Predators Are Relentlessly Circling While We Graze

Never before have the predators in our society been so voracious. And like helpless sheep, we consumers huddle in our pens, waiting to be devoured. I know that sounds lurid, but how else can I describe the current state of affairs?

Think about the housing crisis and the thousands of fraudulent transactions involved in it. Think about the lobbyists who succeeded in defeating bankruptcy reform that would have helped homeowners in trouble. Think about the financial institutions pillaging public funds at will and fattening their executives with multimillion-dollar bonuses. Think about the credit card companies, taking bailout money from taxpayers while obscenely raising interest rates and imposing rapacious new fees.

consumerThink about runaway health care costs, the way drug companies mislead us, hospitals overcharge us and doctors mistreat us.

Think about the spam you get daily offering you “business opportunities” if you agree to put up seed money. Think about the bogus work-at-home offers in your email…

On every hand we are surrounded by tricks and traps devised by predators, and they have bought influence in Washington so that those who should be protecting us are actually helping them. In too many cases, the wolves are guarding the sheep.

And as the economy becomes leaner, the predators become more vicious. Never before has the phrase caveat emptor been so relevant.

The latest assault on consumers is coming from internet service providers. Last month, Time Warner Cable announced plans to test a new billing system that charges Internet customers according to how much they download. Customers who exceed their limit would face steep penalties.

Phone and cable companies like Time Warner and Comcast, and phone giants AT&T and Verizon, sell the vast majority of high-speed Internet service in the United States. They have no competition in 97 percent of American markets.

This time, opposition from public interest groups and some members of Congress forced Time Warner Cable to abandon the plan in four of the five test cities (Beaumont, Texas, is the lone city left in the pilot program). But the company is regrouping, planning a “customer education process” to teach the public that high prices and Internet caps are good for us. And the threat is spreading: AT&T is testing a billing scheme that caps Internet use, and other Internet service providers are preparing to do the same.

It seems to me that a revolt is overdue. Those of us who are old enough to remember the Sixties and Seventies will recall the consumer movement that brought dramatic changes in packaging, labeling and other forms of marketing. Remember how Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” shocked the auto industry into abandoning its reckless disregard of motorists’ safety? Remember how the media exposed medical malpractice (like the hysterectomy scam)? I wonder what happened to that kind of journalism. Did corporate ownership of the media put an end to it? Or did the public simply get tired of it?

Whatever the reason, it’s time for a resurgence of consumer protest. Left to me, we would stage a consumer strike – a boycott of all but the most essential services for a day or a week all across this land. And we would repeat our “strikes” until politicians realized that they were elected to protect us – not to line their own pockets.