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Some Choice

by Stephen Lautens


August 9, 2002

Oh for the good old days of no choice and heartless monopolies.

It used to be that if you wanted a phone, you knew who to call. (Actually, you couldn't call because you didn't have a phone, but you know what I mean). There was one game in town and they charged pretty much whatever they wanted. As a monopoly they could be lazy, arbitrary and show up whenever they damn well pleased to hook up your service.

That was the bad side.

On the good side, there was only one number to call if you had a problem. True - they weren't that good at customer service, but at least you knew who was to blame if something went wrong. And you got a single bill without a lot of explanation. Pay up or get cut off.

However, as a consumer the best part of dealing with any monopoly was that you never had to feel like you're to blame for anything. That's the worst part about deregulation of the various utilities. Giving consumers the choice makes us responsible for making the wrong choice. We used to be able to rant and rave about their charges and incompetence. Now it's up to us to choose from a confusing selection of plans and options.

Since long distance was opened up to competition, we now get to pick from all kinds of competing plans and companies. You can dial a few dozen numbers before each call and save a couple of cents, or sign up with a company simply to get them to stop calling you at home. Are we saving money? Maybe, but it's hard to tell if the few cents a minute is worth all the study and aggravation.

One poor guy called me and brightly asked if I was interested in saving money. "Not in the slightest", I said. He didn't know what to say when I told him the likelihood of getting ripped off was worth not having to become an expert in long distance plans.

My electric bill came a few days ago. The bill itself is now two pages long. It used to only be half a page. Accompanying it was a four page folder explaining the bill, telling me what they meant by items called the "distribution charge", the "transmission charge" and something else called (I kid you not) my "total current purchase power variance account balance".

Look - here's a hundred bucks. Just make sure my lights don't go out.

My gas bill breaks it down to show me my "customer charge", the "delivery charge", the "supply charge" and something called my "storage refund". I'm all in favour of refunds of any kind, but I hope it doesn't mean I've accidentally agreed somewhere to stockpile gas in my basement over the winter.

The absolute worst are the companies that have sprung up trying to get you to sign long term contracts for gas rates. I suppose there are commodities brokers on Wall Street who after years of study can predict gas futures with some accuracy. I'm not one of them, and I refuse to make myself crazy trying to guess what rates will be next year. Besides, if I guess wrong I'll have no one to blame but myself.

At least when you had no choice you had the pleasure of cursing some heartless monopoly, and then were allowed to get on with your life.

© Stephen Lautens 2002

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