By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
I’ve often heard the argument from the political Right that capitalism with unregulated free markets will cure all ills. My response is that almost every regulation, environmental/consumer/worker protection law and agency exists because an enterprising soul or souls abused their freedom to pursue wealth and harmed people in the process.
Someone had to stop or at least rein them in. That someone is usually the government, which is called upon by afflicted citizens to step in when they lack the power to do so themselves.
In these polarized times of all-or-nothing thinking, I’ve been accused of being a dirty, dyed-in-the-wool Bolshevik because I believe government (responsible, thoughtful government, mind you) has an important role to play as cop and referee in many matters. But even sensible attempts to better the lives of citizens or provide needed aid (e.g. pandemic relief funding) are condemned by many right wingers as socialism on the inevitable slippery slope to full-blown totalitarian communism.
It’s easy to feel like a rare breed when you see a vast, reasonable middle ground between the total corruption of unaccountable, absolute government control and the all-out predatory greed of unfettered markets. That greed is always leaking if not gushing from the seams of our already-regulated businesses.
Some cases in point:
America’s allegedly “best in the world” so-called “health care” system. Anyone who has coughed up high premiums and paid exorbitant prices for questionable drugs and bare-bones care or battled with an insurance company over coverage knows what I mean. The health insurance industry alone had net earnings of $30 billion in 2021.
The most absurdly aggravating example from my own life is the time a couple of years ago when my so-called dental plan refused to cover a crown and root canal for a cracked-in-half molar because the plan does not cover that specific tooth. That is what I was, finally, told after several long, confusing and increasingly heated phone conversations with customer disservice representatives. Sure, I could have switched insurance companies, but they are all more or less the same: not eager to pay claims but working overtime to take your money for premiums.
The way contractors and service companies relieve you of your dough at every turn. So much of what is sold these days (I’m looking at you, major appliances!) is cheaply made, pricey crap that quickly breaks down and is less costly to replace than repair. But if you need a repair, lots of luck. Case in point: My year-old-furnace, which conked during a cold spell and required a replacement part.
Though covered by the manufacturer’s warranty, I had to pay $75 for a technician to come out and take a look at the furnace. He brought an assistant to stand behind him and watch him look at it, and I was charged for that assistant’s time. I was also charged $1,114 for the part and installation, but reimbursed only $630 under the warranty. Why so little? The service company paid only $630 for the part. Labor wasn’t covered. Or maybe it was. Neither the service company nor the manufacturer could get their stories straight as they played hot potato with my demand for an explanation. And just as they were counting on me to do, I succumbed to aggravation and gave up.
“That’s what companies are counting on you to do,” I was recently told by a fellow who works at a Verizon store. Speaking of Verizon:
Cellular service providers know they have you by the short hairs. Case in point: After my phone was stolen, I bought a new Motorola G Pure for $178 at a Verizon outlet in Kingston, N.Y. After about a year, its charging jack fritzed. I was told I needed a new phone after taking mine to a Verizon outlet near where I work in Poughkeepsie. Resisting pressure to upgrade (I liked my old one and my $40-a-month plan and don’t need a phone that can do my taxes, clean my house and cook meals), I insisted on the same model. Cost: $291.93.
Two weeks later, it conked.
Returning to the Kingston store out of convenience, I was told I had to take my phone’s mortal remains to the site of purchase because that place is a “third party” franchise whereas the one in Kingston is “corporate” and each has its own differing inventory. Who knew?
So I jackassed 45 minutes to Poughkeepsie where the phone was pronounced dead but couldn’t be exchanged because I didn’t have my Verizon account PIN with me. Two days later, I returned with it and watched as an earnest sales representative battled it out on the phone with a Verizon customer disservice rep who gave him the third degree about the legitimacy of my claim. (I offered to provide my DNA and allow a criminal background check.)
I must say it was perversely satisfying to watch a corporation subject its employee to the same infuriating nonsense we customers know so well.
Hanging up in frustration, my ally called again and got the very same disservice rep … who gave him a different name and proceeded to ask him for all the information that had just been provided.
Hilarity did not ensue.
What was ultimately revealed is that a free replacement phone was out of the question because I have a prepaid account. Thus I do not qualify for any customer service of any kind. (Shades of the old Monty Python sketch about the insurance agent who informs a client that his policy expressly states the company will pay no claim he makes.)
It would have been nice to have been clearly informed of this by Verizon when I signed on with the plan, but it was buried somewhere in oodles of fine print, and as another of the store’s salesmen pointed out, “That wouldn’t have been a good selling point, would it?”
I could only reply through gritted teeth and one still-cracked molar, “You’d think more businesses might try providing reliable products at reasonable prices with actual and helpful customer service. Might inspire some brand loyalty and not drive folks to the brink of madness, no?”
While attempting to make the replacement transaction via Motorola and finding himself on endless hold (with endless automated assurances that his call mattered), my apologetic, sympathetic sales rep was told by his manager not to bother because the manufacturer would only insist that the phone be shipped to Motorola for diagnostics and a repair attempt that would likely take six weeks. “They’re just going to be pricks about it,” the manager said.
The honesty here was, I must say, refreshing.
A question by way of an ending to this grim tale: Do you believe in miracles? My moribund phone actually came back on while I was in the store growing increasingly agitated and profane, and it has worked just fine since. But to his everlasting credit and inclusion in my Last Will and Testament, the gracious manager still ordered a replacement from the Verizon “inventory closet” in Syracuse.
This kind of retail/service insanity is ubiquitous and endless. I’m quite sure company sharpies sit around twirling their mustaches and cackling maniacally as they scheme up ways to squeeze every last penny out of tormented customers. Ticketmaster with its long list of processing fees, handling fees, convenience fees and fee fees is particularly egregious. Just ask Taylor Swift fans.
So I remain skeptical that we will all be better off if only capitalist enterprises were given a freer hand. It’s worth remembering celebrated economist Milton Friedman’s assertion that businesses, particularly corporations, have no social or moral obligations. Their sole purpose is to make maximum profit for owners and shareholders. I can only assume that means by any means necessary.
Look, I like being able to make money and start a business. But please forgive me for believing there is a middle ground where businesses can be profitable and socially responsible or at least a little less sadistic with their customers.
Middle ground. What a concept.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.