I recently read a piece by Paul Krugman, long one of my favorite New York Times columnists, that really struck a special note for me. It was about the choices we have to make, many or most unnecessary and many very difficult.
Frankly I am really tired of being asked to compare and choose. Maybe it’s old age but I long for the simpler world that I once enjoyed when I lived in Kuwait and Turkey. First, I did not have to choose an internet provider. There was only one in these countries – very efficiently run, reasonably priced, extremely dependable and a very strong signal – and it was provided by the government. There was only one mobile phone provider as well – the government. And in both countries it was very good service – affordable and very dependable. I enjoyed great service and was very happy that I did not have to choose. And everybody around me – colleagues, friends and casual acquaintances were happy with the service as well and never mentioned that they wished for another provider so that they could compare and choose for themselves.fBut here in the good old USA we have to choose an internet and a telephone provider. And how to choose? What’s more important – the monthly charge or the minutes of usage? What about the number of lines? And how dependable is the service at this company or that? And how do I locate reliable criteria that allow me to compare? And what about purchasing a mobile phone? Do I do it through the mobile provider, purchase directly from the manufacturer or another source? That’s different from company to company as well and it’s damned difficult to weigh all of these variables against others and make the best choice.
While I knew little to nothing about auto insurance in Turkey – I drove a school provided car that was maintained and insured by the school, I did experience purchasing a car and required auto insurance while I lived in Kuwait. OK, what’s auto insurance? Nothing very complicated. You buy a service that pays for repairs in case of an accident and pays your medical bills if you get injured. But here in the US it does get complicated. What you get depends on who’s at fault – you or the other driver. Thus lawyers as well as the police need to get involved to determine who’s at fault and which insurance company pays what to whom. In Kuwait your own insurance paid for for car repairs or replacement and medical expenses for you, the other guy’s insurance paid for his car repairs or replacement and for his injuries. Fault was determined by the police and appropriate civil penalties were assessed. But no lawyers or other insurance companies were involved. Deductibles? All standard and determined by the state. Simple. No need to “compare”. There was only one insurance company.
I was always astonished at how little auto insurance cost in Kuwait. Hmm, could this be because I didn’t have to watch hours of TV commercials inviting me to “save 15 percent or more”, or save money through “bundling” your car and home insurance, or “customize insurance so that I pay only for what I need”? Have you, as I, ever wondered how much of the high cost of auto or home insurance results from the advertising costs inviting us to “compare”? Well, here are the top three offenders’ annual advertising budgets:
Geico $1.6 billion
Progressive $1.1 billion
State Farm $802 million
Just think if all this advertising money was put instead into reducing premiums. Also, why in the United States, are only corporations allowed to provide auto insurance and why should they make a profit for providing a service so essential and so simple? Honestly, I wish every day that the Federal government provided the insurance on my houses and cars and that profit, shareholders and multi-million dollar CEO salaries were not involved.
Also consider if you will the ridiculousness and impossibility of “healthcare choices”. President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare” as it’s euphemisticly known, I consider to be one of his greatest failures because it formalized and institutionalized corporate profit as an integral part of healthcare in the US. Also, Obamacare signified the beginning of what has now become a complex jungle of healthcare choices.
And now, during “open enrollment”, we are invited to “compare” healthcare plans and select the “best for you”. How in hell do we do this? One plan offers a larger deductible, while charging smaller copays, while another offers smaller copays and smaller deductibles, but has a smaller maximum level of payments. Another features lower copays and lower deductibles but the monthly cost is more. Another seems to have lower copays, lower deductibles but doesn’t cover you out of state. You almost have to develop a spreadsheet and become an overnight math genius, to figure it all out.
And now for older people like myself and my wife, with so many healthcare corporations making huge profits off of “medicare advantage” scams, it gets even more complicated. A day never passes that we do not receive another advertisement in the mail inviting us to “get our medicare from Humana”, or from United Healthcare or Aetna. Why are these damned corporations allowed to provide medical insurance from a government program?
I get very nervous anyhow when I realize that my healthcare is being provided by a corporation, whose major reason for existence is to make a profit, no, to maximize profit so that shareholders will be happy and so that their CEO can be given millions. All the efforts to “keep you healthy and well” ring hollow, when the objective of any healthcare corporation is to make and increase profit. The CEO of United Healthcare, which provides my “Medicare Advantage” insurance through Arizona State Retirement received a yearly salary of almost $18 million in 2020. Pretty good for a company whose only job is to take money from companies and the government and shell it out to providers while keeping a pile for themselves for profit. What a business plan!
We need to stop this scattershot approach to healthcare and provide a single payer system like Canada’s or the United Kingdom’s that takes care of everyone from birth to death, pays doctors and hospitals well and takes corporations and their miserable profit motive out of the equation. We don’t need choice in healthcare. We just need to be taken care of. But this welcome scenario seems ever more distant here in the United States, when our government encourages a steadily greater corporate role in healthcare rather than limiting it.
And of course the issue of choice has taken hold in my former chosen profession – education. When I started in public education back in 1965, I was impressed by public schools. Everyone, rich and poor, black and white, native or immigrant, was there, getting a good education at public expense, in well funded schools and taught by well trained and well paid teachers. And this education took you through elementary, junior high and high school and from there you could go into the workforce with a good basic education or enter university with a good college prep education. Generally speaking, there was already choice in education: if you close you could pay tuition to a parochial school or if you were very wealthy you could send your child to a select private or boarding school.
But when the public school finance doors were opened to entrepreneurs and corporations who wanted to privatize public education and make profit from it, gradually, under the guise of “choice”, you could choose a for profit charter school for your child or a non profit charter school, both collecting public money, both likely not required to adhere to the same rules that regulate public schools. And the Supreme Court is prying open the coffers of public support for parochial schools. And how to choose? Again, weighing convenient transportation against teacher training requirements against curriculum requirements against class size, cost and a host of other variables is not easy. And I might add, should be unnecessary. Please give us back well funded public schools that can competently serve everyone.
The article by Paul Krugman that I referenced earlier in this piece also discussed the issue of utility choice, which has reared its ugly head in an increasing number of states with the flood of profit seeking, privatization and deregulation of public utilities. Time was when our electrical power and natural gas was provided by highly regulated, non profit public utility companies. The dreadful situation in Texas was mentioned where electricity is provided by a host of for-profit, highly deregulated and privatized electric companies, (likely including one called “Johnny’s Juice” – why not?), from which the consumer needs to choose. Yes, there are even Texas websites that advertise that they will help choose the “energy plan that’s right for you”. All of this deregulation helped cause the dreadful debacle in Texas during the winter of 2020, when unexpected cold caused power outages, disaster and death throughout the state, and electric bills of as high as $17,000 per month when your power stayed on. Krugman quotes the Texas Lieutenant Governor as saying this was the customer’s own fault for not “reading the fine print”. For God’s sake, I just want the lights to go on when I flip the switch and the heat to turn on when I raise the thermostat level. Spare me the “energy plan that’s right for me”! Profit should have no place in the provision of essential services for citizens.
We’re being killed by supermarket choices. Remember when you could buy “Bounce” dryer sheets in the laundry section to soften your laundry a little and make it smell good when taken out of the dryer? Well, in case you haven’t noticed there are now a few more choices. You can buy regular Bounce dryer sheet or Outdoor Fresh, or Unscented or Pet Hair and Lint Guard, scented or unscented, or Wrinkle Guard scented or unscented. Or you can “toss away wrinkles and static” with Wrinkle Guard Bounce dryer sheets. My God, what the heck to do. Well maybe I’ll just buy a box of each to stack and teeter on my laundry room shelf and I’ll just use what seems best at the time.Forget it….please, please, just the old original Bounce Dryer Sheets. They were fine
And how about something as simple as ketchup? Remember when you could simply buy Heinz ketchup – great tasting, lasted a long time in the fridge and perfect for that home cooked hamburger or hotdog. And you could buy it in the original bottle and pound or shake it madly upside down so that some would finally come out or buy the squeeze bottle, stored upside down to make it easier. Yes, I know it had the ubiquitous nasty additive, sugar, but it was still the old favorite Heinz Ketchup. But now in the supermarket you have to stand in front of the ketchup area, stroke your chin thoughtfully, shake your head impatiently, maybe check ingredients, compare prices and then try to decide among “no sugar added”, “simply-no artificial sweeteners”, “no salt added”, “blend of veggies”, “sweetened only with honey”, “hot and spicy”, “jalapeño”, or “sriracha”. What the hell, are these different kinds of ketchup necessary? Honestly, I don’t need these choices, never did and never will. To me, ketchup is ketchup. Any other flavors, enhancements or whatever, I can add myself. Why does shopping for something as simple as ketchup have to be so complicated? I have enough decisions to make during the course of a day. I don’t need ketchup choices.
These two examples merely scratch the surface of the choices in supermarkets today. Have you noticed how many varieties of my old favorite cold breakfast cereal, “Cheerios”, are now available? Check it out – what used to be good old fashioned whole grain oat cereal without added sugar, now not only has totally unnecessary sugar (see my article on sugar – “White Poison”), but also comes in a dozen different varieties, from “Maple” to “Apple Cinnamon” to “Chocolate” or “Fruity”, and all likely heavily sugared. This proliferation of choices has gotten completely out of hand. And just imagine the additional burden placed on the poor “essential worker” supermarket employees – how to handle and display all of these absolutely unneeded varieties.
And just this evening among the things on my supermarket list was the nutritious (as snacks go) snack cracker,” Triscuit”, which I have always liked because of their simplicity – actually shredded wheat with a little salt – ingredients: wheat, salt. However, I was bowled over by all of the new flavors of these snack crackers. There was “balsamic vinegar and basil”, “fire roasted tomato and olive oil”, “cracked pepper and olive oil”, “roasted garlic”, “four cheese and herb” and a few more, truly a staggering array of flavors from which it was very difficult to choose. I am sure all are great, but honestly, are all these flavors really necessary? Yet another example of having to choose. I wonder what other flavors the Triscuit people are working on now.
And before I finish I have to share consideration of how many TV choices there are for us today. From the simple offerings of just a few major networks in my youth, we have now gone to the hundreds of channels available from cable or satellite companies. And only in the last several years, these hundreds of channels have been significantly augmented by the availably of streaming devices which, if you are willing to pay, open the door to hundreds more choices. This dizzying array of choices not only make it difficult to choose but also introduce the new feeling of “what am I missing?” While I’m watching the interminable mix of news and comment of MSNBC, really a rehashing of the same old news by different anchors and commentators, I might be missing that great French movie that I’ve longed to see again. Or I’ve got to forfeit the news to hurriedly watch a movie on Netflix that’s leaving next week. Really, I’d be happy with the old major network offerings again. When I’ve finished watching Walter Cronkite (real news, real facts, without the embellishment of opinion people), I could watch Bob Newhart or Mary Tyler Moore and then read a book and go to bed. Really, what’s on cable and streaming today is just too much.
Perhaps part of the “choice” dilemma is that I’m old now, feel the finiteness of time like never before, and would rather not waste time making so many unnecessary choices. But for younger people, busier than ever, working for a living and raising their families, it must be even more difficult to make these choices. I think they are a waste of time and completely unnecessary.