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Markets Care; Governments Don't

June 6, 2002

In the coliseum of capitalism, life or death depends on the consumer, who rules over the games. Down in the dusty pit, the gladiators battle, but keep one eye cocked on the emperor. Everything depends on his whim.

Thumbs up means prosperity and bright Rolls Royce showrooms. Thumbs down signals bankruptcy and dark-paneled courtrooms. Consequently, sellers of goods and services encourage communication between themselves and the arbiter of their fate--the shy, but omnipotent consumer, the sphinx with a wallet whose riddle is always the same:  How can you please me?

"Your product is too salty, too sweet, too blue, too big, too costly, too hard to open. Please me, or die," says the emperor.

Like the other night. I had my usual plateload of salted hamburger, salted onions, and salted homemade French fries followed by a large slice of apple pie. I was thirsty, so I opened a Pepsi One. I love that tricky no-cal Pepsi One. It’s flavored with something that deceives my taste buds. "Sugar," it registers to my naive brain. Tastes just like that other cola drink. 

But later, I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned and nightmared that an OSHA swat team had shattered my den door and installed federally approved seat belts on my den sofa and reclining armchairs. A restless night. It’s that darned caffeine, I thought. So  at 8:30 the next morning, reading it right off the can, I called Pepsi’s toll-free line. Their representative cheerfully answered my questions regarding caffeine content in all their products, including Mountain Dew. 

Pepsi One, it turns out, has 55 milligrams of caffeine. Great for energy, but not conducive to dreamland.  A better choice before bedtime is decaffeinated Diet Pepsi. So a trivial matter is resolved, plus I receive a mini-lecture on Pepsi’s free feedback service.

I’m told that the Pepsi toll-free line has been humming with customer comments for 20 years. They get a thousand calls a day. And they don’t contract out this service. "We’re all Pepsi employees," the Pepsi lady  proudly informed me. While I had this eager representative on the line, I volunteered a few constructive suggestions about flavoring the other Pepsi products with that really-tastes-like-sugar sweetener. She loved it. 

To Pepsi, in its quest for the emperor’s favor, this was a big thumbs up.

The next morning, I sat at the breakfast table with my morning companions: two scrambled eggs and the hometown paper. The headline spoke loudly of our secretary of State’s plans to bring peace to that three-millennia-old slaughterhouse called the Holy Land --the Middle East, the inspiration for the World Wrestling Federation. 

Hey, I disagree with the SecState’s plan. I once thumbed through a long magazine article about the Middle East, and I’ve got a better plan! I’ll call him, or his boss, just like I called Pepsi. And I know he’s anxious for my better plan, because he works for me and my 50 million fellow taxpayers. I can fire him at his next evaluation period in November of 2004. So, I know he’s sitting by the phone right now, mumbling:  "Why doesn’t some taxpayer call me with HIS plan?" 

Well, you may not believe this, but neither the secretary of State nor the president has a toll-free line like Pepsi does.  Neither do my congressional representatives. That’s what the operator told me. 

Must be some mistake, I tell her. 

"Some companies don’t list a toll-free number," she tells me electronically. 

"Some companies"?  I’ll say. The biggest publicly owned corporation in the history of Western civilization: the U.S. government! You don’t believe me? Call 1-800-555-1212. Try to get the White House or your congressman. You can reach the IRS, naturally, since it expedites the extraction of your taxes.  And you can call Pepsi to ask how many milligrams of caffeine are in Pepsi One. 

Is it not rationally baffling that the publicly owned, hydra-headed conglomerate that governs our nation does not have a toll-free number?     

Why isn’t my president, my congressman, my governor, the postmaster general, or the county tax assessor as eager to hear my response to his ministrations as a manufacturer of sugared, cola-flavored water is? Why does he shun its revelations? 

Strange, that politicians are oblivious to its charms but that giants like Pepsi and even our local mom-and-pop barbecue caterers whirl like a weather vane in consumers' currents. Too much heat in the barbecue beans? Cozy Cook Caterers wants to know. They want you to buy their beans. They’ll reduce the Tabasco if they get enough calls from their 30 to 40 regulars. They do barbecue chicken and ribs too--both beef and pork. They aim to please. So if you like the beef ribs better than the pork, they want to know about it. 

And if only a handful of puckered-up callers thought their sauce tasted like green persimmons, they pay attention. They live or die on your feedback. Sure the call’s free. Everything depends on it. They would pay you to call. They thrive on your prejudices. 

Villainous Pepsi, too: the sugar-water company that has skirmished with the blue-nosed Health Police for years? Pepsi, the enamel eater, the tooth destroyer? Wouldn’t they kill the tooth fairy herself for an additional quarter percent return on investment; or at least fill her so full of Pepsi that she’d flutter to the floor? But the beverage and food conglomerate obeys that canon of capitalism which, for better or worse, enthrones the consumer.  Please us, or die, says the emperor.

Ted Roberts writes from Huntsville, Alabama. Send him MAIL. See his Mises.org Articles Archive.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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