Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Sticker Price Society

When I was in 8th grade, my friends and I started up a regular poker game that took place every Friday night. There was a revolving group of us who would meet at someone’s house, play into the early morning and then fall asleep for a few hours until it was time to go home.

Lord knows our parents couldn’t have been happy with our new hobby, but I guess they settled for the lesser of two evils: if we were going to develop a debilitating addiction, at least we were doing it in a safe environment.

The whole thing was all in good fun, though, and the stakes weren’t over-the-top, with the highest-valued chip being worth a quarter. But when you’re 14, and your bankroll consists of a $5 bill, it stung whenever you lost a pot.

And I got stung a lot.

Despite my best efforts, nobody was going to confuse me with Doyle Brunson or Mike McDermott. I lost so consistently that I became little more than a halfway house for my allowance on its trip from my dad’s wallet to my competitors’ pockets.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know the rules or understand the hierarchy of hands. My problem was that in a game that required trickery, I was too truthful. I couldn’t pretend to have something that I didn’t, and bluffing to any degree was out of the question. If I bet, I had good cards. If I folded, I had “rags.” And everyone knew it.

With honesty as my default setting, I inevitably had no money to count when the dealin’ was done.

Eventually, I stopped playing altogether, figuring there were more economical ways to spend my weekends. I recognized that I would never thrive in a situation that demanded me to be disingenuous…it just wasn’t in my nature.

Slowly, my gambling days faded into the rearview mirror, and I assumed that I was done with any setting that revolved around dishonesty and deceit.

But as I’ve gotten older, and I have seen more of what the world has to offer, the more I realize that the deceptive dynamic I struggled with at my friend’s kitchen table isn’t all that different from what I encounter in everyday society.

Everywhere I turn, I see it: people taking advantage of others, searching for an edge, trying to get away with something, regardless of the moral implications. Politicians lie so they can get elected to office. Corporations cook their books so their stock will go up. Athletes take performance-enhancing drugs so they can hit a ball farther. Larry David swaps out a 5-wood from his friend’s casket so he can play better golf.

This win-at-all-cost attitude has created a gap between what something appears to be on the surface and what it actually is at its core. Look no further than the sticker price of a car. We all know that only a sucker would pay the listed rate. But if you took a third-grader – an innocent, trusting soul who has yet to be jaded by cynicism and doubt – into a showroom, stood him in front of a car and asked him how much it cost, he’d probably point to the big, bold number that is printed on the window label.

And why wouldn’t he? That’s what the price tag says.

But out of insatiable greed, dealers choose to ask for more than what they deem the car to be worth, using their position of power to extort their customers for every last nickel they can get out of them. Why?

Because they can.

If they wanted to, dealerships could offer their vehicles at the bottom-line, can’t-sell-this-for-less price – a figure that is fair, accurate and would assure the necessary profit. But doing so would force them to sacrifice the opportunity at the few extra bucks they can get from shaking down the unsuspecting mark.

(Besides, every salesman knows this drop-dead figure anyway, so no matter how shrewd a negotiator you think you are, and no matter how much of the rust-proofing fee you convince them to knock off, you are still playing on their terms. You’re not getting a bargain…you’re getting the we’ll-use-Vaseline deal.)

Having to bend over like this all the time has permeated a lack of trust throughout our culture. We have to constantly be aware that someone could be trying to put one over on us, and we worry about being made a fool.

As a result, a person’s word is now worth as much as Kramerica Industries.

About a month ago, I had to cancel my cable service, so I called the 1-800 number and put in my request. The representative walked me through the process, explaining that I would be getting a pre-paid packaging box I was to use to send back my receiver. I asked him if I got a confirmation number, but he said I didn’t need one, assuring me that everything was taken care of.

But a few weeks passed, and the mailing supplies had yet to arrive. I figured it was just the cable company’s trademark inefficiency, but I wanted to make sure.

And it was good that I followed up, because when I finally got through to customer service, I was informed that they had no record of my previous call, meaning I was on the hook for the extra month of service.

My first inclination was to yell and ask to talk to a supervisor, but I determined that my best course of action would be to prove that I had, in fact, already submitted my cancellation. So I told the agent the exact date I had originally called, and I recounted the instructions I’d been given. I reminded him that at the beginning of our conversation – before I learned my service was still active – that I’d said I was checking to see if the packing materials had been sent. Why would I say that if that wasn’t the case?

When that got me nowhere, I pled with the guy, promising him that I was being honest, that I wasn’t just making this up to get out of paying my bill.

I asked him to have a little faith in me.

Not surprisingly, he wouldn’t. And as mad as I was, I couldn’t really blame him. After all, he probably fields countless calls from countless customers with countless excuses.

To him, I probably sounded like another boy crying wolf.

But I guess that’s just the way it is right now. We are all leery of one another, and we cast a suspicious eye towards everyone and everything we deal with. And until we stop collectively proving the notion that trust is something that needs to be earned – not given – that’s the way it will be.

Hopefully, though, we’ll one day be a sticker price society, where things will be what they seem, where there will be no need for the cliché “too good to be true.” People will mean what they say, and they will do the right thing.

That’s a world I could get with. Not only would it be a more pleasant place to live, but it'd probably help me hold onto my allowance for a little longer than usual.

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?