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Jewish World Review /July 31, 1998 / 8 Menachem-Av, 5758

Larry Elder

Larry Elder


"CONSUMERS ARE GETTING WALLOPED," said New York Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato at a recent Congressional hearing. The issue? Fraud? No. Theft? Nope. Answer: "double charges."

See, some banks charge their customers for using another bank's ATM, while tacking on an additional ATM fee.
This "double charge," according to Senator D'Amato, "wallops" us. Disgruntled ATM users call their local pol and scream. Smelling a chance to play Zorro, enter Senator D'Amato swinging into action to protect us from the evils of the free enterprise system.

The surcharge tacked onto a consumer's bill for using some other bank's machine averages $1. You wouldn't see Jimmy Stewart pull something like that down at the Building and Loan. Stop the outrage!

Never mind that 36 percent of banks do not impose surcharges. Or that banks exist to make profits. Forget that banks have every incentive to listen to customers, treat them well and respond to complaints about their actions. Never mind that customers have alternatives to ATMs, including, but not limited to, not using them.

Remember the old days? The jokes about "bankers' hours"? Now, thanks to ATMs, when you need a buck, you can get one. On your own time, often without lines. Most of us gladly pay for the convenience. It's sort of nice not to have to rush to the bank by 3 o'clock on Friday.

But there's something more fundamentally disturbing about D'Amato's position --his premise. That the free market, left to its own devices, becomes an exploitative, greedy profit machine. It pillages and plunders the very customers necessary for their own success. Thus, the government must subsidize our demand for goods and services whether or not businesses can profitably provide them.

D'Amato assumes that businesses that "wallop" can do so forever, without consequences, immune from competition. Besides, banking remains one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country. Government-imposed regulation increases costs, which banks pass along through consumers. Nothing is free, and neither are government-imposed mandates.

For example, the government may hold up a bank merger unless the bank agrees to lend a certain amount to urban borrowers. Do it, say the Feds, or forget the merger. But asking a bank to alter lending criteria may trigger more defaults. The consequences? Less interest paid to depositors or higher fees on services offered, including the use of automatic teller machines.

But, hey, as long as Senator Alfonse D'Amato insists on passing out free stuff, I've got some beefs. A guy told me that one hot morning he pulled up to a MacDonalds' drive-through. He ordered a standard breakfast, but wanted to substitute a small Diet Coke for the coffee. "You can't do that," said the attendant. "Why?" the guy said. "It's 90 degrees out here, and I don't want to drink anything hot. Can you please exchange the coffee for a soft drink?" "No," she said, and proceeded to "wallop" him with the price of a small Diet Coke. Do something, Al!

Also, Senator, try making a phone call from a hotel room. Check out the hotel bill add-ons for these outgoing calls. Far cheaper to trek down to the lobby with change or credit card and use the pay phone. Stop this wallop!

And, Senator, you drop some coins into a snack food vending machine, but then decide you don't want anything after all. The machine keeps your money and forces you to make a choice. People riot over less. Help!

If a restaurant valet parks my car less than 8 feet from the door, why can't I get it myself, and save at least part of the tip?

And why, Senator, in a restaurant, if you order tea, they'll bring you a second cup of hot water, but never a new tea bag? What's up with that?

Say you're at a self-service gas station. You get out of the car to pump gas. The attendant standing next to the pump asks if he can help you. Why doesn't he do that while you're still sitting in the car?

Why do they charge a flat rate for a movie, no matter how bad the film?

We don't pay the same price for fresh bread as we do for three-day-old, do we?

Why is it that at those all-you-can-eat buffets they give you little, bitty plates? You end up making two or three embarrassing trips before calling it a day, even though you're still hungry.

And, finally, this probably exceeds your jurisdiction, but could you make teenagers stop wearing their baseball caps backwards? I know it's not expensive, but, God, is it annoying.

So, Senator, I know you have your hands full with this ATM "wallop." But your prompt attention to these matters would be greatly appreciated.


7/24/98: Advising the advisors
7/17/98: Camille Cosby's carelessness
7/9/98: Moses mugged
7/2/98: Al Campanis -- forever a racist?
6/25/98: And you thought "coke" was worse than smokes
6/19/98: Is Jasper ‘America'?
6/12/98: Guess who's not coming to dinner
6/5/98: What now, NOW?
5/29/98:What's next, ‘burger busters'?
5/21/98: 'Stuff' happens
5/18/98: This just in
5/11/98: Stepping up
4/30/98: Who's faking whom?
4/16/98:To spank or not to spank

©1998, Laurence A. Elder