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Jewish World Review June 1, 2001 / 10 Sivan, 5761

James Lileks

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Consumer Reports

One of the stranger indexes you'll ever hear about -- CONSUMER CONFIDENCE is one of the stranger indexes you'll ever hear about. When a news anchor announces that CC soared in the last quarter, you imagine a nation of jut-jawed consumers, chests puffed out like peacocks in heat, striding manfully into the stores waving fistfulls of fifties. When consumer confidence falls, you picture a nation of stoop-shouldered milquetoasts, gnawing their nails to the cuticles, kneebones rattling like dice in a desperate gambler's cup.

It's just an indication of how people feel, nothing more. Give people enough nasty news, and they become pale sweaty wraiths who can't part with a dime, lest Ole Man Depression level his scythe in their neighborhood. Pump up the nation with cheery tales of the New Economy, how 128 goateed idiots in San Francisco are making millions on the Internet, and supposedly this makes a screen-door repairman in Missouri decide it's time to buy a new washing machine.

The Confidence index isn't the only measure of the economy. There's another: Consumer Satisfaction. The National Quality Research Center, a center that researches quality, nationally, has released their latest findings. They show a nation that is - prepare yourself - incrementally less satisfied this quarter with some things, and slightly more satisfied with some other things. The effect on the economy? Well, let's examine the numbers.

Consumers of Pacific Gas and Electric services are almost 33 percent less satisfied than last year, quite possibly because they've failed to provide A) Gas, and B) Electricity. People are more satisfied with movies than hospitals. Why? Because movies don't put gloved fingers in places you don't want, probably, and because movies encourage you to eat junk food and stare at naked people. Wander through a hospital eating a jumbo box of Dots and peeking up people's gowns, and you'll see what sort of reaction you get. Consumers are also more satisfied with the post office than with broadcast TV, which means that watching strangers lick stamps was more exciting than watching the XFL.

Can't argue with that.

People are just as satisfied with newspapers as they were last year, and that's not surprising; since the absorbancy of most papers has not changed over the last quarter, and the nation's fourth estate continues to provide the most economical source of cat-box liner. Hotels, in general slipped over one percent. What it feels like to be one-percent less satisfied, one can only guess; it almost sounds as if people were pestered to come up with an answer. "Well, the soap was loosely wrapped. The complimentary dry-cleaning bag didn't have that crease you usually expect." And thus the death spiral of the American economy begins.

Really. Supposedly, companies cut back on customer service in lean times, which leads consumers to spend less. Which leads to a recession. Which cuts customer service outlays, until eventually the entire customer relations department is outsourced to the Mafia - who, for a small fee, will respond to a complaint by sending around Vinnie "Two Pipes" to put you in the trunk of a Crown Victoria and drive you around for a few hours.

That's the theory, anyway. But perhaps - and this is just wild conjecture - people are less satisfied because customer service isn't about resolving your problem anymore. It's about resolving the paperwork your problem generates. Perhaps a recession might actually be good for us. Companies will stop taking us for granted.

Which brings us to one of the lowest rated organizations in the survey: the IRS, which scored a tad higher than PG&E. It makes one wonder how people would feel about all government services if they actually felt as if they paid for them - i.e., if they had to cut a check twice a month instead of having the money drawn from their paycheck, like blood siphoned off while you slept.

That will never happen. Ted Kennedy's head would actually explode if anyone proposed a bill to eliminate payroll withholding. But making people personally pay withholding taxes might make government more eager to look like it's earning its keep. States might seek to do more for less, to attract people disinclined to support gigantic state bureaucracy. A direct link between taxpayer and payee might even make Consumers more Confident.

But it would sow doubt among the solons of Washington, and they have a right to be confident. It's there in the Constitution. Vinnie Two Pipes says so. You got a problem with that?

JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


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04/23/01: We bleat as we're sheared
04/10/01: Boys will be boys. And that's the problem
04/06/01: Pity the anti-American Left, they're gonna have a hard time on this one
03/26/01: You've been warned
03/16/01: The GOP's inexplicable desire to fold
02/23/01: Will the Jeb Bush administration attack Saddam in 2011?
02/09/01: In search of the the first ashtray thrown by a member of the First Family
02/06/01: Can you say 'Ayatollah Bush'?
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01/22/01: Hey, Dubya: Wanna save Ashcroft? Teach him to rap!
01/09/01: Bubba gets his last licks
01/05/01: The low-down on the coming recession (What those snooty economists won't tell you)
12/23/00: Memo to Dubya: Wanna show who is boss? Nuke 'em!
12/06/00: The Count of Carthage
At the Sore/Loserman Transition HQ
12/01/00: The Count of Carthage
11/28/00: Clinton knows history isn't written by the victors anymore
11/17/00: Chad's the word
11/08/00: The strangest political night
11/07/00: Get ready to return to the Dark Ages

© 2000, James Lileks