Emmer column: Beware institutional acid rain
Do you ever think that organizations are taking advantage of your good nature, your civility, your trust? Fraud, waste and abuse now come in itty bitty drops generally thought too small to be worth the fight.
Consider gift cards, those wonderful gifts we give to the retailers that sell them. A significant portion of the cards get tossed away, expire or are misplaced with unspent money. Estimates are that 8 percent to 10 percent of consumers’ gift card money is unintentionally abandoned this way.
Merchants keep the lost money. Some states claim those funds and “manage” them as they see fit. We buy the silly cards instead of giving cash because we do not fully understand the cards.
Each gift card is a tiny drop of someone exploiting someone else’s ignorance.
Look at your medical bills. It takes specialists to code them, and specialists to uncode them. A patient’s search for what should be clear on the invoice turns into a volley of voicemails with the billing office, spouses and partners, imaging shops, doctor’s staff, insurance companies, and labs.
Every obstacle adds to the odds the question never gets answered. Cynics say the intention of medical billing is to dominate and intimidate, not to tabulate and communicate.
It’s another drip, drip, drip of needless complexity jammed into the already strenuous lives of us everyday yucks.
There’s the bank that pushes its wondrous new ability to take deposits over the cell phone. When a customer tries, the bank’s app says: “For you, no can do.” Her deposit exceeds some unspecified limit. The app could say what that limit is, but does not.
That necessary nugget of information is not on the customer’s personalized page on the bank’s website. Emailing is hopeless. The bank treats customer emails as Dracula treats garlic.
The good people at the branch are caught in the middle. Unexplainably, their own HQ does not release that information to them.
Does she play telephone roulette with the bank? It might answer her call in 30 seconds or 30 minutes. After the initial interrogation, there’s a strong chance they will transfer her to someone else, who starts the whole process from zero.
The bank overpromises but under-delivers. It is another drop of institutional negligence falling on the public’s brow.
There’s the widespread life insurance sales practice of allowing people to review the actual policies only after they fork over a check. They know that once customers have paid, they are less likely to back out, no matter how many worm holes are hidden in the fine print.
Another drop of finagling, another drop of manipulation.
There’s the county clerk who whacks a citizen $45 to register a tiny utility trailer that retails new for $450. That’s on top of the $39 of sales tax. “Sorry”, the polite lady at the counter says, “there’s nothing I can do.” A wee drop of extortion has fallen on another citizen’s head.
There’s the elderly lady with the Alzheimer’s husband. She asks her man’s former boss what her pension will be when her husband passes away. They refuse to answer. “We’re a federal agency,” they say. ‘We will not talk to you until you give us written testimony from three sources describing your husband’s condition. We will not accept the power-of-attorney that everyone else accepts.”
The feds seem to think she looks pretty all tied up in red tape. She feels crushed and abused.
Another drop of institutional bullying has fallen on a citizen’s head.
There are CDOT’s “barbed-hook” tollway charges on Clear Creek County’s stretch of I-70. There are the “A” grades given in classrooms that would be “B”s in the outside world.
There’s the county tax collector that fights like a rabid raccoon for a bigger bite of property tax than it deserves, chewing up the victim’s time and money, then finally acknowledges its error in full.
The county refuses its responsibility for her time, expense and the fresh wrinkles on her face. Why? “Well,” the county stammers, “just because.” The county is big. The citizen is little. So there.
More drops of abuse dribble onto the lowly individual.
The tech wonder-companies are a sticky web of crooked search results, deceptive news feeds, box-canyon websites and spying. Other institutions exempt them from principles of good faith and fair play.
Each of these drops does only small damage. Collectively, they do big damage. Together, the drops form an acid rain, always falling, always corroding little bits of effort and money from the lives of every individual from birth to death.
It falls from a society of institutions by institutions for institutions. We can fix it. If you think something is unfair, it probably is. Talk about it. Think about it. Point it out. Record it.
Vince Emmer is a financial analyst in Gypsum. He runs Citizens Due Diligence after hours. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.