bahamian waters and is the property of the Bahamian government. He wouldn't want to deprive the Bahamian people of their heritage."

Unaware of the horror she inspired, she tried to revive Mark with another quick smile. "I can tell, gentlemen, that in his heart of hearts, Mr. Niven believes in social justice. He's more sensible than you make him out to be. He doesn't strike me as a parasitic personality."

Her last remarks stung Mark to lifehe raised his head and stared at her with burning eyes. They all turned toward him expectantly.

"It's not fair, it's not fair, it's too high," prompted Darville.

"Why only sixty percent?" Mark asked hoarsely. "Why not more? Why don't you take it all?"

The Chief Valuation Officer locked up her smiles. If Mr. Niven didn't want a license on terms acceptable to the Treasury, she would have no choice but to impound the gold statuette and the emerald cross, which Mr. Niven had already brought up from the wreck, in view of the fact that he had removed these treasures from Bahamian waters without a license. And to make sure that Mr. Niven would not take anything further from the wreck, she would propose to her colleagues that he be deported from the Bahamas as an undesirable alien.

These threats did not have their desired effect; Mark was too deeply offended to give in. "I'll leave it with the fish," he shouted. "The Treasury can have it all. The whole hundred percent! All you have to do is find it. And you never will. If I can't have it, you won't have it either."

"I guess here is where I should move for an adjournment," interrupted Darville. "We need some time to consider our position."

Dr. Rolle brushed the air with her fingers. "As you wish…I understand that there are a lot of divers .around the reefs where Mr. Niven was diving. Since I have issued no salvaging license to anyone, they have a perfect right to claim whatever they find. If Mr. Niven doesn't want a license on terms acceptable to the Treasury, I'm quite content to grant one to whoever comes next. Once those divers pinpoint the site and get a license, the wreck will be all theirs."

"You mean forty percent of it," Mark corrected her, with the flicker of a malicious smile.

"Why, of course, Mr. Niven," she shot back with triumphant politeness. "Each one of us owes something to society. No man is an islandlife is not just take, take, take!"

"Did you hear about the Miss Secretary contest we had here a few months ago?" asked Darville as the three men left the Treasury Building and were making their way back to Thomas Murray's office at the Royal Bank. "I know it's no news to you, Tom, but I thought I'd tell Mr. Niven about itit might give him a bit of a laugh." The air had cooled a bit while they were at the Treasury, and the lawyer was happy: he could still smell the rain and he had a tale to tell that he was thinking of submitting to Playboy magazine.

They were walking along Bay Street, the main street of the Bahama Islands, where investment banks of all nations are flanked by fish markets, twenty-four-hour nightclubs, and souvenir shops festooned with straw baskets. There was a constant flow of humanity in shorts and business suits; in Nassau even the most important people go about their business on foot.

"What has social justice got to do with it?" asked Mark, arguing with Dr. Rolle in his head.

"The first meeting with Treasury people is always difficult," replied the bank manager, bending his imposingly tall figure to make his reassuring observation from a less forbidding height.

"Believe it or not," continued Darville, persisting in his efforts to change the subject, "I was a member of the lucky jury which picked Miss Secretary of the Bahama Islands. At one point each of the finalists was asked what she thought was the most important quality of a good secretary. They all said something like punctuality, neatness, tact, knowing how to keep intruders away from the bossyou know the kind of thing. Then came this lovely girl, secretary to a minister, about twenty, twenty-two, very pretty, very shyvery shy and soft-spoken, you could hardly hear her. She ducked her head, kind of hid behind her long, thick eyelashes, then let us in on the secret: The most important quality of a good secretary,' she whispered, 'is being passionate!'"

"I always thought that depriving people of the fruits of their labor was exploitation, not social justice!" said Mark.

"I would have given the crown to Miss Passionate, but the other judges voted for an efficient old hag instead," the lawyer went on somewhat stiffly; he had never told the story before without getting a laugh. "All the best secretaries are old hagsmine is a great old hag."

"Up north, male secretaries seem to be the fashion," commented Murray. "I wonder what is the most important quality of a male secretary."

"Staying power," quipped Darville. "The male's pull is staying power."

Mark stopped abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk as if struck by mental lightning. "You mean that girl was secretary to a member of the Bahamian government? Whom does she work for? The Minister of Finance?"

"Now, Mr. Niven, no lawyer in the world would be foolish enough to answer such a question!"

"So that's what I owe to society, financing government sex!" Mark exclaimed, oblivious of the stares of passers-by. "No man is an island, ministers must have company, life is not just take, take, takelife is screw, screw, screw!"

"Listen, that's the least harmful thing they can do with your money," Darville said almost angrily, offended by Mark's outburst, which he took for a racial slur. "White governments take your money and use it to screw you! Who builds all those nuclear submarines pissing heavy water into the sea right around these islands? So don't you go and begrudge Miss Passionate to an old man!"

"I thought you said anything can be justified by comparison!"

Thomas Murray was greatly relieved when he had them inside his private office at the bank, out of everyone else's hearing. He suggested the possibility of compromise.

Mark seemed to want to try out each chair in the office, which in deference to local handicrafts was fitted out with rattan furniture. Sitting down, standing up, he was intractable. Darville's harmless little story had incensed him beyond reason. What maddened him most was the thought that he had lost Marianneshe had thrown him outand all because he was in a hurry to contribute to an aging politician's sex budget! He had felt guilty about having fun! He had told the loveliest woman on earth that they had wasted six whole days—the happiest days of his lifeand now all he had to look forward to was the happiness of the Minister of Finance! He couldn't accept it. His lawyer and banker argued in vain the necessity of a prompt agreement with the Treasury, the danger of others finding the wreck; Mark treated them to bizarre arguments which had no bearing on his predicament. "Why should I give in?" he asked. "The United States was born out of a revolution against taxes!"

"If you didn't know it, you could never guess it," Murray remarked, attempting some light humor of his own.

"Mr. Niven," protested the lawyer, fed up with all the nonsense, "in the whole history of the world, I doubt that there was a single instance of anybody refusing tons of gold and sackfuls of diamonds."

"Do you think so?" asked Mark, taken aback for a moment. "Yes, I suppose you must be right, I'd be the first!" he added with flashing eyes, inflamed by the idea of doing something no one else had ever done in human history.

"You'd really-truly regret it," Darville assured him.

"My luck will hold!" said Mark, willing himself to hope. "No one else is going to find the wreck, and you'll see, Dr. Rolle will realize that they can't get any of it without me. They'll come down, they have no choice, they'll have to be reasonable!"

Darville shook his head. "Heaven's sakes, Mr. Niven, I hate to disappoint you, but when there is a dispute between an individual and the government, it's the individual who has no choice. We'll try to get the levy down a few points, but don't get your hopes high."

Mark shrugged defiantly. "As long as no one else can touch my ship, I'll be happy."

"You mean to say forty percent is worse than nothing?" Darville asked, no longer bothering to check his exasperation. "Do you have a special way of counting?"

"I went through hell, I won't let myself be robbed!" Mark vowed, and sensing tears in his eyes, turned toward the window. "I won't let them cut me up!"

The lawyer made a courtroom show of astonishment, amazement, incredulity. "Who's cutting you up? I didn't see any knives at the Treasuryyou're not bleeding. Nobody's touching you, Mr. Niven. We're not even talking about you. You're a person, a human being—we're discussing the disposition of inanimate objects lying at the bottom of the sea, miles and miles from here. So who is cutting you up?"

"I haven't risked my life for forty percent of anything!"

"Look, we'll do our best for you," Darville said threateningly, "but just between ourselves, speaking as your lawyer, I'm bound to advise you that even if worst comes to worst and you end up with only forty percent of three hundred million dollars, you'd better not complain out loud, because somebody might cut your throat! Therethat's how you might find yourself cut up!"

The signing of the salvaging agreement by the Bahamian Minister of Finance and Mark Alan Niven, resident of Santa Catalina, took place in the conference room of the Treasury Building eight days later. It was a ceremonial occasion attended by the Prime Minister and his entire cabinet, by high-ranking bureaucrats, bankers, lawyers, journalists, photographers, friends and other spectators. As Franklin Darville remarked, it was like the signing of a treaty on television. Miss Passionate was there, wearing a flowing Nina Ricci dress of pale apricot silk.

The ceremony was the culmination of a flurry of diplomatic activity. Darville had been negotiating with a political aide who offered to reduce the levy by five percent in return for a mere hundred thousand dollars' payment into a probate account in New York. If the deal had gone through, a hundred thousand would have produced what was in effect a sixteen-million dollar tax concession; a little bit of private money buys a lot of public money in most parts of the world. For his part, Thomas Murray had been meeting with the Minister of Finance, using the unconventional method of honest persuasion. But before these negotiations could come to anything, Prime Minister Bethel intervened to settle the matter personally. Prompted by a mysterious well-wisher, he ordered the Treasury to reduce the levy to fifty percent. According to the agreement, the licensee Mark Alan Niven had the right to salvage objects from the seabed within a 500-meter radius of a central point to be disclosed by the licensee at the commencement of salvaging. (Mark still refused to tell the authorities where the wreck lay.)

The government had the right of first choice of any and all objects recovered up to fifty percent of their total dollar value. This value was to be determined by a committee of appraisers mutually agreed upon.

There was also a clause stating: the division of salvaging costs between the parties shall be a matter for further negotiation.

"Remember, all this is only about things, inanimate objects!" Darville reminded his client in a warning tone at the signing ceremony.

"I know, I know."

Mark, wearing a suit and tie for the occasion, appeared carefree and content with his lot, carrying himself like a man who was counting his blessings, his fifty percent. While they were waiting for the arrival of the Prime Minister, he chatted with his lawyer and Eshelby. "Of course we all hate to be robbed, dear boy, but we must make an exception in the case of the government," Eshelby told him. Mark laughed heartily, in a good enough mood to appreciate a witty remark. Later, walking up to the dignitaries assembled around the long table covered with a green baize cloth, he listened respectfully to Prime Minister Bethel and chatted with everyone, even with Dr. Rolle.

"I don't blame you for our little argument, Mr. Niven," she told him sweetly. "Our problem was your inexperience. You're young, and diving was a happy-go-lucky occupation. You were a loner, an outsider, you didn't need to know much about anything. But it's different now, isn't it? A rich man is very much an insider, he's involved, he learns the ruleshe has too much at stake."

"Yes, I'm learning fast," replied Mark with a determined air.

However, after signing the documents and watching Darville witness his signature, he walked away from the table with unsteady steps, and nodding to a reporter with a wan smile, collapsed unconscious on the floor.

"Good Lord, what on earth could be wrong with him?" Thomas Murray asked Darville as several people rushed to Mark's aid. "I trust it isn't possible for a twenty-year-old to have a heart attack."

"In his place I would die," replied the lawyer, who was to be the first to inflict on Mark the violence of a large bill, charging $241,204 for his services concerning the levy. "That ship is still at the bottom of the sea, and he's already lost half of it!"

Stephen Vizinczey is the author of In Praise of Older Women and Truth and Lies in Literature. An Innocent Millionaire (excerpted here) is being turned into a film for United Artists.

© Copyright 1986 by Stephen Vizinczey. From the novel An Innocent Millionaire. Published by Atlantic Monthly Press. A Book of the Month Club alternate selection. Printed by permission.