Monday, March 18, 2013

Marketplace Misbehavior, Or, The Conditions Of The Possibility Of The Haggler

Great Fish Market, by Jan Brueghel the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There are a lot of things about modern life that I don't like, but I love The Haggler.

You know this column?  Officially, it's the consumer complaints and consumer advocate column of the New York Times.  But the author, David Segal, writes it with such style and aplomb that it goes way beyond complaints and advocacy.  It's got everything:  biting sarcasm about inept management styles, score-settling with companies who screw over their customers, and generally harassing the great harassers of life. 

The Haggler has no fear.  The Haggler names names.  The Haggler calls a liar a liar and a thief a thief -- right there on the New York Times website. 

For example, this true gem of the genre starts with The Haggler getting one of those robocalls meant to intimidate.  "This is your second and final notice" the automated voice says, and it offers credit help.

Being The Great Haggler, instead of hanging up and cursing like the rest of us, Segal presses "1" for more information.  He gets a guy on the line.  He's got some questions.  Simple stuff.  "Sure I'm interested," he says.  "Where are you located?" 

Click.  End of conversation. 

On observing that even this "softball question" gets him hung up on, he gets curious, and with a little research uncovers masses of complaints, fraud and misrepresentation, and shady companies doing business under the name of other shady companies.  Eventually he ends up with the names of two individual people, working out of their home. 

I don't want to ruin the ending for you, but my heart lifted up when, after they stop returning his calls, The Haggler leaves them a voicemail warning them:  this is your second and final notice.

The Haggler appears once every two weeks.  This seems to me about .0001 percent of the consumer advocacy we need, want, and would enjoy.  Speaking for myself, I'd read The Haggler every day.  I'd read a whole newspaper that was just The Haggler.

However.  Much as I love The Haggler, we all have to deplore the misbehavior that makes it possible.  The conditions of the possibility of The Haggler:  not good.

Those conditions, of course, include consumer maltreatment on the part of individual companies and institutions.  But those conditions also include the non-action of various oversight and regulatory agencies. 

In the case described above, a state consumer protection agency had actually done an investigation -- but when they found that the phone number was for a location that seemed to be a residence, they gave up.   Since "there was no evidence of telemarketing," their investigation had "reached a dead end."  They didn't seem to notice what, to The Haggler, was obvious through easily accessible public records -- that the  the people listed as running this ridiculous operation were the same people listed as living at that address.

I'm sure there are many forces coming together to cause the decline of the responsible agencies to actually find and fight fraud, deception, and other kinds of misbehavior.  Maybe one of them is the lurking idea that these problems are somehow self-correcting -- that if a business doesn't run itself properly, it won't get any business, so there's no need for oversight.

But as The Haggler's cases involving huge corporations like Samsung and Sears show, that's not the case.  As the crazy foreclosure stories of the last few years show, that's not the case.  There are all kinds of finagling, and there are all kinds of ways of hiding the fact that you're finagling.   Good publicity:  something you can pay for.

Just look at the Better Business Bureau, for example.  This independent non-profit organization is supposed to encourage self-regulation by formalizing ratings and creating a mechanism of dispute resolution.  But lately the BBB has been charged with simply rewarding payments with high ratings, and with rewarding companies who "address" disputes over refunds by taking "reasonable steps" -- steps like telling the customer, "No, I'm sorry we can give you a refund."

You can get all the details at -- you guessed it! The Haggler.

If the formal institutions that were supposed to deal with marketplace misbehavior had the resources and motivation to do what's necessary, that could free up David Segal to take on other interesting problems of modern life.  Like writing a guide to life.  Rule 1 can be taken from the instructions for writing to The Haggler:

Keep it brief and family-friendly, and go easy on the caps-lock key.

Good advice for everyone.

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