The Magazine

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.

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