Libertarians have been saying for a long, long time that if we just get rid of government, everything will run a whole lot better. But if you get rid of government, corporations step in to fill the gap left by government. And the truth is, corporate bureaucracy, the kind of bureaucracy people have to deal with every day when they try to do something as simple as pay their credit card bill is just as bad - or even worse - than any government bureaucracy.
If you don’t believe me, do yourself a favor and listen to Ryan Block’s now-viral experience with Comcast customer service. All Block wanted to do was cancel his cable account and get on with his life, but the Comcast retention agent he was speaking to just wouldn’t take “no” for answer.” The conversation kept going on just like that for another eight minutes!
The amazing thing about this is that it’s not amazing at all. I’m guessing pretty much everybody in America has had an experience like this with their cable company, bank, phone company, or some other giant, monopolistic entity. I know I have.
Back when Louise and I still lived in Vermont, I tried to cancel our cell phone plan and ran into pretty much the same problem Ryan Block did when he tried to cancel his Comcast subscription. Our cell phone company had terrible service and was constantly over-billing us, so I called their customer service number to cancel my plan. I was put on hold, over and over again, for sometimes more than an hour before they just dumped the phone connection.
Over the course of a week, after repeated calls and hours and hours listening to muzak, I finally got a person who said he would cancel our plan. But then they didn’t cancel it. After another few hours of calls, I got another person who said they'd cancel our cellphone plan - and again they didn't do it.
So the next month when we got our cell phone bill, Louise and I decided that we’d had enough. We went out into our backyard, dug a hole, and gave our cell phone a ritual burial (Yes, I know this is disposing of toxic waste, but I wasn’t thinking that way at the time; my apologies).
Burying the phones, though, didn’t stop the bills, which just kept coming. So we decided to ignore them, and continued to ignore them even after the collection agency started pestering us. Eventually they went away, but not before taking a bite out of my credit score. So anyhow, that’s my story.
But here’s the point: If I had had a problem with a government bureaucracy, like the Veterans Administration or the Social Security Administration, I could have called my senator or my congressman and they would have given hell to those agencies on behalf of me. I could lobby Congress to change the way they do things, the way vets are today successfully lobbying for changes in the VA.
But if I had stood outside of my cell phone company’s headquarters and protested, they could have had me arrested for trespassing. That’s the difference between government bureaucracies and corporate bureaucracies.
Government bureaucracies are ultimately answerable to “We the People” and our elected representatives. It's called "the American system of government." Corporate bureaucracies, on the other hand, are ultimately only answerable to their shareholders, who don't give a rat's patootie if the company they own screws their customers because that means more money in their pockets.
This is especially true of the corporate bureaucracies at cable companies. Because they’re monopolies and can do whatever they want, cable companies really, really don’t care about what you or anyone else thinks about their product. After all, they’re virtual monopolies, which means that if you don’t like what they’re selling, tough luck. You’re stuck with them.
As Funny or Die.com so eloquently pointed out in a recent parody video, cable companies just don’t give a you know what. That’s about as accurate a depiction of a monopolistic company's behavior as I can think of.
Which is why we need to address this new dimension of American life, brought to you by Ronald Reagan's decision to stop enforcing the anti-trust laws, in three specific ways:
First, we need to use the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and its heirs to break up the big cable monopolies like Comcast and Verizon. Ever since Reagan greenlit corporate mergers in the 1980s, big telecom has gotten bigger and bigger. The laws needed to make our cable industry competitive again are already on the books; it’s only a question of whether we have the political will to use them.
Second, we need to start doing what the Europeans and Canadians have been doing for years: requiring phone, cable, and fiber carriers to allow any ISP to rent space on their pipelines to consumers, be they phone lines, cable lines, fiber, or wireless. Right now, if Comcast owns the pipes that bring internet to your house, you can only buy your internet from Comcast. That’s not the case in Europe and Canada, where companies have to let other companies rent space on their pipes. This is why the internet and cable industry in Canada and Europe is a lot more competitive than it is than here in the U.S.
And third, we need to pressure the FCC to use its powers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act to define the web and its carriers as common carriers. This will make the internet a public utility like water or electricity and will make the cable industry answerable first and foremost to “We the people” not “they the shareholders and CEOs.”
The cable industry and its bought-and-paid-for supporters, of course, would say that doing all these things amounts to a "big-government takeover of the internet," but they’re lying. And honestly, why should anyone take seriously the people who hire others to treat us all like poor Ryan was treated?