Selling Protection

Just a new twist to an old racket. Uncle Mario's boys would have understood national health insurance.


Just the other day I was listening to a bluejean-clad woman of 30 years or so, proclaiming the merits and potential merits of a national health insurance plan, discoursing on how evil doctors are in general and how much more wonderful they would be if only they did not insist on getting paid. Hair flying, anatomy bouncing, and tobacco smoke fuming from mouth and nostrils, this leftover from the candle and macrame generation was a somewhat less than appealing case for counter-reasoning. I felt somewhat obligated to enter into a Socratic discourse with my newly acquired acquaintance, if not to help her arrive at truth, then at least to steer her to a decent mouthwash.

To protect the proverbial innocent, let us call her Juana; for I recently met a woman of similar years, wearing a McCarthy button, who answered to that name. (It might be worth mentioning, though, that I once knew a small spaniel answering to the name Juana, but I want to give the spaniel, at least, the benefit of the doubt. It never asked me for a thing, though it would occasionally beg for a piece of prosciutto; never did it demand health care for the masses, per nulla!)

I commenced a reasonable rebuttal: "What would happen, Juana, if some people simply did not want to subscribe to your national health plan and therefore did not want to pay into it not wanting anything from it?" Now I perceived this as a reasonable question, but the results it elicited from Juana bore a striking resemblance to the before-mentioned spaniel, except its teeth were whiter and it did not seem to growl as much. Juana indicated, in so many words, that the issue is not whether they want it. The emphasis on want was such from Juana's mouth as to indicate that the idea of someone's actually self-deciding something is absolutely appalling.

The fact is, if Juana is to have her way, people are going to pay for protection, whether they want it or not. Anyone's simply refusing to pay into Juana's proposed system is no problem for her or for her plan—it is simply a matter for the IRS. For in her words, the IRS has the power and machinery to enforce.

At this point in our story, Juana can temporarily fade out of the picture. We owe her a favor, however, because she teaches us a valuable lesson. What that lesson is, you see, is that selling protection, whether the client wants it or not, is not an entirely new development. This is where my Uncle Mario comes in.

Uncle Mario was in the insurance business in the 1930's in New York City. One might have called him an agent; however, he was not of the ilk that one thinks of along with State Farm, or Liberty Mutual. As a matter of fact, Uncle Mario did not even have an office, as it were, although he had lots and lots of customers, most of whom owned Italian bakeries, delicatessens, fish markets, and assorted other small businesses. The secret of Uncle Mario's success was that he never asked people if they wanted his protection (and this was years before Dale Carnegie or assertiveness training). Instead, he just suggested to a local entrepreneur the sorts of things that could happen to his or her business if it were not "protected." This, of course, was all done with smiling faces and over free pieces of provolone with vino. After all, what's a little protection among friends?

As time went on, Uncle Mario had ample opportunity to advertise. But he did not advertise like State Farm, Liberty Mutual or Aetna does. No; a curious state of affairs existed. Uncle Mario would be absolutely delighted when some short-sighted businessman simply refused to buy protection from him. This gave Uncle Mario an opportunity to put into practice one of the oldest advertising methods of the marketplace: to simply show what advantages people with your product enjoy over those without your product. And this is what Uncle Mario did. People without his product would invariably have extended episodes of bad luck. Windows would, of their own accord, suddenly disintegrate; family automobiles would become curiously inflammable; and, in severe cases, store owners would die in unfortunate swimming accidents in the East River.

Uncle Mario did fine until he was merged with a lower east side operator whom we may call, for lack of a better name, Manicotti Mutual, though there was nothing very mutual about the merger. As a matter of fact, I have never met Uncle Mario. It is said that in 1946 he bled to death after accidentally stabbing himself with his own paring knife, 12 times, in the back.

"Now," the astute reader may ask, "what has all this to do with a national health insurance plan"? Well, this is where Juana comes back into the picture.

Juana's plan to sell people protection, whether they want it or not, bears a striking similarity to Uncle Mario's scenario, although Juana is a lot smarter and Uncle Mario was much more honest. Uncle Mario simply established a piece of action and tried to maintain it as best he could. True, he eventually lost out to a more adept bunch of crooks, Manicotti Mutual, but never did he try to deny the essence of his character—that he was a crook and a looter. Juana handles the problem of inter-looter competition with more finesse. Juana is not small-time. She wants to align immediately with the creme de la creme (or scum de la scum) of crooks, that being the IRS. For the reader who is skeptical of this analogy, let us be somewhat more analytical.

Like Uncle Mario, Juana will implement her sort of coercion with a smiling face. Indeed, the federal government has recently acquired one of the smilingest faces in the world, or at least south of Camden, New Jersey. Also, Juana does have a service to offer. She will provide some degree of quality health care to some influential persons here and there, just as Uncle Mario would do some favors for his more productive clients. In this way, in the unlikely event the populace gets rebellious, those with power have already been brought to the side of the coercers, or at least neutralized to the point of ineffectiveness.

Juana's mode of advertising only differs from Uncle Marios's in its degree of vigor. Uncle Mario could only kill you. The IRS can starve you and, as the meanest twist of all, make you appear morally bankrupt at the same time! Notice, with Juana's plan there will be no need for late-night television ads with soothing voices that say, "For a small fee, we will give you and your family financial peace of mind in the event of sickness or death," like there is with private agencies such as State Farm or Aetna. No way. Instead, Juana's plan will use the Uncle Mario method, letting you know beforehand precisely what happens to people who refuse to pay into the protection system, whatever their reasons. (We already know what happens to people who refuse to pay their taxes, ultimately, so there is no reason to recount it here.)

What does it all mean? Perhaps, that there is nothing new under the sun.

A native of New York, Mr. Barone works in southwestern Wisconsin but lives across the Iowa border. He has a bachelor's degree In philosophy and psychology and a master's in school psychology.