Often, however, it is small annoyances that waste Americans' time and drive up blood pressures. One of the worst things that ever happened to Americans was the breakup of the AT&T telephone monopoly. As Assistant Secretary of the US Treasury in 1981, if 150 percent of my time and energy had not been required to cure stagflation in the face of opposition from Wall Street and Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, I might have been able to prevent the destruction of the best communications service in the world, and one that was very inexpensive to
The assistant attorney general in charge of the "anti-trust case" against AT&T called me to ask if Treasury had an interest in how the case was resolved. I went to Treasury Secretary Don Regan and told him that although my conservative and libertarian friends thought that the breakup of AT&T was a great idea, their opinion was based entirely in ideology and that the practical effect would not be good for widows and orphans who had a blue chip stock to see them through life or for communications customers, as deregulated communications would give the multiple communications corporations different interests than those of the customers. Under the regulated regime, AT&T was allowed a reasonable rate of return on its investment and, to stay out of trouble with regulators, AT&T provided excellent and inexpensive service.
Secretary Regan reminded me of my memo to him detailing that Treasury was going to have a hard time getting President Reagan's economic program, directed at curing the stagflation that had wrecked President Carter's presidency, out of the Reagan administration. The budget director, David Stockman, and his chief economist, Larry Kudlow, had lined up against it, following the wishes of Wall Street, and the White House Chief of Staff James Baker and his deputy Richard Darman were representatives of VP George H.W. Bush and did not want substantial Reagan success that would again threaten the Republican Establishment's hold over the party. Baker and Darman wanted to be sure that George H. W. Bush and not Jack Kemp succeeded Ronald Reagan, and that required a muted Reagan success that they could claim as theirs for moderating an "extremist" program.
I told Secretary Regan that if I had another deputy assistant secretary, I could reach a reasonable conclusion whether the breakup of AT&T was sensible. He replied that he was sure that was the case, but that once I had three deputies the headlines in the Washington Post and New York Times, Business Week, Newsweek, and so on, would be: "Supply-sider builds empire at Treasury." He said it would sink me and that without me he could not get the President's economic program out of the President's administration. "Which do you want to do," he asked, "save AT&T or cure stagflation?"
Curing stagflation gave America 20 more years. Ironically, the good times started to erode when Reagan's other goal was accomplished and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1990. "The end of history" resulted in India and China opening their labor markets to American capitalists, who began producing offshore with foreign labor the products that they sold to Americans. The labor costs savings pushed up corporate profits, shareholders' returns, and managerial bonuses. But it deprived Americans of middle class incomes and wrecked the balance of trade. The US income distribution and the trade deficit worsened.
Many progressives blame the worsening income distribution on the Reagan tax rate reductions, but the real cause is the offshoring of manufacturing industrial, and professional service jobs, such as software engineering.
None of us in the Reagan administration foresaw jobs offshoring as the consequence of the Soviet collapse. We had no idea that, by bringing down the Soviet Union, we would be bringing down America. During the Reagan years India was socialist and would not allow foreign corporations, had they been interested, to touch their labor force. China was communist and no
foreign capital could enter the country.
However, once the Soviet Union was gone from the earth, the remaining socialist and communist regimes decided to go with the winners. They opened to Western corporations and sucked jobs out of the developed West.
But this is a different story. To get back to deregulation, nothing has worked for the consumer since deregulation. Deregulation permitted corporations to impose their costs of operation on
customers without having to send them a bill. For example, corporations use
voice recognition technology to keep customers from salaried customer representatives. I remember when a customer with a problem could call a utility company or bank and have the problem immediately corrected.
No more. There was an error in my phone bill today, which I had corrected without result on two previous occasions. As everyone knows by now, it takes 10-15 minutes, usually, to get a live person who can actually fix the problem. After listening to sales pitches for 12 minutes, I got a live person. Once the problem was understood, it was pronounced to be an upper-level problem out of his hands. I waited another 10 minutes while he tried to reach a superior who had the code to fix the problem that the phone company had produced in my account. The entire time I listened to product advertisements.
How many times has this happened to you?
Whoever invented these artificial voice capabilities is the enemy of mankind. Whomever a customer calls -- utilities, credit card companies, banks, whatever, the customer gets a voice machine. Some voice machines never tell the customer how to get a live person who can, on occasion, actually fix the problem.
In my opinion, the strategy behind endless delays is to cause customers to give up, slam the telephone down and play the higher incorrect bill as it is cheaper in time and frustration to correcting the problem and being billed in the correct amount. These ripoffs of the customer are produced by Wall Street pressures for higher earnings.
The frustrations, of course, multiply when one reaches an offshored service somewhere in the Third World. The incentive is to hang up and to pay the excessive bill so that phone, internet, or credit card services are not cut off.
Had Don Regan and I known that the high-speed Internet was in our future and that American corporations would use it to destroy the jobs traditionally filled by US university graduates, possibly we would have decided to save the regulated telephone monopoly and to deliver the economy over to stagflation.