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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

I Changed One Way, My World Changed Another: Thoughts on American Business and Government

Confession: I used to be a libertarian. Really. It was a long time ago.
I met Ayn Rand in the pages of her novels and essays at the impressionable age of 17 and subsequently subscribed for several years to a magazine called Reason, with the catchy motto, "Consider the alternative." I bought it all — the idea that private enterprise is the solution to all social problems and any constraints on capitalism illegitimate and wrongful assaults on personal freedom. In a nutshell: profits good, taxes bad. Cities should be run like Disneyland, the writers of Reason argued. You want services? Those who do and can afford those services should pay for them, and others should be left alone with their money or their struggles.

What can I say? I was young. I got over it a long time ago. 

Many years after my attitude toward government and altruism had changed, however, I still found myself dreading the phone call to sign up for Medicare. I made fresh coffee and moved a comfortable chair over next to the phone, arming myself with pen and paper and anticipating being put on hold and shuffled from one office to another for an hour or more, but to my surprise it didn't work that way. An automated answering system asked me to leave my phone number so I could receive a callback when my turn came up to talk to someone. What a great system! When I was called back, the woman who called was pleasant and efficient, and getting signed up didn’t take long at all. I was happy and very impressed.

Much more recently I had to call AT&T on business and had a very different experience. I started out on hold (not a surprise) and was put on hold again repeatedly after finally reaching an AT&T representative. I do not, let me be clear, blame the young woman who took my call. I blame a company that has a crap system for taking calls and that clearly does not provide employees with the information they need or a quick way to access it. What should have been a simple transaction stretched out to forty-five L—O—N—G minutes. 

When I go to a local post office, whether in Northport, Leland, or Lake Leelanau, the federal employees who serve me are all pleasant, fast, and efficient. They have a good, solid system in place. Social Security and Medicare have systems that work well. Same for the Michigan Secretary of State's office in Suttons Bay. The Michigan Department of Treasury is not quite up there in the top ranks, but once you manage to reach a live person, they can generally take care of you.

— Then there is AT&T, a private, very large and successful company. A communications company, no less! Good grief! My question: Why can't that huge private, profitable enterprise do what so many ordinary government offices and agencies do so well?

Back in 1994 a visitor to my bookstore wanted me to join his national lobbying organization. The group represented, he told me, people in business who shared my views. He had never met me, but those were. his words: “your views.” I asked what he thought my views were, as we had not yet exchanged a single opinion. "Well, you don't want government getting into business!" he said confidently. "If government gets involved, it will be a big mess like the post office!" At that point, I cried out as if stabbed, "I love the post office! The post office is great!" That little man turned and practically ran out the door -- with his pile of slickly packaged brochures, I might add, the very brochures that had first tipped me off that joining his organization would put money I could ill afford into the hands of people who already had way too much and probably weren’t doing very good things with it. 

Perhaps you disagree?

If you think government screws everything up and that private enterprise can and should take over the country — everything from elementary schools and universities to hospitals and prisons — please take another look. One of the main ways business increases profits, especially these days, is not by making better products or providing better services but by cutting costs. Payroll is a big expense. Cut payroll and you increase profits. Simple. More money for CEOs and stockholders. And if cutting payroll means that customer service goes out the window — the baby thrown out with the bathwater — well, Americans are getting more and more used to doing for themselves what the companies they pay used to do for them, aren’t they? 

Pump your own gas, book your own flight, print out your own ticket and boarding pass, check out your own groceries, etc. Do you save any money this way? Nope. Someone lost a job, and you’re now doing that job for free.

I’m curious. What are your recent experiences with big business, whether in a store, online, or by telephone or online? How often have you been able to reach a live human being to answer questions and/or solve a problem vs. the number of times you have been shunted endlessly (well, it seems endless) from one robotic voice to another, through an automated navigation system that never seems to reach an end, the robotic voice (pretending to be human) saying unhelpfully over and over, “I’m sorry — I didn’t understand your response” or, in a more positive scenario, “Just a minute while I look that up” (that bit of automated dialogue accompanied by what is supposed to sound like a person tapping away at a keyboard — and who is fooled by that bit of phoniness, I’d like to know?), with long stretches of waiting on hold, listening to canned music, periodically and far too frequently interrupted by a recorded voice repeating the unconvincing claim, “Your call is very important to us”?

Do you remember the days when service was more than an empty word, or are you part of a younger generation that never experienced those more leisurely and civilized times? How do you feel about it all? Just the way things are? The new normal? What choice do we have?

Disclaimer 1/24/2018: I must add that my remarks on the efficiency of government apply to agencies, not to the executive or legislative branches in Washington, D.C. I wonder if anyone in Congress has ever read Russian history — the party wars following the Revolution, the phony “trials,” the tortures, executions, and imprisonments. Is this where we’re heading? I suppose you could say that a country as large as the United States of America did well to last for over 200 years. But is that good enough for you?

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