When incompetent and shady businesses leave customers over a barrel in order to make a profit or stifle competition, we lose, but who are the masters?
In Part 1, we talked about government intrusiveness concerning your data and reticence when it comes to their own transparency. The government isn’t the only institution to have us over a barrel, though. Businesses have been working just as hard to put us in our place. Unfortunately, it’s not a place of empowerment for everyday citizens.
The days are long gone when working class families could survive and thrive on the income of a sole breadwinner. Ever since the Great Recession, when companies hemorrhaged employees and converted them into a desperate precariat, labor has come relatively cheap. As low-end employers realized this, American employment has crept up. Wages, however, have not kept pace, and in some places, American wages are beginning to look comparable to what Chinese workers make nowadays. When workers know that if they don’t accept low wages and sub-par (potentially fatal) conditions, the person behind them in the unemployment line surely will, then capital has labor over a barrel.
Naturally, people try to take care of themselves. With climate chaos as the storm surge of the future, it makes sense to prepare for the worst. The influx of cheap, Chinese-made solar panels made it more possible than ever for even families of relatively modest means to take control of some of their energy needs. In sunny states like Florida, this has paid off by independently powering households even during electrical outages. This was crucial in Florida as Hurricane Irma savaged the electrical grid infrastructure, leaving many without power – unless they made their own.
Anything that empowers the people to take care of their own needs that way is also a challenge for other businesses. Florida Power and Light, the utility that serves millions of households in the Sunshine State, hired lobbyists who ghost-wrote the rules that govern the use of solar power by Floridians. Now, Florida law requires residents with solar panels to avoid using them during power outages, exactly when they’re the most useful.
Why would the industry leave customers over a barrel like this? The official reason is that extra electricity generated by solar panels could flow out onto the grid and injure maintenance workers. However, if that’s the case, why wouldn’t it apply to other sources of homemade electricity, such as gas-powered generators? And why won’t FPL let residents flip the switch that disconnects their home from the grid, which the utility keeps under lock and key? It’s a clear case of businesses sabotaging the interests of everyday citizens.
It’s not just employers and service providers that put their own interests ahead of ours in order to make a profit or stifle competition. It can happen when businesses are busy covering their arses instead of looking out for us. After the recent Equifax breach, concerned Americans whose personal information was stolen by hackers were directed to a site where they could sign up for free credit monitoring and identity fraud insurance – but only if they signed away their right to join class action lawsuits against Equifax. It took public shaming for the company, who caused the problem in the first place, to pull its arbitration requirement.
Even so, coercing people into entering mandatory arbitration agreements when they’re over a barrel, such as when their data has been compromised or when they’re looking for work, may happen more often in the future. A rule approved by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in July (and which would govern agreements made after March 18, 2018) generally prohibits financial firms from slipping mandatory arbitration clauses into contracts. However, the Senate is expected to kill this measure using the Congressional Review Act with a majority vote along party lines.
Despite the common wisdom that companies must serve the customer well or lose market share, businesses don’t always act in ways that benefit the public. How does that relate to the governmental overreach we touched upon yesterday? Check out tomorrow’s final installment.