Sometimes government works best

Can\’t democracy and capitalism just get along?

Feeling flush, we decided to increase the monthly payment we were making on a credit card. Risky as it is, we pay bills online, and after rooting around on the credit card company’s website for a while, I found where automatic payments are set up.

“To make changes to your automatic payment, please call 1-800-459-8451,” the website said.

You might conclude from that message that if you want to change your automatic payment you should call that 800 number. But you are an idiot. After spending 40 minutes on the phone last week, bouncing from employee to employee, plus firing off a couple of emails, I eventually learned that you cannot change your payment by calling that number. You have to either mail in the change or ignore that message, delete your automatic payment, then start all over again.

In a spirit of charity, buoyed by a bit of pique, I fired off a couple of more messages suggesting that the website change its wording to conform to reality. While I was at it, I pointed out that one of the company’s boilerplate email messages was equally confusing and could readily be clarified by just changing a few words.

This resulted in a series of exchanges with Chris, Steven, Joshua and Elaine, all of whom let me know in an endearingly patronizing tone that they were very sorry that I was having “an issue,” that they loved having me as a customer and that they appreciated my input. Apparently, none of them ever actually looked at the website or at the email, and not one acknowledged that either one says what it actually says.


David Crisp

The message from Chris said he was unable to view the canned email I complained about. Imagine that: The person in charge of answering complaints about canned emails has no access to canned emails.

After I pointed out that the issue was not mine but theirs, they assigned the case to a “Technical Support Specialist” and said that any future correspondence should refer to “technical ticket number 228796979.” Considering the size of that number, I suspect other idiots have had problems similar to mine.

This would be merely another adventure in high-tech customer relations if I had not just finished a book by Nancy MacLean called “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.” The book makes the case that the well-funded conservative movement to privatize everything from elementary schools to Social Security is succeeding in large part by canceling out the votes of the majority of Americans who oppose those ideas. Their tactics include computer-precision gerrymandering, voter ID laws, destruction of unions, shortened windows for absentee voting and a general message that government is incapable of doing anything right, so why vote?

You should know that MacLean’s work has come under a great deal of criticism, primarily from libertarian-leaning critics. They argue that she has misrepresented both the character and the work of James McGill Buchanan, the Nobel Prize-winning economist whom she places at the inception of the dark money movement now most identified with the Koch brothers.

I have neither the scholarly chops nor the inclination to sort through all the claims, but you can easily find them on Google, including her not altogether persuasive defense of her work. You also can plow through the book’s 60 pages of notes and her 18-page bibliography (in very small print) to sort out the arguments for yourself.

One thing that annoys the critics is that MacLean traces the privatization movement all the way back to John C. Calhoun, a U.S. senator from South Carolina best remembered now for his staunch pro-slavery stance. In 1860, MacLean says, Mississippi had more millionaires per capita than New York, and wealthy slave owners like Calhoun were determined to hang on to their wealth, no matter what most Americans, much less slaves, thought about it. He placed economic liberty for the wealthy far above political liberty for the masses and viewed taxes as exploitation – of the rich.

That’s not precisely what Buchanan said, but his emphasis on economic liberty did fit in awfully conveniently in the state where Buchanan pursued his ideas, first at the University of Virginia and later at George Mason University. In the 1950s, Virginia was fighting Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that led to the closing of segregated schools.

Buchanan’s economic insight (to wildly oversimplify) was that government is driven by its own self-interest, just like the private sector. This led to the idea of getting around the Supreme Court by abandoning public schools in favor of vouchers that students could use to enter a private school, still a popular idea in conservative circles.

The upshot of Buchanan’s work, which despite the title of MacLean’s book now requires very little stealth, is that much of what we have traditionally asked government to do should either not be done at all or can be done better through the private sector.

That makes sense for some things. Government at any level probably could never make a better and cheaper Big Mac than McDonald’s does. On the other hand, government does some things that the private sector either would not do, such as deliver mail at a ridiculously low price to remote locations, or should not do, such as run prisons and wage wars.

Then I think about my two encounters last week, one with the credit card company and one with Yellowstone County over some confusion about our tax bill. We didn’t like what the woman at the tax office told us about our bill, but she was so pleasant and precise and authoritative that it was impossible to argue with her, much less become annoyed.

The credit card company – full disclosure – was Wells Fargo, which has been in the news for firing some 5,300 employees who had opened 2 million false accounts for customers in order to meet unreasonable sales goals. The bank, America’s third largest, has paid fines and has entered a $142 million class-action settlement to compensate customers for the unauthorized accounts.

I have some affection for Wells Fargo dating back to my childhood hero Dale Robertson, who starred in the “Tales of Wells Fargo” TV series beginning in the late ’50s. In ads apologizing for its behavior, Wells Fargo has been reminding us of its Old West legacy and promising to do better.

But an article in Harvard Business Review suggests that the problem wasn’t rogue employees so much as clueless management.

“In the worst cases, whistleblowers claim they were fired after reporting violations to the bank’s ethics hotline or trying to alert supervisors to illegal behavior,” the article said. “Concerns raised by other employees were reportedly ignored, including an alleged email sent to [then-CEO John] Stumpf directly, and a petition, signed by 5,000 colleagues, that sought to lower sales quotas and combat unethical conduct.”

It sounds as if things haven’t changed much at Wells Fargo. If this is the future of American government, then maybe I’d rather stick with people I have a chance to vote against.

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