Dishonesty in business – a crisis of late capitalism?

After my latest experience of being lied to and misled by a business (Chase credit cards this time) I reflected on the peculiar pathology that seems to be all around us.  A certain subset of businesses (usually the larger ones, but not always) have chosen not to compete for customers and revenue through developing better products and service, but instead have made the choice to grow revenue through deception and cheating.

Everyone reading this will be able to think of numerous recent examples – the landlord who dishonestly kept the security deposit, the cable or phone company who “mistakenly” charged you extra for months (it’s funny how these “mistakes are *never* in the consumers’ favor), the car or software salesperson who lied about what their product could do or disparaged the competition unfairly, the bank that chose to extract the payments before applying the deposits and then charged you multiple times, etc. etc.

I’m an honest and straightforward person. Although (because?) I have no religion, I have a very strong sense of morality and ethics and thus it’s hard for me to get into the mindset of the liars and cheats around us.  But time goes on and you become cynical and jaded – this offer is too good to be true, those claims can’t be valid – and generally you are right.

The ubiquity of this dishonesty in business suggests it’s a deliberate policy.  Lack of enforcement in most societies has educated white-collar criminals that their risk is low compared to regular criminals on whom far more resources are focused. I would consider the upper and middle management at Bank of America, Comcast, or Hertz to be as much white-collar criminals (although to a lesser extent) as the crooks who fixed the LIBOR rate or bankrupted Lehman.

It’s also odd, because in some aspects society is in a golden age of discovery and business growth.  Etsy and Kickstarter facilitate small craft and product development businesses; Tesla has successfully started the electric car revolution; Apple, Google, Microsoft, Blackberry, Citrix, and Cisco (and many others) have successfully unchained many workers from the cubicle and daily commute; Amazon and AliBaba allow people to live outside big cities and still have access to an enormous array of goods and supplies; ZipCar allows people to live in big cities and not own a car that sits unused most of the time; etc.

At the other extreme, the legacy businesses – banks, airlines, cable companies, property management companies, car companies (for example) – have by and large chosen not to innovate or create and instead to gouge their customers to improve their bottom lines.  Maybe in this current business climate there’s no viable way to keep United afloat other than fucking over their frequent and infrequent travelers through endless fees, charges, and erosion of service and benefits? Maybe the whole banking system operates on such small margins that BoA (and all of the rest) have to charge 12-23% interest on credit cards, while paying 0.03% on savings? Perhaps the only way GM and Ford dealers can compete with Tesla is by preventing Tesla from selling cars in that state?

I wish I knew what to do about this.  It’s just depressing, really, and I call it a crisis of capitalism because this certainly doesn’t feel like the operation of a rational market.  I don’t think it’s THE crisis of capitalism, and I suspect that as more and more people recognize what’s going on they will pressure their elected politicians to do something and eventually there may be a little more semblance of oversight and enforcement.  Of course that is tougher to do when politicians in the US and UK are primarily funded by the beneficiaries of this broken system – but I don’t think I can give up on both democracy and capitalism in the same week.

About Raoul

With a fairly unusual first name, this is where I have to stress VERY STRONGLY that these posts are my personal opinions and in no way reflect anything at all to do with my employer. For employer-approved content, take a look at my work blog.
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One Response to Dishonesty in business – a crisis of late capitalism?

  1. Lowbudgetfun says:

    “it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side…” — The Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli

    The people in power have every incentive to maintain the status quo. But more importantly, the people in power don’t have the ability to innovate because if they did, they would innovate. Instead they use their influence, money, and power to crush the agents of change.

    Equally accountable are the people who do nothing. Every Verizon customer, every American Airline passenger, every Pepsi drinker is just a little bit complicit too.

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