My most passionately held political belief is best illustrated by the fact that it is nearly impossible to shop for a mobile telephone account these days.
Oh, I know what you're thinking: "Ryan, are you nuts? It couldn't be easier to get a cell phone plan. Walk any two blocks in downtown San Francisco or into any strip mall in the suburbs and you'll cross one of those little shops by Sprint PCS or AT&T Wireless or T-Mobile or Verizon or some independent. Open any magazine, click on any website, watch any TV show to find out just how many anytime minutes you can get for $30, $40 or $50 per month."
But you know what? That information is a small fraction of what you need to know to make an effective choice between cellular providers. For example, my plan was advertised at $39 per month and actually cost me $59 last month.
On top of the service charge, I pay:
- $1.75 for what AT&T Wireless calls a "Regulatory Programs Fee," which is actually ineligible to be listed under "Taxes, Surcharges and Regulatory Fees" because it doesn't go to the government at all, it allegedly goes to pay for AT&T to upgrade its systems to comply with the law that lets you transfer your cell phone number to another carrier and is set entirely by AT&T.
It's sort of like if your waiter brought a bill with a surcharge for cleaning the kitchen to meet the health code, or if your gas station added a surcharge for not polluting the groundwater.
- $0.21 for connecting to the "mMode" data service -- so I could read an "important message" AT&T spammed to my phone, which was an ad for mMode. Hmmm.
- $5 for "AT&T Toll Free Nationwide," which gives me free long distance, whichwas supposed to come with my plan anyway. I have called once to get this taken off, and was credited, but they keep charging me, and I don't have time to call back and wait on hold.
- $2 for a phone insurance and extended warranty, because they have sold me two phones that went bad within two months of the warranty expiring
- $3.75 for three 411 calls
- $9.14 in actual taxes and government fees, which includes at least one charge ($4) based on the county I live in
On top of the hidden charges, there are the hidden ways a provider can waste your time:
- Automatically sign you up for a free trial of "mMode" Internet service without your permission and make you call in to cancel it
- Not staff enough people in customer service so, no matter when you call, there is a long wait
- Fail to put enough equipment in your neighborhood to handle all the call volume, so that frequently you cannot make or receive calls on your cell phone because there are no circuits available
- Fail to patch well-populated areas within your coverage zone with weak or non-existent coverage
I should have asked smarter questions when I picked my plan. Like, "how much does 411 cost," "what will the total on my monthly bill be," "what is the average hold time in your call center," "if I make an unanticipated international call, what are the rates" and "how many complaints per 100,000 customers are filed with the FCC about your company?" Actually, the Wall Street Journal had to file a Freedom of Information Act to get that last question answered, according to an article published last month. I'll excerpt the results:
Complaints per 100,000 customers (and in total) to FCC, Q3 2003
- AT&T Wireless - 6.4 per 100,000 customers (1,494 complaints total)
- Sprint PCS - 4.0 (767)
- T-Mobile - 3.5 (429)
- Cingular Wireless - 3.2 (749)
- Nextel - 2.0 (247)
- Verizon Wireless - 1.5 (529)
Gee, wish I'd looked at those figures when I was shopping for cell phone plans.
The whole point of this excursion into cell phone land is to illustrate a broader point:
Hidden costs suck.
Actually, that's not true. Hidden costs are great, at least in the short term, for companies like AT&T Wireless, because they dupe consumers into thinking they can afford cell phone plans that are too costly, or into selecting a cell phone provider that ends up wasting far more time and money than a competitor might.
But they suck for consumers. They hide the true cost of goods and services and thus retard economic development and, ultimately, prosperity.
Which brings me around to the government, which brings me around to my most deeply felt political conviction:
I am, above all else, Anti Fee.
Fees and surcharges are the hidden costs of government, and they are evil. They are great for politicians because, like AT&T Wireless, the politician can advertise a low "price" ("I didn't raise your taxes!") while charging more on the sly.
So what does it mean to be anti-fee? It's sort of like crossing socialism with libertarianism.
I oppose bridge and highway tolls, park use fees, bus and subway tolls, the visa application fee ($100, this for struggling immigrants), raising fines to raise money, hotel room surcharges, airport security fees, special cable and telephone and cellphone taxes (I pay $71 for cable and $10 for cable taxes, so much for free speech), passport application fees, vehicle license fees, registration and renewal fees, administrative fees to process driving school certificates, camp fire license fees (I actually paid that one) and all of the other government surcharges I can't think of because they are nefariously HIDDEN from public view until you need to do something like apply for a permit to put up a new mailbox.
I feel like you should have to be doing something REALLY, REALLY out of the ordinary AND costly to handle AND unnecessary AND unbeneficial before the government charges some kind of special fee -- like applying to drill in a national park or go bungee jumping off of state property. Otherwise, I think we need to say look, this is what government does, what it is for, and it's already paid for, out of the income tax. Like, building a parking lot in a park, that's not some fancy extra thing. Or building a bridge across the Bay -- that's not in 2004 some technical marvel we should have to pay to access. Or registering a car, or obtaining paper to prove you are an American, or owning a telephone. These are now NORMAL activities, and until there is a "one offspring in public school for 12 years fee" or a "lost my leg and need money for rent" fee or a "smoking and collecting Medicare" fee, I don't think I should be expected to reach into my pocket for the opulent luxury of standard cable.
Because at least the income tax is progressive and percentage based. Fees and surcharges and tolls are doubly regressive, meaning they just kill the poor and working class while being of much less concern to the rich. Also they take a lot of energy and money to collect.
I hate fees. I am anti fee. They piss me off.