All the Rage

The new aggression and its Hidden Meaning

This is not to mention the bane of every consumer's existence: voice mail. Here is an innovation that allows business to save on labor at the expense of customers, who must punch a peck of buttons in order to reach a harried human voice. Nothing raises the blood pressure like being trapped in voice-mail jail—holding for 10 minutes to a soundtrack that makes elevator music seem profound, or an endlessly looping commercial for additional products from the same company—before being abruptly disconnected. Even a lab rat gets cheese for going through that.

Why should corporations be allowed to keep their customers waiting for an indefinite time, when the problem can be solved by hiring more operators? Why shouldn't overbooking flights—or overloading a communications network—be illegal? And for that matter, why shouldn't planes and buses be required to have adult-size seats? The answer, of course, is that these industries pay politicians to keep their hands off. But bribery is only part of their clout. Not since the 1920s has business been such a dominant force in American life. Its interest is the public interest, and consumer abuse is the inevitable consequence.

Even a cottage industry like the rock- festival biz is regulated mainly by zoning ordinances that protect private property, not paying customers. Permits don't stipulate that cheap meals, free water, and clean toilets must be provided as part of the admission. As a result, shit happens, and when it does, gatherings of young people are declared a clear and present danger. Just last week, the city refused to allow a widely advertised rave to take place. The official reason was concern about the condition of piers where the event was to be held, but David Rashty, the president of Cosmic Era Productions, insists the city had a different agenda: "They essentially told us that we could not have this type of music in New York City."

When people freak out from consumer abuse, the system rushes to declare them deranged. And it's true: men like Mark Barton are dangerously disturbed. But there are social dimensions to every psychosis—that's why patterns of insane violence vary from culture to culture. It's quite possible that the current era of wildcat capitalism is creating a new breed of crazies: canaries of commerce who can't cope with the free market and its insensate cruelties.

Air rage, rock rage, day-trading rage: all these "syndromes" have something to do with the sense that, in any interaction with a corporation, the balance of power has shifted away from the consumer. You can't bully your way onto a canceled flight; you can't even sue your HMO. And if you misbehave, the target of your anger might pass that information along to other companies, making bad attitude a permanent part of your "data trail."

The cure for what ails us is empowering the regulators, who are nothing more than referees preventing the public from being decked by a sucker punch. When the refs are sidelined and the rules suspended, everyone loses except the dirty fighters. Yet the likelihood of reform is scant in an environment where unfettered enterprise is seen as the key to prosperity. Consumers will have to take this bull market by the horns.

So the next time your flight is interminably delayed, though the runways look empty and the weather is clear, wait it out and then stop payment on your credit card. Picket your HMO if it won't pay for treatment you need. Have a cow when you get charged an exorbitant late fee on your credit card. And if you find yourself at a festival where water is more expensive than dope, kick out the jams.

If there were more consumer riots, there might be fewer mass murders.

Research: Steph Watts

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