Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell insists that economic stimulus should either halt or slow down due to concerns about the deficit. What kind of world, he asks, will our children and grandchildren inherit? Not a good one if he gets his way.
The COVID-19 medical and economic crisis remains mostly unaddressed by both the Republican and Democratic parties. They have only passed one piece of legislation that significantly helps workers: supplementing existing state unemployment benefits by $600 per week. Those additional payments expire in four months. Until then many people who are out of work will receive about $1000 a week. If the past is precedent, Congress is likely to renew the law.
Aside from expanded unemployment checks, the government has been useless.
Here are the essential basic things Congress and President Trump must do in order to avoid economic collapse, mass starvation, an epidemic of violent crime reminiscent of “A Clockwork Orange” and political unrest up to and including revolution.
They must do it now.
A Universal Basic Income is the smartest fastest way to stimulate the economy by keeping money flowing from consumers. Neither political party seems to care enough about the prospect of street riots to pass a UBI. But they need to do it yesterday to avoid catastrophe tomorrow. Flat UBI payments are unfair to people who live in expensive cities and states; the cost of living in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio is half of Manhattan. Weight UBIs according to living costs.
At bare minimum, medical treatment for COVID-19 and related ailments (bronchitis, pneumonia, etc.) should be free from a patient’s first test to their last breath in a ventilator. It should be free for everyone: insured, uninsured, homeless, prison inmate, undocumented worker for an obvious reason: if an illegal immigrant contracts the coronavirus, they can transmit it to you. It’s to everyone’s advantage that everyone have access to medical care.
Theoretically, the new Families First Coronavirus Response Act does that. Not in reality. “Our health care system is a mess and the law does not explicitly prohibit charging you if you go to an out-of-network provider. It also doesn’t address other ‘surprise billing’ problems,” Time reports. Treatment for COVID-19 can easily run $35,000 or more—not only should Americans not have to pay, they can’t pay.
Whether you go to your physician or urgent care or the ER, no one who suspects she has COVID-19 should be asked for their insurance card. Healthcare providers should bill the federal government.
No leading Republican or Democrat — Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi — wants to do this. Why? Because they’re stupid, crazy or both.
Draft the Immune
The Centers for Disease Control are rolling out a pilot program of a testing kit that can show if you have been exposed to the novel coronavirus and thus have the antibodies to resist a repeat infection. Authorities are considering issuing “immunity cards” to citizens who have had COVID-19. The idea is that people who are cleared could return to work. So far so good.
As much as I’d like to believe that political cartoonists and columnists are essential workers, if I have had and recovered from COVID-19 I could probably be more useful delivering food to the elderly, volunteering at a hospital, or performing some other essential task currently going undone because the person who usually does the job is either sick or home trying to avoid getting sick. Waiting tables could help save my local restaurant.
The government should retool the Selective Service System to draft recovered COVID-19 victims to perform services needed to help people and restart the economy.
Ramp up Distance-Learning
Parents, school children and college students in many cities are finding online instruction to be woefully inadequate at best. The most pressing issue is unequal access to the Internet. This is a huge problem. Fortunately, it’s easily fixable.
There are about 75 million students in the U.S. 17% don’t have home Internet access. That’s 13 million kids. A Wifi hot spot costs $50 a month. A Chromebook is $300. $4 billion, roughly the cost of occupying Iraq for a week, buys a home computer for everyone who needs one; $10 billion a year covers Wifi access. That’s the worst-case scenario; the government could get a volume discount.
Unfortunately, neither Democratic nor Republican politicians care about our kids enough to act.
Rent and Mortgage Holidays
31% of apartment dwellers failed to pay April rent. Expect that number to soar in May and June. Idiotically, the only relief offered by even the most progressive mainstream politicians is a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. Moratoriums end. Courts reopen. When they do, millions of people could be thrown out onto the streets.
Even if you don’t care about them, think about your own property values. During the 2008-09 economic meltdown, mass foreclosures left millions of homes empty. These eyesores dragged down the values of their neighbors’ homes. We really are in this together.
People who can’t pay their rent or mortgage shouldn’t have to. And at the end of all this, they shouldn’t bear the burden of accumulated debt, interest or late fees. Congress should declare a rent and mortgage holiday until the end of the crisis.
To mitigate the hardship on landlords and lenders, real estate and other taxes should be waived during the same period. So should utilities like gas and electricity. Congress should consider a tax credit for property owners. Banks should receive Federal Reserve funding at zero percent.
So far, no mainstream politician is talking about this.
A War Holiday
Secretary-General António Guterres of the United Nations is calling for warring parties in the world to lay down their arms for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he said, emphasizing the fact that war makes it hard for humanitarian assistance to reach victims of coronavirus.
War is a tremendous waste of lives, resources and money that could be better spent elsewhere, and that has never been more evident than today. Yet at this writing President Trump has ordered the U.S. Navy off the coast of Venezuela in a classic demonstration of gunboat diplomacy. His administration is continuing Barack Obama’s benighted proxy war in Yemen. American drones are slaughtering innocent people in Somalia.
This is all monstrous BS and should stop forever but, at minimum, wars of choice can wait until the end of the coronavirus crisis. Yet here again neither party, Democrat or Republican, has endorsed the Secretary-General’s idea.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of the biography “Bernie.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
At least 16 million Americans have lost their jobs to the shutdown ordered to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. That staggering number does not include those who were unable to file due to crashing state websites overwhelmed by new claims, or by freelancers whom the government doesn’t count as unemployed when they lose their gigs. This is only going to get worse. Much worse.
Only one entity has the financial and organizational resources to mitigate the damage and forestall a total societal collapse reminiscent of the Soviet Union in 1991: the federal government.
Unfortunately, few politicians of either party have indicated that they understand the existential scale of this threat, much less internalized the fact that what they do or do not do will determine whether the United States continues as such. One exception is Elizabeth Warren. “Government action is essential to save lives and to rescue our economy,” she wrote in an April 9th op-ed in the New York Times, and she’s right.
More unfortunately still, even relatively smart leaders like Warren aren’t willing to go far enough to save themselves in the system they lead. This is terrifying. If your best and your brightest aren’t good enough, you’re finished.
Warren’s recent presidential bid was known for the quip that she had a plan for everything. Her plan for the COVID-19 crisis goes further than most of her peers with the exception of Bernie Sanders but it’s hard to see how it could possibly get the job done.
Last week, when “only” 6 million new jobless claims had been filed, the unemployment rate had shot up to 13%. It’s higher now. Compare that to the Great Depression: people talk about 25%, but that was the peak in 1933. For most of the Depression, the unemployment rate averaged around 15%. We’re already there. We’re probably already higher than that. We are going higher still.
The unemployment rate is already worse than the Great Depression.
So here is what Warren, our best of the best, a progressive consumer advocate, suggests: that the government starts “suspending consumer debt collection, enacting a universal national moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, stopping water and utility shut-offs, providing as much broad student loan debt cancellation as possible and finding money to keep child care providers afloat.”
“Suspending” consumer debt collection doesn’t mean forgiving consumer debt. It means ordering debt collectors to wait until later to come after you. Later, however, you won’t be more able to pay back what you owe. You’ll be less able. You will have accumulated more debt in order to survive. Interest will have accrued; at the average rate of 15% a $1,000 credit card bill turns into $3,128 after a year. There will be late fees. Finding any job will be hard and finding a job that earns enough to pay back mountains of debt will be impossible. Any solution that doesn’t include forgiving consumer debt doesn’t stand a chance of rescuing the economy. A delay in collections adds compound interest to catastrophe.
A “national moratorium” on evictions and foreclosures is equally insane. For the time being, the sheriff doesn’t show up to throw you and your family out onto the COVID-19-infected streets. But what happens later? At some point, a moratorium expires. Lenders become impatient. Congress lifts the moratorium; then debtors come after you. Now you don’t just owe one or two months of back rent or mortgage, you owe 6 or 10 or 15. If you can’t pay one or two months, how are you going to pay ten? There will be late fees, accrued interest, and again, you’ll be making less than you did before this all happened—so you will have to pay back inflated 2020 debt with your deflated 2021 salary. Ain’t going to happen.
Kicking the can down the road with suspended debt collection and eviction moratoriums and putting off utilities shut-offs is a guaranteed ineffective, massively counterproductive wallop of magical thinking that pretends not only that everything is about to be fine, but that everyone is going to win the lottery and be able to use their newfound winnings to pay off their coronavirus debts. It’s ridiculous and stupid and unworthy of discussion by serious people.
Even Warren’s plea for “truly universal paid family and medical leave” is the wateriest of weak tea because it only applies to frontline “health care, transit, farm, grocery, domestic and delivery workers.” In a pandemic, grocery store clerks only stay healthy if their customers do.
Warren once said that she was a capitalist to her bones. Her joke of a plan for the coronavirus Great Derpression reflects her unwillingness to accept a new reality in which trillions of dollars must immediately be redistributed from the wealthy to the poor and middle class, not because it’s the right thing to do–though it is—but to avoid ruin. Landlords must go without rent, banks must forego mortgage payments, people must be able to go to the doctor without paying, heat and water must continue to flow without a bill.
There is a better way. Rather than throw tens of millions of Americans into piles of debt that they will never be able to pay, continue to pay their salaries so they can continue to pay their bills. Individuals keep their homes and their sanity; businesses remain intact.
The United Kingdom is paying citizens 80% of their paychecks to stay home from work. Germany pays two-thirds. Spain is about to institute a universal basic income at a yet-to-be-determined amount. Bernie Sanders, who just dropped out of the race for the presidency, called for every American household to receive $2000 a month until the end of the crisis.
What have we gotten instead? A one-time payment of $1200 per adult, $500 per child.
Capitalists like Warren must decide what’s more important to them: insisting on their prerogative to hoard precious resources, or survival. As for now, she doesn’t even have the start of a thought of a real plan.
And she is the best we have.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of the biography “Bernie.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
This week’s coverage of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall brought me back, not to warm fuzzies about peace and freedom and Gipper Ron Ron and winning the Cold War, but the reaction of my former BFF Dan (whom I miss for his talent for lightening-quick, wicked-brilliant repostes).
The Berlin Wall has fallen, I informed him. Germany is reunited.
“This,” he replied as usual without missing a beat, “is like the reunion tour recently announced by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I didn’t care for any of their previous collaborations, and I’m not looking forward to the next one.”
The former two Germanies haven’t given us another Hitler. Not yet. But Germany 2.0 did revive and realize the Führer’s dream of uniting Europe into a unified trading bloc, with a common currency, big enough to give the United States a run for its devalued money. The new euro was, naturally, pegged to the old Deutsche Mark. Germany is by far the most powerful nation in Europe.
Which is a good place to start my List of Reasons I Miss the Berlin Wall.
As usually-correct economist-professor-columnist (and usually ignored) Paul Krugman has pointed out over and over, the German-dominated European Union — which would never have come into being had the Wall remained standing and the Soviet bloc continued to exist — has been an unwieldy amalgam of political autonomy and fiscal union, dragging relatively poorer nations like Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (“PIGS”) into a vicious cycle of austerity, budget cuts and seemingly endlessly rising unemployment. “The creation of the euro was about politics and ideology, not a response to careful economic analysis (which suggested from the beginning that Europe wasn’t ready for a single currency),” Krugman wrote in May.
Why should hard-working Germans bail out lazy, corrupt Mediterranean nations? Protestant pundits ask. Scratch the surface of the Eurozone crisis and you find that the Germans aren’t the victims here. Far from propping up their swarthy southern partners, Germans are using their control over the euro to turn the PIGS into trade debtors.
Adolf blew his brains out but Germany won the war. Cuz: reunification.
The most important consequence of the fall of the Berlin Wall was, of course, the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union. “Economic shock therapy” — U.S.-backed Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s misbegotten attempt to convert the USSR’s state economy to neoliberalist capitalism overnight — led to the infamous Russian Mortality Crisis, when death rates soared 40% in Russia, and even higher in other former Soviet republics.
It has been estimated that 30 million people either died or will die as the result of the catastrophic dissolution of the USSR.
Socialism was destroyed but not replaced. The power vacuum opened by the collapse of the Soviet system was quickly filled by gangsters. Corrupt former factory managers forcibly seized state property and industries whose profits might otherwise have been used to create a blow-softening social safety net for the millions who lost their jobs. Hard drugs from Central Asia and Afghanistan, set free to fall apart after Gorbachev stepped down, supplemented rampant alcoholism. The infamous Russian oligarchy rose during this period, widening the gap between rich and poor, and set the stage for Putinism supported by traumatized Russians who happily chose authoritarianism over the anarchy of the post-Soviet period.
Former Soviet client states lost their financial and military backing. Nations like Somalia and Congo disintegrated into bloody civil conflict.
But hey. The demise of the Evil Empire was good for the United States, right?
American and European citizens paid trillions for the Cold War. After 1991, pundits promised a “peace dividend” — lower taxes, more public spending on infrastructure and social programs. Barely two years later, the peace dividend was gone — spent, ironically, on the high costs of the Soviet collapse.
“Defense cuts and reductions in military forces have brought in their wake a series of job losses,” Britain’s Independent newspaper reported in 1993. “The transitional costs of the end of the Cold War, combined with the inadequacy of government responses across Western Europe, have meant that we are worse, not better, off.”
You’d think that, as believers in the magic of the marketplace, Americans would see the value of competition in the world of ideas, militarily and politically, on the international scene. Whether or not they admit it, however, citizens of the United States have gotten softer and dumber after assuming their status as the world’s last remaining superpower. Unchallenged ideologically and otherwise, Americans questioned themselves and their beliefs in capitalism and American exceptionalism even less after the 1990s than before. But now, as de facto rulers of the last empire, Americans became the obvious targets of choice for opposition forces that want to change the new order, like fundamental Islamist movements.
It’s tough to disagree with the French writer Nicolas Bonnai, who noted in Pravda in 2012: “The US oligarchy [went] berserk, started new wars everywhere with the Bush dynasty and ruined [its] finances. Drastic inequality became the lemma of this crazy society driven by lunatic leaders and wars. Today America leads to nowhere; America is just a [locus] (Al Qaeda) of the new global matrix made of wars and terrors, manipulation and deregulation.”
The fall of the Berlin Wall created at least as many hardships as blessings.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM
This cartoon is for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Experts say there’s absolutely no way anyone can scrape up the $1 billion it would cost to fix the endemic congestion of traffic on Interstate 83 outside Harrisburg. Yet there’s always money for wars.
Why Can’t the U.S. Move Forward?
“Your dearest wish is for our state structure and ideological system never to change, to remain as they are for centuries. But history is not like that. Every system either finds away to develop or else collapses.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote that in 1974, in his famous “Letter to the Soviet Leaders.” But it could just as easily be addressed to President Obama, Congress, members of the media, corporate chiefs, and others who lead and maintain the power structure in the United States.
The United States is as ossified as the USSR was before its collapse.
Shortly after the start of the financial meltdown which began in 2009, polls found American citizens disgusted with the capitalist system. Tens of millions said they would prefer socialism. When the Occupy Wall Street movement took off in 2011, mainstream pundits began using the “R” word, revolution – but only to ask a question with a predetermined answer. Regime change, they said, was neither desirable nor possible.
We used to be a growing country. Not any more. We used to welcome new states into the Union. It’s been 53 years since we added a star to Old Glory; Puerto Rican statehood isn’t a subject of serious consideration. We used to amend the Constitution to suit changing mores. The last major amendment, granting the vote to 18-year-olds, was ratified in 1971. Apparently equal rights for women is too much to ask.
We don’t build anymore. Think about infrastructure. The last major public works project in U.S. history was the Interstate Highway System, built in the 1950s – not coincidentally when the economy was booming.
Our political system is ossified too. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut prompted calls for tighter gun control. But nobody – not even liberals, the traditional enemies of gun rights – argued for getting rid of the Second Amendment which, depending on your interpretation of the prefatory comma, allows us to join a militia or carry guns in our waistbands. “I have no intention of taking away folks’ guns,” President Obama has said.
Well, why not? Personally, I’m against gun control and I’m glad that very little is going to change. Yet I find it disturbing that the Second Amendment is considered sacrosanct, even by the 24% of Americans who want to ban handguns. Pointing out that the country is very different now than it was in 1789 seems reasonable. Maybe we don’t need guns any more. A smart country, one willing to weigh the alternatives when trying to solve a problem, should be able to discuss the possibility of repealing the Second Amendment.
Look at our national political dialogue, which ranges from center-right (Democrat) to right (Republican). Whole strains of ideology – communist, socialist, nationalist, libertarian – are off the table. We pretend most of the ideological spectrum doesn’t exist. Not smart.
Our national unwillingness and/or inability to have a wide-ranging debate reminds me of New York City, where I have lived for many years. There are no public restrooms. Restaurants and other businesses post “Restrooms for Customers Only” signs on their doors. Yet peeing outside is against the law; in fact, it’s public exposure, a sex offense that can land you on a Megan’s Law-style pervert registry. So where are you supposed to go?
A child could tell you this is insane. You know what’s even more insane? That we New Yorkers don’t even talk about it. Like Germans on their way to work in the early 1940s, wondering what that funny smell coming from the camp down the road might be coming from, we pretend that this is all perfectly normal.
As a recent New York Times article by Louis Seidman pointed out, we have foolishly elevated the Constitution to the status of a sacred text, fetishizing a supposedly “living document” that in truth has been dead for years. (Congress, for example, has the sole right to start wars. President Bush ignored the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions concerning POWs at Guantánamo. And so on.) The result, Seidman argues, is endless petty bickering about what the meaning of “is” is – and what that stupid comma was supposed to be for.
The question for any society is not how to figure out how to conform ourselves to rules and assumptions laid down by our forebears, but to come up with the smartest solutions to our problems and the best systems to make things run smoothly now and in the future. If we were revolutionaries, if we were inventing the United States from scratch, would we create the Electoral College? Doubtful.
The people of the United States are changing all the time, but the United States government and power structure are stuck. The political “culture wars” date to the 1960s and 1980s. Our military thinks the Cold War is still going on.
Our economy reflects our national congealing.
Once a “land of opportunity,” the U.S. is now anything but. If you’re born into a poor family, your chances of elevating yourself into the middle or upper class are lower in America than in other industrialized countries. “It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries,” says economist Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution. “I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that.” Aside from the unfairness and the instability caused by inequality and lack of social mobility, we’re losing the talents of tens of millions of Americans who will never be able to live up to their potential, share their ideas and contribute to the making of a more perfect union.
We haven’t had a major social or political revolution since the 1960s. It’s been too long. Like the Soviet Union, we must develop – scrapping long-held assumptions and reconsidering everything from scratch – or collapse.
I think we’re headed toward collapse.
(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in November by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)
COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL
This November: The Pessimist vs. the Cynical Pessimist
This week, decline is on my brain. Specifically, the decline of America.
“There’s not a country on Earth that wouldn’t gladly trade places with the United States of America,” President Obama says, denying Republican assertions that the U.S. is in decline.
(I don’t know about that. Would sick people in the 36 nations that have better healthcare systems than the U.S. want to switch places?)
Clearly we believe our country is in decline—polls show that Americans think that the next generation will live worse than we do. Pessimism about the future is reflected in a 2011 survey in which 57 percent of the public identified the U.S. as the world’s most powerful nation, but just 19 percent thought that we’ll still be #1 20 years from now.
Now The New York Times reports that life expectancy for white people without a high-school degree fell precipitously between 1990 and 2007. It’s shocking news. “We’re used to looking at groups and complaining that their mortality rates haven’t improved fast enough, but to actually go backward is deeply troubling,” the newspaper quoted John G. Haaga, head of the Population and Social Processes Branch of the National Institute on Aging.
“The five-year decline for white women rivals the catastrophic seven-year drop for Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity in London,” reports The Times.
Bear in mind, the study includes the Clinton boom of the 1990s. And it doesn’t include the period after 2007, when the global fiscal crisis set off the current depression. It’s almost certainly worse now.
Even the two major presidential candidates seem to think that the U.S. doesn’t have much of a future. During his “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday, President Obama was asked what his big idea was for his next term. Interviewer Steve Kroft mentioned the Marshall Plan and sending a man to the moon as examples of big ideas.
“I think there’s no bigger purpose right now than making sure that if people work hard in this country, they can get ahead,” replied Obama. “That’s the central American idea. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. Because there was an economy that worked for everybody and that allowed us to do that. I think what Americans properly are focused on right now are just the bread-and-butter basics of making sure our economy works for working people.” A nonsensical answer. Yes, we should strive to get back to the lower gap between rich and poor that existed during the 1960s—but lower income inequality didn’t create the space program.
All Obama has to offer is a vague desire to restore the American Dream. Sorry, Mr. President, but getting back something we used to take for granted is the opposite of a big idea.
Though depressing, Obama’s pessimism is dwarfed by Mitt Romney’s.
Romney’s 2011 tax returns reveal that not only did he bet against the value of the American dollar—a staggeringly unpatriotic move for a presidential candidate—he received a quarter of his income from investments in other countries.
Romney, putting his money where his mouth isn’t, is literally betting his millions that the U.S. economy will head south. That the dollar will lose value. That foreign equities will outperform U.S. stocks. He even bought shares in the Chinese state oil company, which has contracts with Iran
He’s worse than a hypocrite. He’s an economic traitor.
Whether better, worse, or the same as today, the U.S. has a future. Who will lead us into that future? The person or movement that can credibly articulate a positive vision of a United States that doesn’t stand still, but actually moves forward–you know, like Obama’s campaign slogan. But who and where are they?
This presidential campaign is shaping up as a race between a pessimist and a cynical pessimist, and in such a contest the mere pessimist is likely to win. But it isn’t good for us in the long run.
“Never have American voters reelected a president whose work they disapprove of as much as Barack Obama’s,” observes the Associated Press’ Bill Barrow. “Not that Mitt Romney can take much comfort—they’ve never elected a challenger they view so negatively, either.”
Obama has the edge in the polls, partly because he presents a less somber vision despite his lack of big ideas. (It helps that Romney is a terrible politician.)
“This is America. We still have the best workers in the world and the best entrepreneurs in the world. We’ve got the best scientists and the best researchers. We’ve got the best colleges and the best universities,” said the President in his “not in decline” remarks. (Never mind that there’s no point going into debt to attend school if there aren’t any jobs when you graduate.)
Well, the United States IS rich. Staggeringly so. The problem is that our wealth has become so unevenly distributed that there is no longer enough consumer demand to support the population. It’s a like a marriage in which both spouses can make it work—if they change their attitudes. If we began focusing on the problems of poverty, unemployment and underemployment, as well as rising income and wealth inequality—i.e., economic injustice—and then fix them—we’ll be OK.
I don’t think we’ll be OK.
The U.S. doesn’t have to be in decline. Some liberal elites, like Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and investor Warren Buffett, understand the need to redistribute wealth. They’re one side of a split in the ruling classes. Unfortunately for the system and for many Americans, they’re losing the argument to greedpigs like Romney.
COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL
Congress Should Mandate Minimum Number of Phone Reps
I don’t know if Mark Zuckerberg suffers from agoraphobia, but his company seems to have missed the jet age.
If you’re like me, you travel a lot. And if you’re on Facebook, odds are that you’ve been locked out of your account—even though you entered the correct password—because you logged in from an “unfamiliar location.”
Facebook’s test to make you prove you are who you say you are is bizarre: they show you randomly selected pictures of your Facebook “friends” and ask you to identify them. But most of my “friends” are readers and fans of my cartoons and books. I don’t know their faces. Moreover, not all of my “friends'” photos are of themselves. One Facebook test—I kept failing—presented me with pictures of potted plants.
It’s an idiotic test, one that trips up a lot of people. David Segal, who writes The Haggler consumer advocacy column for The New York Times, quotes Bryan Dale of Toronto: “Given that I use Facebook for networking and had never met most of my ‘friends,’ [Facebook’s ID test] was difficult. It was made impossible, however, because most of my Facebook friends are connected with pit bull advocacy and many of their pictures presented to me were actually pictures of their dogs.”
Why does Facebook freak out when I log in from San Diego while Citibank allows me to move thousands of dollars using no more than a password—from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan?
During my third week of Facebook Lockout Month I tried to call the company to ask that question and plead my case.
Facebook doesn’t have a customer service telephone number.
This, incredibly, is normal in the technology sector. A transnational corporation valued at tens of billions of dollars, with hundreds of millions of customers, has no way to get in touch with them in a hurry. Even if you’re a would-be zillionaire investor, you can’t call. You have to know someone inside.
What if someone is posting pornographic photos of your child via Twitter? What if someone has hacked into your account? What if you’re in San Diego and can’t figure out which of your Facebook “friends” owns that white pit bull with the black spot?
Some tech companies have phone numbers, but there’s no way to talk to a live human being. “Twitter’s system hangs up after providing Web or e-mail addresses three times,” Amy O’Leary reports in The Times. “At the end of a long phone tree, Facebook’s system explains it is, in fact, ‘an Internet-based company.’ Try e-mail, it suggests.”
Tried it. Repeatedly. Never heard back.
This is standard practice with tech companies. I’ve left customer service request messages for Apple, Adobe, Google and countless other firms over the years. I heard back maybe one time out of ten.
“LinkedIn’s mail lists an alternate customer service number. Dial it, and the caller is trapped in a telephonic version of the movie ‘Groundhog Day,’ forced to work through the original phone tree again and again until the lesson is clear: stop calling,” writes O’Leary.
It was easier to get in touch with Osama bin Laden. Still is, probably.
This screw-the-customers crap began in the 1970s, when America began falling apart. First they made us pump our own gas. Then they made us bag our own groceries. The Better Business Bureau stopped accepting complaints. Finally, corporations started charging us for services—the phone company’s automated 411 information, automatic teller machines, electronic airline tickets—that, even before fees, had saved them money, increased their profits, and put thousands of workers out of work.
Still, when tech companies worth $10 billion don’t have a working phone number, you know they’ve taken “drop dead” to a whole new level.
“A lot of these companies don’t have enough employees to talk to,” Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster in Silicon Valley, told The Times. “Facebook, for example, has just one employee for every 300,000 users. Its online systems process more than two million customer requests a day.”
Indeed, one of the more troubling aspects of the Internet revolution is that the new tech sector employs far fewer workers per dollar of capitalization than the older industries, such as manufacturing, that it is replacing. Big banks like Goldman Sachs may be profit-sucking vampire squids bleeding American dry, yet they’re not nearly as destructive as high-valuation, low-payroll leeches like Twitter and Facebook.
General Motors, a company with $39 billion in equity value, directly employs 207,000 people, plus many more indirectly through its suppliers. Facebook has nearly twice the market capitalization ($67 billion) but employs a miserly 1,400 workers. On Wall Street, Facebook is worth more than GM. On Main Street, GM is worth 250 Facebooks.
It should be obvious to everyone that companies have a moral obligation to be responsive to the public, and that their duty to provide high-quality customer service increases exponentially as they grow in size. It should be equally obvious that companies that extract billions of dollars in profits from the American public have a moral responsibility to hire members of the American public. We’re not talking “make work”—but the minimum number of employees needed to conduct business in a responsible, professional manner.
Clearly the big tech companies are refusing to meet these minimum standards.
We should demand, Congress should pass, and the President should sign a law that sets clear standards for customer service by large corporations. For every x number of customers and/or every y million dollars of capitalization, there should be one U.S.-based, native English-speaking, professional customer service rep waiting to take our calls and help us.
No phone tree.
It isn’t free speech, or habeas corpus, yet surely the Founding Fathers would agree: hard-working Americans have the right not to be driven crazy because boy billionaires are too cheap to hire some help.
(Ted Rall’s new book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt.” His website is tedrall.com.)
(C) 2012 TED RALL, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.