Editor’s note: This column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month.
This installment of the column is published in two parts. Mostly that’s because Nelson wrote too many words this month. Part 1 of the column documented Nelson’s experience with AT&T customer service, as he attempted to get an unjustified service call charge removed. Nelson was ultimately successful in getting the charge removed.
Left unpaid, Nelson would have faced the standard legal methods available to businesses to recover payment from non-paying customers, including being turned over to a collection agency.
I hate to be accused of mincing words, so I’m gonna put aside my usual genteel beat-around-the-bushiness and just say it: What AT&T is doing is straight up extortion.
A person  with whom I have a very shallow business relationship sends me a letter demanding money, either in the form of cash, or in a greater sum of my time. If I don’t pay up, he is going to pass my name to his “collection agency,” who will then hound me until I give them the money they want, and do me lingering economic harm even after they get the cash.
In a universe where everyone is an employee – which is what America largely became by the end of the 20th Century – we were basically willing to accept this deal because there was a way for us to offset the cost: I could either pay AT&T $60 from my pocket, or waste an hour or two of my employer’s time sitting on hold. AT&T, in effect, developed a business model whereby they could risk an hour of some other big corporation’s time against the possibility of getting $60 for doing no additional work.
Because we, as human consumers, could likewise offload that risk, we accepted the deal as a “cost of doing business in modern America” – and generally ignored the fact that this represented a real loss in overall productivity for our economy, and thus a hit to our communities. Ask a farmer to waste an hour of daylight sitting on hold, or for a welder to step away from the line for 45 minutes and instead listen to “Little Spanish Flea” over a crappy phone connection, and it’s obvious that AT&T is reducing the number of cars or beets we see come to market. But when all the “good” jobs are service and management positions in cubicles, it becomes harder to see how AT&T’s business practices are actually damaging the GDP.
A lot of our modern life presupposes stealing time: when I spend an hour on the phone to straighten out a bill, the tacit assumption is that I’m also in a cubicle somewhere. One corporation cuts costs by offloading the time suck to another corporation. But those days are over: Fewer of us are employees, and so AT&T is no longer asking Amalgamated Corporate Holdings to subsidize their crappy billing systems and obtuse Customer Service Call-Center protocols.
Readers who’ve been following this column know that I myself work freelance, and have to hustle to make up for any further reduction to the teaching salary of my Lovely Pregnant Wife or other losses; lost productivity doesn’t get absorbed by thousands of shareholders or reflected in a four-cent increase in the cost of a sack of Pioneer Sugar; lost productivity gets absorbed by me, my five-year-old, my exhausted wife, and the potential human growing strong by sapping her precious vital nutrients.
Seriously: Over the course of my very banal billing Odyssey, I spent at least a quarter hour simply repeating my name, address, phone number, and “account number” (which is basically just your phone number again). No one was paying me for that time – ergo, I paid me $13 to say my name, address, and phone number aloud; I could buy a damn pizza for that.
Last week, following Part 1 of this column, a local government worker contacted me and mentioned that his agency spent three years sorting out just such an AT&T-created problem. How much did we, as taxpayers, invest in that? When fellas like Rick Santorum and Mitt(ens) Romney stump about “cutting government waste” by shifting services to the private sector, do they take into account how much of the “waste” comes from private corporation’s self-serving share padding?
Free Market Failure
While I haven’t been overwhelmed with Free Market Evangelists on Ann Arbor Chronicle comment threads, we can all certainly frame the Free Market Cowboy response to my extended whinge: Like it or lump it, bub! If you don’t like the pizza at this place, go down the street and buy a slice from someone else!
I want to take a few moments to enumerate why this (1) isn’t just a matter of not liking the pizza at Little Caesars and thus ordering Domino’s instead, and (2) is a perfect example of the sorts of marginal, small-potato situations government is designed to fix.
Although Comcast keeps reminding me that they offer a phone-and-broadband package, these aren’t interchangeable goods in the way slices of pizza are. As may already be abundantly clear, I hardly use my landline at all. I honestly can’t recall the last time I placed on outgoing call using the damn thing; why bother? I have a phone in my pocket all the time – and come nowhere near using up my allotted minutes each month. Why get off the sofa to order Chinese food? At that point, I might as well just plug in the rice cooker and heat up the wok myself.
The only real value of my landline is that it’s the same number I’ve had for over a decade, and the only one that’s successfully percolated out to the un-Facebookable outer-reaches of my extended family. Also, for whatever reason, it is the only number that the Ann Arbor Public Schools will consistently use to contact me .
So, first, losing my number is a hassle, and hassles are, by their nature, costly. Additionally, there are likely a few hundred dollars in installation, set-up, and equipment fees that come along with the switch to Comcast (since we don’t have functional cable now). And don’t forget that all of this means spending more time wrangling with AT&T to cancel my old service and Comcast to get some human to my house and set up the new service; time spent monkeying with AT&T cannot be spent contributing to the economy, or my community, or my family.
And, finally, none of this is a matter of my preference: I’m not dissatisfied (per se) with AT&T’s service in and of itself; I’m dissatisfied with being bilked. There is a real and legitimate question as to whether a crime is being committed here, or if these billings just constitute a series of whacky misunderstandings. This is the job of government: To keep the peace by sorting out honest mistakes from nefarious hijinks.
There’s sort of an obvious moral hazard here: AT&T has little motivation to fix a billing system that erratically favors them. Just limiting the conversation to AT&T high-speed customers (which is what I think of myself as; I pick up the phone itself less than a half-dozen times per month) they stand to benefit tidily: AT&T has 17.8 million broadband accounts. If they “accidentally” nick just 1% of their customers for $60, and if 99% of those folks complain, but 1% say “Christ; this isn’t worth my time!” and just pay the stupid bill, AT&T sees over $100,000 for, literally, doing nothing.
Of course, if that same .01% of AT&T broadband customers instead yell “Christ! I’m not paying this bullshit charge and I’m not wasting my time defending myself from such fuckery!”, then that’s another 1,700 Americans who will see their credit score dinged, which will likely bung up a future loan, mortgage, credit card, FAFSA application, or even a job opportunity. Screw a thousand folks, make a hundred grand – and that’s just a .01% nibble of the broadband slice of AT&T’s pie! We aren’t even mice scurrying around the feet of an elephant; we are bacteria under the toenails of a callous God. No wonder they could give a crap less if your broadband actually works. Who wonders about living conditions under their toenails?
But there’s also a more insidious moral hazard, and it’s one that I have to negotiate: In the end I spent at least $100 in time to straighten out a $60 billing error. In a strictly economic sense, it would have made more sense for me to pay the stupid bill and go back to earning money. I wasted Time – and thus Money – in chasing this down, and there was really never any benefit to me or anyone else: I resolved one isolated billing problem.
As near as I can tell, that does nothing to prevent me or anyone else from having to go through the exact some stupid hokey pokey next month, or the month after, or the month after that. In other words, AT&T has created a situation where the rational actor has an economic incentive to pay thieves to only rob him/her a little. I can think of other very similar business models, where the pain of acquiescence is outweighed by the pain of standing up for oneself.
But I’d hate to draw an unfair parallel and insult the integrity of hard-working mafiosi by associating them, by way of analogy, with AT&T.
 ‘cause recall: corporations are people, my friend.
 My cell phone has a Metro Detroit area code, and I suppose is a long distance call from here, which strikes me as almost unthinkably arbitrary today – seeing as how AT&T rules both regions, and it’s hard to believe that it costs more to bounce a photon to Detroit than it does to Ypsi, relativistically speaking. That Detroit is currently “long distance” is even more bizarre in light of the fact that, until the mid-1990s, Detroit and Ann Arbor were in the same damn area code. All hail the 313!
About the author: David Erik Nelson has written columns previously for The Chronicle on topics like medical marijuana and glass-eating clowns. Nelson is the author of various books, including most recently, “Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred“. His Nebula-nominated novella “Tucker Teaches the Clockies to Copulate” is now available for Kindle.
The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of local columnists like David Erik Nelson. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!