Monday, December 29, 2008

Fish Bite

I'm an admirer of Professor Stanley Fish's, and have to post this. It speaks to the way huge corporations now dominate our lives with the bullshit they mete out and get away with on the basis of their power. As a consumer, it's the near-end result of being dominated by the biggest bullies in business history.

At the end of his piece there's a comments section, and I threw up my lot, typos and all, about the bad decision "we've" made in letting corporate America conglomerate down to this unprecedented power. In the above paragraph above (That's a joke for you, Professor Fish), I said, "As a consumer, it's the near-end result of being dominated by the biggest bullies in business history." I said "near-end" for a reason; because what we're currently witnessing in the financial sector is, in one sense, the endgame of huge financial corporations -- benignly called "institutions" by some -- running amok. They, their lobbyists, their armies of lawyers they deploy, and the politicians who are in their back pockets don't care about you, me, us at all, as George Carlin said. That means it's gonna get a lot worse and a lot uglier, for instance, as those "Alt-A" and "option ARM" mortgage loans, approved by the ratings companies, reset.

And I hope you understand that although I think this is the endgame, it means for this phase. What the hell comes next is either one of or a combo of three things, as I see it:

1. A "cooling down period," where auto CEOs will drive hybrids and go on photo ops, then a return to "business as usual" when they feel like it.
2. More conglomeration.
3. A makeover, but not an overhaul. This means that cosmetics will be applied but the basic fundamentals of big capital, distinct and differentiated here from capitalism, will still be there.

There's actually a fourth choice which is true capitalism, which would be a revolution, but that's not going to happen and I wouldn't bet on it. The reason and historical evidence are pretty overwhelming if you ask me, but if you take the example of yet another crisis in our laps, healthcare, there are very good reasons why if I had to bet I'd say that we will never enjoy a single-payer plan. Of course it's money, and I've talked about it before, but succinctly, the healthcare industry's owned by three huge sub-industries: HMOs, pharmaceutical and insurance companies, any of which is a huge presence on the Hill via lobbyists and armies of lawyers. With all three of them acutely interested in maintaining the status quo, forget it, it's like me trying to play Kobe Bryant. So, if I had to bet I'd say it's going to be number three, the cosmetic makeover, which equates to business as usual.

Anyway, without further ramblings, here's a great deconstructionist speaking plainly about a huge corporation.

Oh, and sorry for the bad title pun, Professor Fish. You've probably heard them all.

From the NY Times Opinion page

December 28, 2008, 10:00 pm
The Return of the Old Grouch

When you live in two places and decamp from one to the other every six months or so, there are any number of things that have to be done. (I know that at least 50 readers will want to rebuke me for complaining about problems only the privileged can have, but perhaps we can agree to get past that.) Closing the house, switching the mail, storing the porch furniture, suspending cable service, draining the pipes. But the one that gives me a headache even before I attempt it is the phone call to AT&T, or, rather, the 20 phone calls to AT&T.

The first obstacle, of course, was getting through to someone. The prompts did not correspond to any of my concerns, but finally, after pressing a number of zeros, I was rewarded with the voice of a live person who said, “With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?”

Visions of Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine the telephone operator danced in my head, but I bit my tongue and made my simple request.

“I’ve been away for some time and my services were reduced. I’d like to have them restored to what they were when I left in June.”

It turned out that this was not possible. Even though I had paid to retain my phone number, I was going to be treated as a new customer, which meant that I would have to answer a bunch of questions and decline services I had never had. After much back and forth I signed up for a package that included voice mail.

I should have quit when I was (somewhat) ahead, but I couldn’t resist returning to the greeting, with its double and ungrammatical “with.” I explained that the second “with” was superfluous, as the second “to” would be if the offending question had been, “to whom am I speaking to?”, or the second “about” if the question had been “about what are you worrying about?”

Somehow that didn’t make much of an impression on her. She said that her instructions were to greet callers in that way and that she would continue to do so. I replied that it was scandalous that a multi-billion-dollar world-wide telecommunication corporation would order its employees to commit an egregious (and comical) grammatical error millions of times a day.

She said, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

I lost it. It has nothing to do with feelings, I ranted. It is a factual matter as to what is and is not syntactically correct.

She changed the subject by informing me that the social security number I had given when she asked for it was not the number she had on record. I asked her to change it, but she pleaded incapacity: “No, I can’t do that. I’ll connect you to the department where they can.”

That was a promise made subsequently by five other people as I was repeatedly transferred to someone who told me, “No, I can’t do that.” Everyone I talked to assured me that within seconds I would be talking to the right person. My last interlocutor took pity on me, and although he too was not the right person, he knew someone in his division who was and said he would talk to him directly. When he came back, it was to tell me that the social security number on record was in fact the one I had given him. The whole thing had been a wild goose chase.

I was more exasperated than relieved, and I made the mistake of re-raising the “with-whom-do-I-have-the-pleasure-of-speaking-with” matter. He listened and suggested that I make a complaint. You mean call another 800 number, I wailed. No, he replied, I’ll do it for you, just tell me what you want to say. I went through the nature of the error, but when I talked about the unseemliness of a major corporation managing to sound pompous and ignorant at the same time, he interrupted me and said that he would not transmit that kind of language. I thought about pointing out that this was a complaint, not a love letter, but I just gave up.

This epic was not over. When I got to Florida after a three-day drive I found that I didn’t have voice mail. I called and was told that there was no record of my having placed an order. I was assured that the matter would be taken care of in 24 hours. It wasn’t. I called back the next day, but a mechanical voice informed me that there was no service on Sunday. (Don’t people make phone calls on Sundays and pay for them?) Finally, on Monday, I reached someone who assured me that I would have voice mail the next day, and he turned out to be right.

But by that time I was beyond caring. I told him that I had decided to write a column about my AT&T adventures and that, in fairness, I thought I should talk to someone in the corporate structure. He said that he would put me through to the right department, but when someone picked up, she identified herself as “Directories.”

What?, I asked.

I’m in advertising, she replied. We send out telephone directories. Do you want one?

I explained what I was trying to do, and she laughed. I laughed, too, the best moment of the experience.

Every weeknight on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann, who never met an exaggeration he didn’t like, names that day’s “Worst Person in the World” (it’s usually Bill O’Reilly). In the same spirit, I hereby nominate AT&T as the worst company in the world. I admit that my evidence for this judgment is scant and anecdotal, but I stand by it anyway.

About Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and Duke University. He is the author of 10 books. His new book on higher education, "Save the World On Your Own Time," has just been published.