Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Shopping: Regulated Monopolies vs. Competition (19 Jan. 2013)

           I frequently ask the question, "Do you enjoy shopping?"

          The occasion for me here is the discussion of 6 December 2012 on The Diane Rehm Show on NPR on the "Future of Landline Telephones" and the allusion made a couple of times to the regulated monopoly of Bell Telephone of much of the 20th century vs. our current system of competition. The general tone was that competition in a free market — my formulations here — was on the whole better than the old days of the Ma Bell monopoly. I'll go along with that, but only as a proposition to be examined and debated, not just unconsciously accepted.

           Competition is better than monopoly, right? Well, yeah — but.

           But first let's get some other issues out of the way.

    I dearly, truly, perversely love my iPhone, but I must admit it's not very good as, well, a telephone. Certainly as a phone it's inferior to the old Ma Bell land lands.

                  * My iPhone will probably be useless when my part of California gets hit by a quake and fires and a tsunami and major power failures; copper-wire, landline technology will be more reliable.

                  * I brushed up my "Radio Alphabet" for talking on my iPhone because I damn well needed it when dealing with sales agents and others who just couldn't understand the letters I was giving them. (Right, before I forget: everyone else in the world with a cell phone: learn already the goddamn radio/NATO/"International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet" so we'll all have it down long before cell phone voice quality gets to where such primitive work-arounds are unnecessary.)

          So there are some additional reasons why I kind of miss the old regulated monopoly of Ma Bell, reasons beyond its being a regulated monopoly.

          The main reason I miss it, however (sort of), and what's relevant here, is that there was no choice. You had your phone installed, and that was that.

         Now there are obvious disadvantages to that system, many of them summed up in the old joke where the phone company guy — or Ernestine, Lily Tomlin's power-crazed telephone operator — told you that if you didn't like Ma Bell's service you could "take your business to another phone company."

        There's much to be said for being able to take your business to another phone company.

        On the other hand, an underappreciated hand, there was much to be said for having reliable basic phone service and not being forced to shop around initially, and then not being bugged by people offering better deals.

        If you enjoy shopping, great: shop around for phone deals. If you don't enjoy shopping, your shopping time is unpaid labor that has pretty much zero social value.

        Similarly, though to a less extreme degree, with airlines, banking, mortgages, and, most crucially as a political issue, health insurance.

        A couple days back I made contact with my former travel agent to find out about again using her services. I'd just planned my second complex trip in a row, and I'd had it. With all those choices, I still couldn't find non-Baroque routes from here to there, and the changing prices were really, really annoying me. I don't do business with people who pressure me into making quick decisions, and it seemed like all the sites really pressed for MAKE THAT RESERVATION NOW!!! (before we raise the price on you … again).

        There is something to be said for regulated airline routes and a whole lot to be said for returning US banking — emphatically including mortgage banking — to something closer to its utterly boring, over-regulated past of ca. 1956.

        I do like having a bank card, but I only need one: a reliable one; one where people aren't being gouged and a debt-adverse person like me won't be nicked and dimed with service charges.

        If you like shopping, fine: shop for credit cards. Shop around for frequent-flyer miles. Get coupons.

        I don't like shopping. For me shopping is unpaid, unpleasant labor.

        And I really, really don't believe that all those deals will save me money in the long run: the more clever business model gets me spending more money in the long run, and probably quite soon.

       Well, and finally (and yet again), I'm far from the only person who doesn't like high-stakes, high-risk shopping in areas where it would take a major amount of work for me to get even close to competence as a shopper.

        As in health insurance.

       Health insurance is going to be managed bureaucratically, and I want to deal with only one bureaucracy and a bureaucracy there to serve — at least in theory— to serve me and people like me, not come up with ways to get money from us for stockholders.

       There's much to be said for being able to take your business to another phone company or to another post office, airline, or insurance company.

       There's more to be said for good and reliable service which can often be helped by market discipline but sometimes is — all the time investments considered — far more efficient if handled by a limited number of companies, very tightly regulated by efficient government.

       So libertarians take note: When you've finished learning the radio alphabet, start applying the philosophy of freedom to time-demands on what our corporate manipulators think of as — and as only — "consumers." For those of us who don't get our rocks off shopping, the hucksters' "free market" is too bloody free with our time. There are costs to competition, including cost in subtle conscription of people's time and effort.

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