19 October 2012
Joe, a salesman at a respectable car dealership, is selling you a car. You drive away happy, kicking yourself gently for falling for the finance deal. But the car’s good and, for a few months, you are happy. Then, one day, Joe knocks at the door.
“Mind if I have the keys, guv?”
“Have to take back the sound system and the sun roof.”
“Because we can. It’s in the small print.”
It could never happen, could it? Yes, it happens every day – car dealers don’t do it but banks, insurance companies, telcos, ISPs, energy companies, probably most service providers, as well as a few others, do it all the time. It’s all in the small print, see?
Rewarding loyal customers? No money in it. The trick is to get them in and then rip them off.
Our bank just ripped off my wife by reducing the benefits on her credit card. I recently got a call from BT offering me a quite phenomenal deal which I was eager to accept. Then I heard the words ‘to welcome you back to BT’. It was a cockup, I’d never left. When this became clear, the offer was immediately withdrawn.
Rewarding loyal customers? No money in it. The trick is to get them in and then rip them off
Years ago I sat in a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos and watched in mounting distaste as a series of sharky young men explained they would do anything - anything - to pad the bottom line. A few, possessed of the last remaining shreds of a conscience, protested weakly and were rewarded with scorn.
It all began in 1970 when Milton Friedman wrote an essay in the New York Times explaining that companies should have no social obligations. It was a nuanced essay – Friedman was not the inhuman brain that some think he was – but the big takeway message as far as the sharky types were concerned was: “We can do what the f*** we like!”
The neo-liberalism that dominated the next few decades was, first, highly successful and then a complete disaster – not only a financial disaster but a moral one.
Some knew this would happen. The great and cultivated Ferdinand Mount warned Thatcher that her energy privatisation plans were flawed because ‘the regulators have no teeth and the operators no conscience’. But nobody paid much attantion, least of all Blair and Brown, their grovelling to the City made them the most neo-liberal PMs we could have had (and that includes Thatcher, a very cautious and genuinely conservative PM who, I believe, would have reversed this insanely radical programme as soon as she saw where it was going).
And so, though the crash has discredited neo-liberalism, it has not yet stripped the corporate con-artists out of the system. In fact, technology has made their lives much easier. We have, unprecedentedly, created and rewarded not an amoral but an immoral class who think nothing of ripping off their most loyal customers. I’d like to say it doesn’t have to be like this, but, it seems, it does.