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Capitalism and Its Discontents

The worst economic system, except for all the ­others.

Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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Almost everyone knows that without banks we couldn’t get mortgages, businesses couldn’t get credit to grease the wheels of commerce, and there would be no machine on every corner to spit out cash when we need it. But by and large we hate banks and most especially bankers. Everyone knows that without our medical system we would be sick longer and in the end die sooner. But by and large we hate insurance companies, hospitals, doctors, and big drug companies. Everyone knows that without cable companies we wouldn’t get to see our favorite teams and shows, and be reduced to, er, reading. But by and large we hate our cable provider, the apparent inventors of “Press 1 for English,” followed by maze-like instructions that get you nowhere. And everyone knows that it is the telephone companies that allow us to call anywhere, anytime, from anywhere, but mention any phone company by name and you will unleash tales of incomprehensible bills, indifferent service, and “We value your business, so please hold for an hour or so while we monitor your call for quality purposes.”

Capitalism and its Discontents

Funny, they don’t seem very worried.

So if you want to know why capitalism is under attack, don’t bother with the scores of books attacking and defending bankers and other miscreants, the warmed-over Marxist tracts, the pleas for a return to the good old days of Adam Smith by writers who have never understood the Great Scot’s work or have forgotten what they once knew. Think of your own life, and how it shapes your view of capitalism as practiced by many companies. That’s what I do.

Start with your local telephone provider. In my case, this paragon of efficiency has spent several years trying to make the second line in my house work. It failed. But its billing department is more efficient than its maintenance team—the bills for the unusable line kept coming for years, and only recently have been stopped, or so we are told by a nice person at a call center somewhere in the Pacific region. Then there is my cable provider. It took great effort to get it to take my money—for a subscription last year to the NBA package, needed by this former New Yorker who wants to watch teams other than the Wizards so that he can remember what the game is supposed to look like. Several calls to the cable company finally got me out of the endless loop (hint: exercise none of the options offered and just stay on the line). But the live person, who should be eager to sell me something, had never heard of the package, did not know its price or the channel number. Start over. Try again. Finally, complete the transaction at a cost in time that exceeded the fee for the service.

That done, grapple with your computer manufacturer, or try to get the maker of a defective watch to return a call, which I did, silly me. Don’t blame it on the non-English-speaking person you might eventually reach. He didn’t set up the system that calls on him to use a language skill he doesn’t possess. Or perhaps you want to book a trip—just try to get your preferred airline to answer promptly. So use your computer, as I did, and find that some of the flights you know exist are not listed. When you finally reach the representative of the company that has assured you during your hours on hold that “your business is important to us,” there is no explanation of the listing omission. Still, you get a booking after finding out that your miles are good on any day that doesn’t end in “y,” and on the 31st of September, April, June, and November.

Sure, you have alternatives. You can drop landline telephone service and rely on your cell phone, as many people are doing, and hope you are in an area in which cell service is reliable and calls don’t mysteriously drop. You can try to get permission from your neighborhood association or the management of your highrise to install a dish. You can try to find an alternative carrier if you are booking a flight on a route not dominated by a single, merger-created carrier, or one that might not think it a good business practice to steadily shave the value of the airline miles you have painfully accumulated. And for good measure you can try to find someone at your bank who can explain how you managed to spend the $4,335,667 at your local supermarket that is shown on your statement. Good luck.

These experiences have many things in common that tell us about the capitalist market system. And about ourselves. We want great service from the airlines and really low fares. We want our bank to have an army of representatives ready to answer any questions, but we want “free checking” and cheer congressionally imposed limits on credit card charges. We want the cable company to be responsive, but we don’t want to look at our neighbors’ unsightly dishes. We want all sorts of things that we are not prepared to pay for.

The wonderful thing about capitalism is that in the absence of government, union, or monopoly interference, if we are willing to pay, someone will spring up to provide the service. That is what is happening in health care—boutiques will for a fee actually provide access to real doctors. Wireless carriers are wooing customers away from landlines with increasingly varied offers. Google and Verizon are leading a costly charge to provide a full alternative to your local cable company, already suffering from assaults by Netflix. As for the airlines, we have Amtrak’s Acela trains on the East Coast, and newly automated check-in procedures that will make it unnecessary to confront a representative who has just had her pension reduced and wants to take it out on you. 

Competition and technology—not all you might want, but in our capitalist system they provide alternatives, unless government can make such market entry impossible, as it tries to do in the case of many things, from hairdressing to taxi service to burial services. Or unless the state owns the incumbent (China in many instances and in the case of electric service on Long Island, the state of New York), or the business is a friend of the ruler (Russia), or one needs some license to go into business (Greece et al.). Then the incumbent is protected.

There is a lesson here. Or several.

♦  You get what you pay for in many cases. Champagne does not sell at beer prices, and big first-class seats cost more to provide than cramped economy-class ones.

♦ High switching costs can make it more economical to suffer indignities inflicted by existing suppliers than to bear the costs of changing.

♦ It’s well worth the fight to eliminate barriers to entry, such as monopolies on slots at airports, bogus health and safety regulations that prevent fledgling entrepreneurs from offering a better mousetrap, and anticompetitive practices by entrenched incumbents.

♦ Consumers should support the efforts of nonbanks trying to compete with the hoary old sort, but prevented from doing so by “consumer protection” regulations that are actually designed to protect incumbents.

Most of all, consider what life might be like if even the imperfectly functioning markets that frustrate us on a regular basis were replaced in our economy by the single-provider systems so beloved of the liberal left. That might make you view capitalism a bit more kindly, its flaws notwithstanding.

Irwin M. Stelzer is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, director of economic policy studies at the Hudson Institute, and a columnist for the Sunday Times (London).


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