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Just who should be giving us moral instruction?

Essay by Martha Quillen

Politics – October 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

AS THE 2000 election draws near, it’s business as usual in the U.S. Throughout the summer, the Denver media reported escalating problems with delays and cancellations at DIA, and by August the airport had earned the dubious distinction of being the first in the nation for late arrivals.

Despite DIA’s embarrassment, however, late flights are nothing new, nor even very exceptional — anywhere. On August 29, The Wall Street Journal ran an article about how flight delays and cancellations can increase costs and reduce productivity in the world of business. The article highlighted the troubles experienced by employees at Manhattan Associates, Inc., a software firm in Atlanta, Georgia.

“More than half of its 650 employees fly regularly…” the Journal reported. “Mostly they fly Delta Airlines, the dominant carrier out of Atlanta. But they also take Continental, American, U.S. Air and other big carriers, none of which has been immune to delays.”

Ironically, that company moved to Atlanta from Manhattan Beach, California just to facilitate easier air travel. But the Journal’s story is replete with tales of late arrivals, missed connections, and the ordeal of delivering important presentations on no sleep after a night of scrambling just to get there.

But who hasn’t heard stories of passengers stuck on a plane waiting on the tarmac hour after hour? Or of weary travelers sleeping on those cold plasticized airport seats?

I’ve only flown once in the last twenty years, and I still managed to have a flight canceled at Kennedy which resulted in a 3-hour delay in New York City (in a little side-terminal that didn’t even have seats), followed by a 2-hour stopover in Philadelphia, with a subsequent 1-hour stay in St. Louis — all because the weather was lousy in Atlanta and the Carolinas (where apparently all of the planes and pilots scheduled to take people out of New York had landed).

But Ed and I were actually lucky. There were people waiting with us at Kennedy who’d been stranded there — and instructed not to leave the departure area — since the night before we arrived.

Such delays might actually provide some amusing diversions — if the airlines would just let you entertain yourself for several hours. But instead they make passengers sit on planes or stand-by on the concourse waiting for announcements that never seem to come.

Of course, as The Wall Street Journal points out that — unlike me, since I suspect it’s all right if I’m late every twenty years or so — some travelers really need to be somewhere on time, and they’re finding that increasingly difficult. Thus many firms are relying more on conference calls, but…

TELEPHONE COMPANIES can be even more exasperating than airlines. On August 21, The Washington Post Weekly Edition ran an article entitled, “The Confusing Price of a Phone Call, Lawsuits by angry customers accuse firms of deception.”

Asserting that customer confusion is a “real problem,” the Post quotes Federal Communications Commission Chairman William E. Kennard. “Some carriers are just not disclosing correctly the information consumers need. Other carriers, I’m convinced, are trying to take advantage of consumer confusion in this area.”

Whatever happened to those old maxims? The customer is always right, or Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.

Well, one thing is certain. The telecommunications industry is not going to wait for you to come to them.

Once upon a time, if someone kept calling you and hanging up, you’d call your local telephone company to report prank calls. Now, however, the most likely culprit is a telephone company.

In recent months, it seems as though the telemarketers can’t even be bothered with calling you directly. Instead, they’ve got to speed dial a multitude of customers, take the first call that answers, and hang up on the rest.

Talk about annoying, what’s more annoying than answering the phone to find out you’ve already been put on hold?

Well… Come to think of it, maybe credit card companies that bury their unpleasant customer information in fine print, and bombard their customers with so-called bargain buys that aren’t really bargains, and charge usurious late charges and then change their billing dates monthly in order to increase revenues.

… Or maybe those enterprises that send you so much junk mail you could save several forests if you could only get them to stop mailing you stuff. Chief amongst them are those scoundrels that prey on the elderly and the poor by offering exorbitantly profitable sweepstakes which inevitably assure readers that they don’t need to make a purchase to win — except, of course, most people somehow believe a purchase might help, whereupon they actually send in their order, but instead of winning a sweepstakes, they just get more and more junk mail.

APPARENTLY IT’S MORE LUCRATIVE to sell customer information today than it is to provide service. And when you think about it, that makes a certain kind of sense, but you would think that eventually it would work out like a pyramid scheme. A merchant finds out that you’re likely to buy books by mail (or tapes, or whatever), and so they sell that information to another merchant, etc., etc., and eventually — once ten or fifteen merchants are sending you sales promotions every week — you’re either going to run out of money or quit opening your mail.

Oh, but of course… Then they start selling your name to those usurious loan companies and spurious credit counselors who won’t care if you get mail — because they’d rather call you during the dinner hour anyway.

No matter how annoying, rude, duplicitous, deceitful and avaricious these companies may be, however, there are worse things.

There are corporations that year after year cover-up — rather than correct — health hazards that may prove fatal to their employees and/or customers.

There are health care providers and insurance companies that routinely withhold legitimate payments.

There are manufacturers hiring young foreign girls and transporting them to remote islands, where their passports are confiscated so that they can be held in involuntary servitude in miserable conditions and paid less than 50 cents a day. (American Saipan has frequently been cited as being a leader in this labor practice, and thus the fruits of this modern slave trade often bear the proud label, Made in the U.S.A.)

And worst of all there are politicians who gripe about our family values, and never seem to notice that America’s public values are rotten to the core.

And — although I really hate it when politicians start blathering about values — I guess I’ll have to concede that maybe, just maybe, all of this cheating, scamming, lying, and slamming may indicate that our values are miserably skewed.

Although most people still won’t cheat their mothers, they will do what they have to do to keep their jobs — and increasingly what they have to do is badger people on the phone from morning to late evening, never taking “no” for an answer.

DOCTORS HAVE TO IGNORE their instincts and send sick patients home because they don’t meet HMO standards for hospitalization. Teachers have to turn poor readers away from reading programs because they don’t “qualify.” Clerks have to send out a bevy of letters saying, “We’re sorry, but we can find no record of your military service,” thereby denying many of America’s veterans their hard-earned benefits and medals.

It seems these days that the new American business motto is, “Business is our business, our only business, and we can’t be bothered with customers who expect us to deliver anything else.”

But in this case, I don’t think we can blame Hollywood, rap music, or video games for our deteriorating values — even though they do, in most election years, provide such convenient targets.

On the contrary, when it comes to public morality, Washington itself serves as promoter, overseer and primary inspiration for fraud, deceit, greed, duplicity, and promising more than can ever be delivered.

This year, once again, all of the candidates are promising campaign finance reform. But what’s the point? They’ve promised this before; they’ve even given us this before. But every time they pass a law, they find a new and more reprehensible way to collect money.

This year, both candidates are also promising tax cuts. That’s interesting, isn’t it? In ’92 the Republicans were wailing about how our four-trillion-dollar national debt was bankrupting the future of our children. And both parties promised to do something about this appalling burden.

Well, this time around we have a five-and-a-half trillion dollar debt in spite of recent budget surpluses, and presumably our debt will keep on rising — since we now owe more than 350 billion dollars a year on interest. (Last year’s budget surplus was $124 billion.)

AND MAYBE BOTH candidates _are right this time around — maybe the national debt doesn’t really matter all that much. The debt does, after all, provide a way for the citizenry to invest in government, and for the government — through interest — to invest in the economy. When Andrew Jackson almost got the debt paid off in 1835 and ’36, the money men really protested, because our government has historically been a very safe investment.

On the other hand, the debt’s probably not a good thing for the little guy who can’t afford to buy treasury bonds and earn interest.

But whether the debt is a serious detriment or not, it’s clear that our politicians are not being honest with us — and perhaps they’re not even being honest with themselves. They get so busy fighting back and forth, grandstanding, and engaging in power plays, that it’s hard to tell what they really stand for.

In the last decade, Washington seems to have burst into a partisan free-for-all. When faced with legislation proposed by the other party, congressmen filibuster, block bills they philosophically support, toss in unpalatable riders, sneak in favors for their own contributors. Whenever a policy isn’t working they start finger-pointing and name-calling.

Through all of this, Washington still manages to pass a stream of legislation, however. And when it doesn’t work quite right — which generally seems to be the case — our representatives sometimes seem downright gleeful. Nothing provides better campaign-bashing material than failing schools and troubled finances.

And now we’ve got two candidates who want to fix our schools. Currently — although the feds supervise interstate commerce and interstate transportation — the states are in charge of schools. But apparently Gore and Bush figure that Washington’s doing such a good job with phones and planes that they’ve got a little time on their hands.

Right now, the feds contribute a minimal amount of funding to public schools, but they make up for it in headaches — demanding separate budgets, accountability and policy changes that make for a lot of paperwork and programs that simply aren’t helping.

Even worse, divisive politicking has made our schools into a battleground for controversial issues. Should they offer prayers or condoms? Traditional history or multi-cultural history? Should we teach evolution, or creationism or both? Should schools have a liberal curriculum or a conservative one? Or should we just shut them down and give out vouchers?

Certainly, our schools could use some help. But they don’t need more bureaucracy. And they definitely don’t need new rivers of piecemeal legislation pushing and pulling them between two opposing political agendas — because that’s probably what got them into trouble in the first place.

In a Denver Post article reporter Michael Boothe cites government policy as a contributor to air-traffic problems. “Under government rules, for example,” he writes, “a flight leaves on time if it pushes back from the gate on schedule, even if it sits on the tarmac holding passengers hostage for the next four hours without taking off.”

How nice. Next time you’re sitting on a runway, maybe you can cheer yourself up by understanding that your flight’s left on time.

— And now we’ve got two candidates fighting about debating each other. If the two opposing parties can’t even decide on when to get together to argue, how are they going to improve our schools? Or decide on a fire prevention program before all of our national forests burn down? Or keep the planes landing?

Historically, such partisan politics are certainly not unprecedented. But when the country started it took months to get from Philadelphia to the frontier and back — and the frontier was in eastern Tennessee. There were no public schools. There weren’t any income taxes. There was no Federal Deposit Insurance, no EPA, no FAA.

Modern life is complicated. We’ve got airports to run, schools to manage, and communications systems to regulate, (although apparently doing such things well isn’t something we’ve mastered quite yet).

Nope, it’s been business as usual this year, and in a lot of ways, despite the economy and despite the market, that’s not too good.

But if Americans are really going to hell in a handbasket, as so many of our political leaders imply, then it’s only because the Democrats and the Republicans keep carrying that basket and heading off in that direction — together.

–Martha Quillen

Next month we’ll try to make some insightful comments and recommendations for this year’s election — if we haven’t already given up and moved to Mexico (where reportedly a bribe can still get you better service).