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SEVERAL YEARS AGO, THERE WAS A well-publicized incident in which the brother of then-presidential candidate John McCain called 9-1-1 in the Washington, D.C. area to complain about some construction on a bridge that was taking place during rush hour. The call was played during reports on the incident in the news media.

McCain’s brother was (rightly) ridiculed at the time for doing something so clueless. The 9-1-1 system was set up to report emergencies, and using it to complain about a traffic problem was an abuse of the system, one that might have delayed help for someone in a life-threatening emergency.

In the aftermath of the incident, I had a recurring thought I couldn’t shake: Despite his poor judgment, I could understand what Joseph McCain was hoping to do. What he really wanted was to speak to The Guy Who Made the Decision. He wanted to hold someone accountable for making the idiotic decision to conduct traffic-clogging construction work on a busy bridge during rush hour.

This brings me to one consequence of industrial civilization — its mass production, specialization of skills and so on — that I call the Creeping Abstraction of Accountability.

Think about what life, and especially economic life, was like in a typical village in America in the time before mass industrialization. For fun, let’s name this hypothetical little town “Sylvan,” and we’ll say the year is 1800.

In Sylvan, accountability in economic relations was pervasive — inescapable, even. If you were a typical citizen of such a town, you knew who made your clothing, pots and pans, furniture, shoes, lamps, soap, window glass; you knew who built your carriage or wagon, and so on. And not just in an abstract way— you likely knew personally the makers of those things, and could thus hold them accountable if there was a problem. If the furniture-maker’s apprentice delivered a three-legged chair to your house, you could walk over to his shop with the chair, hold it up and ask (perhaps wryly), “Yea, Thomas? Wert thou just back from yon tavern when ye forgot this missing leg?” and expect that poor, hungover Thomas would groan a sheepish apology, and promise to correct the situation without delay. Similarly, if your skillet handle broke, you could march off to the local tinker’s shop and demand an explanation, and you would expect to receive one on the spot.

In short, you actually could in fact speak to The Guy Who Made the Decision, and this state of affairs obtained from roughly before the American Civil War, all the way back to the dimly known beginnings of civilization when the first farmer planted the first crop.

Now, let’s return to the year 2013 in my small town in Northern California.

I called my bank a couple months back because my checking account was inexplicably overdrawn. I use their bill payment service, and I had specified that the “pay date” of my rent payment should be the first of the month, yet they had deducted the payment on the 23rd of the previous month, overdrafting my account. When I called, a customer service representative said that the payment can come out that early so that the check has time to reach the payee. I apologized for misunderstanding, thanked her for the information, and hung up.

When I changed the pay date to the 7th of the next month to account for this new information, my landlord charged me a late fee because the rent check arrived on the 15th. I called the bank, and they said that it had been mailed on the 7th. When I said I was confused by this, given the information I received on my previous call, the rep explained that sometimes the money comes out on the pay date, and sometimes it comes out when the check arrives at the bank after being deposited by the payee, and they could not tell me in advance which of those two possibilities would happen each month. When I pointed out that this makes planning rather difficult, the rep told me that this was just how their (third-party) payment processor worked.

So even the bank I was speaking to could not tell me when the payment would be deducted. But worse than that, I wasn’t really speaking to “The Bank” at all — I was speaking to a rep wearing a headset in a call center in Arizona or Iowa or wherever, and she had virtually no power to change the way the bank did business (the first rep I spoke to did refund the overdraft fee, which was nice). The way the bank’s payment processor does payments was probably designed in a series of meetings involving a shifting bunch of personnel from their marketing, legal and accounting departments, and the policy’s ultimate purpose could undoubtedly be summarized as: “Make as much money as possible for the company, in a way that is unlikely to get us successfully sued.”

Thus, our current world is a mirror image of Sylvan: In our world, accountability in economic relations is abstracted, nearly to the point of meaninglessness. Who made the shirt you’re wearing? What were the wages and working conditions for the people who made it? What about the chair you’re sitting in? Or computer on which you are reading this diary? Or the cell phone in your pocket? If you have concerns about those things, to whom do you turn for accountability?

There is no immediate, human accountability for many problems that arise from the production of most of the stuff we use every day. This is the Creeping Abstraction of Accountability.

This has had profound implications not just for economics, but for how we discuss politics. More in part two.

Originally posted to mftalbot on Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 07:05 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (34+ / 0-)

    The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts. -Bertrand Russell

    by mftalbot on Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 07:05:08 AM PDT

  •  This is one of the reasons that there is (11+ / 0-)

    so little accountability. We've built a system that has so abstracted responsibility that there aren't people that can be held accountable, only broken rules.

  •  If you wish to leave a comment on this diary, (20+ / 0-)

    please press 1.

    To recommend this diary, please pres 2

    For meta comments about Daily Kos diaries, please press 3


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  •  You should try dealing with Discover Card (15+ / 0-)

    Several years ago someone at Discover card had a duplicate of our credit card delivered over night, high priority to someone in a town in Illinois that I've never heard of. In fact at that time I did not know one single person in Illinois.

    The person who got our card immediately put it to use (including charging a cell phone). Finally, Discovered called us to verify a suspicious charge. That's when the fun began. It would take too long to recount the whole story here. I'll just say this, it took me a full 6 months to get this mess corrected. Discover sent replacement cards not once, not twice, but THREE times to the same person in Illinois. They even changed our address with the three credit bureaus to the Illinois address.

    The people at Discover would not even let me talk to a supervisor. (That's when I went ballistic.) I finally went to the Internet to seek a name or number for Customer Service. I found nothing -- other than the call centers I'd been dealing with for months. Finally, I found the name & phone # for the stock holders ombudsman. He was very nice and ended up calling the CEO's executive assistant for me. She was the one who finally got the credit cards all canceled and the charges straightened out.

    Needless to say, we no longer deal with Discover card.

    •  wow (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      organicus, greengemini

      I imagine this happens to a lot of people without the resources, good thinking, and just admirable persistence you showed.  

      I consider myself fairly smart, but I never thought of the stock holders ombudsman.  Thank you: noted and filed for future reference!

      I am not a cynic, I am an optomist; Cynics have no faith in people. I have great faith in what people are capable of, I am just profoundly disappointed much of the time.

      by nullspace on Fri Mar 22, 2013 at 10:29:01 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Something I learned years ago (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Any time you want to get right down in the bowels of a corporation's structure, go to their web site and pretend you want to buy stock. This is usually listed as "investor relations" or some such.

        They'll tell you the blood type of the CEO's mother if you ask.

        Meddle not in the affairs of dragons... for thou art crunchy and good with ketchup.

        by Pariah Dog on Fri Mar 22, 2013 at 12:46:46 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Accountability only works in one direction (11+ / 0-)

    The root problem is, we live in a corporatocracy, where corporations have all the rights of citizens, plus an army of lawyers to back them up; we citizens are unimportant as human beings, we're just the free market's collateral damage.

    Look at DisHeartenedMom's comment above. Every one of us has made errors of a few hours or a few dollars, and had ridiculous fines and interest applied to us on that very day; yet every one of us has had companies mess up their paperwork, or sell us defective products or services - and then we get stuck in a runaround where we spend hours on the phone/internet, dealing with multiple people. If we're lucky, weeks later we get it sorted out - except for the hours and dollars we lost in all the running around.

    Wells Fargo accidentally stole a man's house, and he died. It never could have happened the other way around. If he'd accidentally inflicted a thousandth as much damage on Wells Fargo, they'd have shown no mercy.

    It's like that scene in Brazil, where the hero's about to be tortured. The flunky who's strapping him down says "Don't hold out too long - it'll damage your credit rating".

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 02:25:01 PM PDT

  •  I've always wondered (9+ / 0-)

    when you get the run around, if you were to call 3 or 4 times a day for a month or so, making the same complaint with every call, like it is the first time you have called, would they eventually catch on that it is costing them big money to continue giving you the run around, and maybe do something about it, or would they never know or care that you have called a hundred times in one month?

    What I mean is, after completing one call, hang up and immediately call back with the same complaint, tying up the customer service rep for as long as possible, then doing it again, and again. For months on end. You could pay your kid a couple bucks an hour to do it for you. All day long.

  •  None of us has free will. That's why we built (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    6ZONite, Brecht, mortje, greengemini

    this system,
    since it brings more and more wealth and power
    to those in charge,
    and they have no free will.

    And we let computers take over,
    since they work cheap.

    There is a thing called a hold.

    A computer put a hold on $80 from my checking account,
    then charged $80 out from my checking,
    4 days later,
    took the hold off the first $80.

    I talked to a banker,
    he didn't know how to release a hold.

    The party whose computer does the hold,
    knows nothing,
    the victim bank
    knows nothing.

    It's a computer glitch,
    and no one knows how to fix it,
    except computer geeks who are not being paid
    to fix it,
    so it will not be fixed.

    We will run out of oil,
    and no one will fix it,
    since no one is being paid to fix it.

    No one has free will,
    only a desire for money.

    Except a few,
    who want to fix the world,
    like me,
    but wishful thinking makes folks feel we will never
    run out of oil.

    There is no free will,
    to make folks think,
    and I don't know how to make folks think.

  •  You are on the track (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, Pariah Dog, greengemini

    However, I think your 1800 Sylvan is mythic. One of the big problems people had in 1800 was, in fact, an inability to get goods suited to purpose, on the one hand, and the dependence on regional importers, on the other. It was less a case of knowing the maker than of all persons having the same item to work with and having a booming industry in what today we would call home fix-its.

    The farther back we go, the more the idyllic village recedes. However, we can say that the capitalist explosion of 1680 - 1780 meant a gradual destruction of small markets for large economies. As these happened, profits concentrated, sums increased, and individuals were served worse in particular.

    Nothing, though, matches the dissolution of responsibility of the last thirty years. It's not capitalist, and it's not social: it's a bizarre loophole way of thinking that leaves the people more angry than ever and less capable of knowing who to be angry with.

    Everyone is innocent of some crime.

    by The Geogre on Fri Mar 22, 2013 at 06:27:42 AM PDT

  •  Another thing I learned (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    And these are lessons from an old veteran of manmymanymany corporate F-ups ladies and gentlemen, so you might want to take notes.

    AT THE FIRST SIGN of a problem, Get a file folder. Start documenting everything. What happened, when, when you called, who you spoke to, (full name or customer rep ID#), what they said. If you can tape the conversation, do it.

    Get obsolutely anal about details.

    NEVER, EVER send them original reciepts or payment records. Make copies. If they say they don't accept copies, tell them tough shit.

    Keep track of the time and money you spend on this.

    Make sure you keep a copy of all correspondence between you and insert evil entity's name.

    Send said correspondence registered mail. You can even do this with email now too, just check your mail client's preferences.

    Don't waste too much time with functionaries. They don't get paid much, and there's usually very little they can actually DO for you. As a rule they're also badly trained temps who are famous for taking a bad situation and making it worse.

    Head for the heartbeat if you want action. Find out the name of the corporation's CEO. As I said above go to their web site and pretend you want to buy stock.. they'll tell you anything. In the absence of the CEO the Board of Directors will do.

    Begin a letter to your entity of choice. Start at the beginning, and list every single solitary detail of the whole sordid affair. Don't make threats. Don't cuss him out. But it is permissable to be "pleasantly sarcastic." such as "are you confused yet? I certainly was!"

    Remind him/them that YOU ARE A CUSTOMER and have friends, all of whom have other friends. Do so casually.

    If it is at all possible, find out where this guy lives and mail the letter - registered - to his house or personal office. This will get his attention.

    Await satisfactory response... it will come.

    Long, long story, but Gateway Corp once sold me a POS computer. Their corporate offices were in South Dakota, but I happened to know their CEO lived in San Diego. Figuring, if he lived there, he probably had an office presence there, that's where my 17 page opus needed to go. So I went looking for the address of this office (hint The Chamber of Commerce). It took a couple weeks because he got my letter on September 11 2001. But in the end I got a brand new computer with a complimentary CD burner. For the next year whatever I wanted I just invoked my customer ID # and it came Next Day Air, free of charge. (yeah that computer was a REAL POS)

    I once wrote to the CEO of UPS about a monumental screw up - theirs of course - involving my shipper number. It had gone on for months and I was turned into a collection agency for charges that didn't belong to me. I described the whole mess in great, graphic detail, and solved the accounting errors for them. Then, for added florish, I included a bill for my time (this is where keeping track of the time you spent comes in)

    They paid me. It was only $100, but I understood from reliable sources that UPS had NEVER paid someone for something like that before. Probably haven't since either.

    It is possible to get these soulless assholes over a barrel and win the day, just keep your focus and never back down.

    Meddle not in the affairs of dragons... for thou art crunchy and good with ketchup.

    by Pariah Dog on Fri Mar 22, 2013 at 02:16:25 PM PDT

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