Please, Take My Money!

Earlier this week my wife and I were at one of the local big box home improvement stores. Which one doesn’t really matter. I could easily imagine this playing out at any one of a number of establishments.

After much hand wringing and soul searching, the carpet and vinyl flooring choices had been made, and we were ready to sign the contract. We had been given a quote earlier and went to the appropriate section of the store, which of course was empty of personnel. Soon an employee from another department appeared and began trying to find our account in the computer. Within a few minutes someone assigned to flooring happened by, and our odyssey began in earnest.

After finding our account and pulling it up onscreen, we started going over it and I immediately noticed several items that hadn’t been discussed when the estimator had visited us the week before. After a few phone calls most of the questions were more or less answered, and we moved on to payment.

I pointed to a clipping taped to the post above the computer that said, “Ask how you can get a 20% discount.” When I asked, I was offered an application for a store credit card. At the end of the online application, after the process was complete, the fine print limiting the discount to a maximum of $100.00 appeared, which was a disappointment. Also disappointing was the 27% interest rate, but not as much as the discovery that the discount did not apply to anything that involved installation. I decided not to bother asking why the offer was displayed in the flooring section of the store, which pretty much only deals in things that must be installed, thinking it would be wasted time. At this point we had already spent close to a half an hour trying to finish this deal. 

It turned out that there was much more to come. We had to move to the front of the store to complete the transaction, and when we got there I got out my checkbook and wrote the store a check for a little over ten thousand dollars. I had moved some money around and had more than enough in my account to cover it. 

The check was declined. The employee tried to run it through again, with the same result. When he called over another employee, she said that when a check was entered into the system, it was treated the same way as a debit card, and if the debit card had a daily limit the transaction would be rejected. 

I called my credit union, had the limit on my debit card lifted, and the employee decided it would be best to tear up that check and write a new one. As it happened, that was the last check in my book, so I went out to my car and got a new booklet of checks, came back, and wrote another check. 

Which was also rejected the first time it ran through the machine. The second time he tried it, it became stuck, and the computer froze halfway through the attempted transaction. This required a call to the IT department and a move to a different terminal. The new terminal would not open our account because as far as the system was concerned, the account was already open on another machine.

At this point we were an hour and some several minutes into trying to complete this sale. A department manager showed up and took over, and much discussion ensued among the several employees involved in this fiasco. Eventually the correct forms were brought up on the computer and the printing process began, which took more time.

By this point we had agreed that we might as well give up on trying to get the machine to accept a check and we used a couple of credit cards to pay for the flooring and installation (which was to be done by a subcontractor; I understand that is standard practice now). I elected not to use the store credit card on principle, because of the usurious interest rate.

The whole process took over an hour and a half, not including the call we got the next day from someone in another department informing us that two items totaling about $500 had been left off the estimate and it was actually going to cost more than we had settled on the previous day.

A thoroughly unpleasant experience, and it’s taking a fair amount of restraint to avoid using the kind of language I would like to use to describe the ordeal.

Later, I spoke to a friend in the construction business and described the above to him. I told him I was thinking about bailing out of the whole mess and trying again at another store. When I asked him if that was a good idea, he said sure, but it might very well be the same at the next place. “That’s just the way it is now,” is how he put it.

As a young man, I did much of the work constructing our house myself. Now that I am well past being young, I no longer have the strength, balance, or stamina to do the kind of things I used to do. Sometimes, having to hire out a job I would have tackled myself some years back is frustrating to say the least. Overall, I like being an old guy. There are lots of advantages: perspective, experience, a sense of the long view of things, the opportunity to play the curmudgeon, and so on. Occasionally, though, it’s a little irritating.

If You’ve Got the Money

If a millionaire sat in front of a fire and burned one dollar a second, it would take a little over 11 days to go through the million dollars. A billionaire sitting at that same fire, burning money at the same pace, would have to keep it up for over 30 years. Someone with 100 billion dollars (and we have a few of those around) would still be burning money after 3,000 years.

The impetus for this little thought exercise was the statement made by Bezos at the end of his recent flight. Evidently he had decided some time back that a trip to the edge of space would be fun/a good idea, and ordered a rocket ship to be built for that purpose. (I’m looking at the sentence I just typed and can hardly believe it even though I know it happened.) He picked a few friends, rocketed up to the edge of space, floated around for a short time, and came back. Upon his return he exited the capsule, went to the microphones waiting for him, and said he’d like to thank all the people who bought stuff on Amazon, because they paid for his trip. Clueless or arrogant, or probably a little of both, it was a striking thing to say. It could be argued that his workers also paid for the trip, since it was their labor that resulted in his gigantic bank account.

His choice to spend his money on this, as well as on a yacht so large it needs its own smaller yacht, instead of rewarding his workers with better wages, more vacation, premium health care, improved working conditions, or any number of other options, is reprehensible. If capitalism is the art of what you can get away with, he is a master. Henry Ford, a man with many faults, was also the man who doubled his workers’ wages because he understood that if the workers couldn’t afford the products they were making, he was missing out on an enormous market. I’m not sure he did it because it was the right thing to do, but he did put a good sized chunk of money back into circulation that another in his same position might have kept for himself. The fact that Ford was seen as bucking the system and Bezos is seen as an example of the success of it says to me that the system is deeply flawed.

There is a verse in the Tao Te Ching about men with fancy swords and women in fine gowns, parading their wealth at court. Lao Tzu said that this is like robbers boasting after a looting and, as usual, I think he’s onto something.

I’ve seen a lot of posts and ads over the last few years attacking one or the other of the two main political parties here in the US. Some make an attempt to be well-reasoned and fact based, and others are just mean, showing no regard for truth or decorum. Politicians are easy; they generally love the sound of their own voice and so provide ample opportunity for anger or satire. Just because they are easy, though, it does not necessarily follow that they are where the focus should lie. An indicator of this is the fact that the people “in power” change but the core problems persist.

It seems to me that maybe, if being angry is a useful stance (and I’m not convinced that it is), we’re getting mad at the wrong people. Maybe, instead, we should be looking at ways to improve, revamp, or completely reorganize the system. It’s working very well, but only for a vanishingly small percentage of people. Another solution, less often considered but probably more likely to have long-term success, was proposed years ago by Buckminster Fuller. He said once that we shouldn’t fight the system; we should create new ways of doing things that make the old system obsolete. I think he’s onto something as well.