Just Have Everyone Else Do the Work [Part II]

Several months ago, I posted a blog deploring the tendency of all too many businesses to outsource their work to their customers, such as by promoting “paperless” records kept by the consumer, rather than continuing the practice of sending out paper statements. Several readers pointed out that since such “innovations” reduced costs or kept them from increasing, the customers should benefit by not having to pay higher prices required by the old practices. I mentally considered that the point might have validity in some cases, but, overall I have remained somewhat skeptical.

Some recent developments have tended to reinforce that skepticism. The first is the pending decision by the U.S. Postal Service not only to raise first class postal rates in the next month, but also to eliminate Saturday mail deliveries to cut costs, partly on the grounds that revenues have dropped because much former priority/first class mail has decreased because more people are using the internet to pay bills. That may be, but I think that argument is largely a red herring. First, most all the services most Americans and I use still send out paper bills, even if we pay by internet. Second, the volume of advertising and junk mail continues to flood the mailboxes. The Postal Service has claimed for nearly 30 years that they “save” money by letting advertisers do the bulk mail work and that raising bulk mailing rates would drive down revenues. Oh? I do know printing costs, and when multiple catalogues continue to deluge our mailbox, it seems highly likely that any company for whom printing and mailing thousands and thousands of unnecessary catalogues and solicitations is cheaper than cleaning up the mailing lists is getting far too low a rate, especially when the delivery of the first class mail that is far more important to most Americans than bulk junk mail is going to be delayed even more. This is likely to become critical to more Americans in these financial trying times when an ever greater number of companies have also shortened their billing cycles, giving customers far less leeway in paying their bills before slapping them with various fees. The public is already subsidizing advertising and waste through the present pricing system, and now we’re being told that we need to accept poorer service in order to preserve the junk mail bonanza for advertisers.

In another case, users of one of the more popular tax calculation programs became aware of a flaw in the program almost four months ago. The flaw would not allow taxpayers with certain investments, even of a few hundred dollars, to file their taxes electronically, because the software insisted that there were errors in the federal return. More and more users complained. Nothing happened. After several months, one user figured out a fix, and several others improved on it. Less than a month before April 15th, someone at the tax software company cleaned up the user-derived fix and posted it. It’s not really a fix, but a work-around. Exactly why in four months can’t a software company fix its own programs? Why do the users have to find the fix? My own suspicion is that the glitch only affected a few hundred or a few thousand users out of millions, most of whom just gave up in frustration and filed by mail, knowing that the glitch didn’t create an error in their tax returns. That way the company didn’t have to spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars creating a real fix.

Another set of examples lies with the airline industry. First, most airlines gave up meal service included in the price of tickets. Then many gave up “free” snacks. Some even restricted or eliminated inclusive soft drink services. Checked bags used to be included in ticket prices. Now anyone who needs more than an overnight bag pays a surcharge. That doesn’t just include business travelers whose companies can pick up the tab, but mothers of infants and small children visiting parents, for whom schlepping bags is usually neither possible nor practical. It also makes security screening, as well as loading and unloading an airliner, an increasingly tedious experience, which may be yet another reason why scheduled flight times are growing longer and longer, even though airplanes are not flying any slower [except, of course, in comparison to the discontinued Concord]. The latest “cost-saving” inconveniences are the replacement of boarding cards with flimsy paper boarding slips and the elimination of the airline ticket envelope. If one does check baggage, then the baggage claim notice is unceremoniously stuck to the back of a boarding flimsy, where the chances of its survival through multiple flights are greatly reduced.

I’ve only cited a few such cost-saving inconveniences, but I dare say that there are many, many more out there. Now, I’m the first to admit that anecdotal evidence doesn’t necessarily have any statistical value for the population as a whole, but there are times when it does. I’m beginning to think that we just may have reached that time. The other aspect of this that bothers me, especially as a F&SF writer, is that, while I have tried to retain the optimism that technological and computer advances would reduce the pressures and costs on people, I have the feeling that more and more often technology is being used to optimize ways of separating people from their money, rather than providing new and improved services.

Isn’t there a point where so-called cost-saving is going to be recognized as just another gimmick to preserve profits and, heaven forbid, corporate bonuses — which will doubtless go to the executives who dreamed up the ever-increasing levels of inconvenience foisted upon Americans in all sectors of the economy?