August 9, 2002
Oh for the good old days of no choice and
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
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
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.