Rave On: Free Markets?

"The only entities for which free markets exist are the corporate entities that own them." This is a rough paraphrase of the A.J. Liebling quote about free press and the people who own them, but it applies with equally painful irony in these days of multinational-holding companies, government-assisted merger mania and the relentless erosion of individual rights in favor of corporate rights.

I had an amazingly clear example of this the other day as I sought to help a friend with her car. My friend received a 1999 Honda Accord as a present from her brother - who is something of an obsessive personality as well as being extremely generous. As a result, she feels responsible to him to keep the car in the best possible condition.

In a momentary lapse of attention a couple of weeks ago, she backed into a wooden barrier in a parking lot. She was barely moving - perhaps two or three miles an hour - and the barrier caught her bumper.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong here, but I thought bumpers were supposed to protect cars from damage in such incidents. First we had large, spring mounted metal bumpers, strong and durable. Although they protected the vehicle's body in low speed impacts, they turned out to be susceptible to denting and to the peeling of their chrome plating.

So, by consumer demand, we moved first to synthetic rubber covered metal bumpers, and then to bumpers made entirely of space-age plastics coated with rubber. They were very durable in low impact accidents, springing back to shape, and they were almost impervious to weather damage (except for UV damage after quite a few years). They had the added advantages of being lighter weight (for better gas mileage) and more impact absorbing in higher speed crashes. So far, so good.

Now, in the last half of the last decade of the twentieth century, apparently there has been a consumer movement of which I have previously been unaware. Legions of consumers have been begging automobile companies to put the expense back in minor, low impact accidents. The automobile industry, always at the beck and call of consumers, responded - in spades.

The plastic, energy-absorbing bumper on my friend's new car - and on many new models since 1996 - is coated with a metallic paint that matches the rest of the body. The result is that a tiny mistake like the one my friend made is a converted into a catastrophe. The energy absorbing bumper sprang back to shape, but the paint fractured and peeled off, leaving a hole about the size of a silver dollar.

My friend took the car to a local body shop, fearing that her brother would think her ungrateful and irresponsible for not taking better care of the car. The answer was: $100. That's right, to repair a less than 2 square inch piece of exposed black plastic bumper. The process by which the finish is adhered to the underlying plastic is a complicated and exacting one, requiring several steps of cleaning, surface preparation and finishing.

Why? Because they can. Why should you be able to back gently into an obstacle and drive away scot-free? Not if the Automobile Industry and the Automobile Body Repair Industry have anything to say about it. Obviously consumers have been complaining that they don't feel sufficiently punished for such offenses against perfect driving. The Industry only wants to "give consumers what they want."

I blame you. I am sure you are one of those who have been tirelessly lobbying the automobile manufacturers to make these changes. I have a sneaking suspicion that you are among those who have been making the phone calls, writing the letters, sending the telegrams - demanding that the industry create cars with bumpers painted to match the bodies - regardless of the cost.

You deny it? Well, if not you, then who? Who was it - which group of consumers - who "demanded" this change of our ever "responsive" consumer products industry. If I understand the pronouncements of such acolytes of Free Market Economics as Steve Forbes, Alan Greenspan and David Rubin, we, the consumers, through international competition, in free markets are supposed to end up with the best possible product at the lowest possible price.

So, what the hell happened? What we ended up with is a piece of expensive plastic junk that looks good on the showroom floor but falls apart at a touch and is prohibitively expensive to repair. And in our "free market" economy real competition has disappeared to such a degree that if you want a new car, you've got to buy one thus equipped.

So much for the forces of competition in the free market place. Between the psychological manipulation of advertising and the concentration of control of what comes into the market place in the hands of a very few companies, the "free market" is an absurd piece of newspeak worthy of Orwell himself.

Luckily, you can still buy a used car with a protective - as opposed to decorative - bumper. You can write to the manufacturers to protest, but it is almost impossible to "vote with your pocketbook" because the choice isn't there. Those who flood the market place with such "innovations" and then claim they are "giving the public what it wants" are playing a cynical and manipulative game.

I'd say it was time to WAKE UP, AMERICA, but I'm not sure waking up is such a good idea. The nightmare continues.

In the immortal words of Denis Miller, "But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong."

Am I? Why? What's yours?