Column Date 2006-06-18

“Slimy capitalism” is here

I love capitalism.

Seems to me it’s the best system yet invented by man
to reward hard work, honest labor, brightness, street smarts, inventiveness, and any other kind of intelligence you care to name.

But a disturbing trend has appeared, moving us toward something I call “slimy capitalism.”

Which means that instead of hard work, some companies think that being slimy is the first step on the road to riches (or at least to better quarterly earnings).

For example, I sold a house a not long ago. My realtor handed me a contract that looked so dense and complicated I thought I’d actually better read it.

So I did. And discovered, in the small print, a little charge for $150 for “administrative costs.”

“What’s that for?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s something corporate headquarters makes us put in. It covers secretaries, typing, you know, that sort of thing.”

I said I thought “that sort of thing” was a normal cost of doing business -- like electricity or rent.

She shrugged. I crossed the charge out.

My cell phone company is fond of tiny type, too. In this case, careful inspection of my bill revealed a 40¢ per month charge for – surprise! – “administrative costs”.

The small print in my annual contract informed me this meant “certain costs and charges associated with proceedings related to new cell site construction.” So now, it appears, I’m not only paying for cell phone service, I’m also paying part of their cost to put up cell towers!

Then there’s Hollywood – where “slimy” probably originated.

One screenwriter I know in Los Angeles waited 5 months to get paid by a mega-corporation, who told him all of the following: their computers had gone down, the check was in the mail (twice), and, best of all, that he couldn’t get paid for a while since their business office was moving to a new address! All this over a bill for $2,500. From a company on the NYSE!

He was finally paid after he got two lawyers involved. But they had the use of his money, plus money held back from innumerable other writers, for many months. Slimy.

Which brings us to Broadway. Why in the world should the audience pay to help refurbish a Broadway theater? But there it was – printed right on my ticket. No explanation or apology, just an extra $1.25 “refurbishing” fee.

And don’t get me wrong: “slimy” capitalism isn’t just an American phenomenon: while traveling in New Zealand, we found our hotel had charged us for breakfast.

“We didn’t have breakfast here,” I pointed out, “we went to the restaurant down the road.”

They smiled and removed the charge immediately, explaining that in the morning rush, many people in tour groups left before breakfast charges could be added to their bills. Their solution: charge all guests for breakfast automatically, figuring that those who hadn’t had breakfast would complain, and then they’d remove the charge.

Now if you want to join the fight against “slimy capitalism” you can start by reading every word of every ad, offer and bill that you get.

And always remember one thing: “What the big print giveth, the little print taketh away.”

©2006 Peter Tannen