Capitalism is supposed to encourage competition, which is supposed to encourage quality and innovation. Let’s check in with how it’s going.
A man struggling for money finds a book his son needs for university selling cheaply on Amazon. The delivery is free if he signs up to Amazon Prime and then cancels within two weeks. In the excitement of seeing his son for the holidays, he forgets to cancel. Amazon charges him $80. This puts him overdrawn, for which his bank charges him $30.
See? Quality and innovation.
Not that long ago, being forced to pay a prohibitive ‘fine’ for breaking the rules was something adjudicated in courts of law. Now, it’s considered a normal business model.
Travel is a particular minefield. Cheap flights require at least an hour of checking the fine print, unchecking the insurance box, the assigned seating box, the extra baggage box. And then you’ve got to survive a week in sub-zero Stockholm with only one pair of pants and a miniature bottle of shampoo. Of course, it’s an extra $100 to print your boarding pass at the airport (do they print it on gold leaf?) and then they tell you that while the in-flight toilets are free, it’s a fiver to wipe your arse.
Quality and innovation.
The only quality on display here is in the sumptuous adverts, and the only innovation lies in the intricate construction of their ever more complicated ways to help themselves to our money.
The adverts shouldn’t say ‘Fly to Spain for $16* (*plus taxes and booking fee), they should say ‘Fly to Spain for $16, plus $55 taxes, $16 booking fee and a week of your life navigating our terms and conditions’.
The adverts suggest friendly, helpful service-with-a-smile. But if our actual friends invited us over for a ‘free’ coffee and then suddenly revealed a charge of $50 for the biscuit we’d already dunked and raised to our lips we’d call it what it is – a scam.
Sadly, we are sucked in, credit card details first, by the cult of individualism. The competition of modern capitalism has become not between businesses trying to win our custom, but between us. We think someone else falling into the carefully set traps will subsidize the way for us, the street-smart élite, to live the good life for peanuts.
So let me be honest. I have a Maths degree from Oxford and I rarely manage to get the advertised deal. Perhaps I should have studied contract law if I was ever planning to buy a book or a package holiday online.
Even if it did work out that way, who wants to benefit from a system that eats up days of our time and punishes the busy, the preoccupied, the disorganized, the naive, the dementia sufferers, the non-native English speakers and anyone who sometimes doesn’t feel all that sharp?
To end this rot, our law-makers need to demonstrate some quality and innovation. We need a new consumer protection bill. A big one. It needs to say that getting out of a contract should be as easy as getting into one, and that you can only be charged pro rata up to the cancellation point. It needs to say that advertised prices must be the prices most people pay. It needs to say that if a company imposes ‘penalty’ fees, where the cost of a service is clearly unrelated to the cost of providing it, the money raised must go to charity, not to profits. It needs to say that you can invoice for your time if a company wastes it unnecessarily. Companies would be forced to divert their business model from tripping people up, to making things straightforward and fair.
And we could spend the extra hours we save working together to help the busy, the preoccupied, the disorganized, the naive, the dementia sufferers, the non-native English speakers and anyone who sometimes doesn’t feel all that sharp. Because if we’re really honest – that is all of us.