A few facts about the supernatural:
• Six of every ten persons, including hairdressers, senators, and space scientists, believe in flying saucers.
• Half the population believes in ESP, astrology, ghosts, or the transmigration of souls.
• Four out of ten believe in the Devil.
• No one believes in consumer revenge, not even me.
Clearly, something is wrong. Of the many possible supernatural phenomena, people are pleased to believe in those that do them the least good. It's silly. There ought to be at least one trendy paranormal fad with some down-to-earth application. The closest any of them comes is astrology: it may hold down traffic jams by keeping certain people off the streets on days their horoscopes are bad. Other than that, there is hardly anything useful about the occult.
And that is too bad, because even the most discerning of consumers could sometimes use some out-of-this-world help. How much this is true was unconsciously illustrated by a recent television commercial, starring two brutes in pinstriped suits. The commercial goes something like this: The brutes pull their big black car up to a garage and, brandishing violin cases, demand service. They get it. Pronto. Within seconds, the windshield has been washed, the tires and oil checked, and a sputter in the engine diagnosed and repaired. It is fabulous service, the kind that you and I seldom get, perhaps because we don't look as though we break thumbs for a living. If we came in with a similar problem, the attendants would yawn and tell us to come back next Thursday.
What all this goes to show is that one of the liveliest incentives to capable, efficient service is missing from our current system. Fear. Most people are no longer afraid of doing a bad job. Unless they happen to own the company they work for, the negative consequences of mistreating the consumer are now mostly psychological rather than economic. It may make someone feel lousy when he takes advantage of other people. But if it doesn't, the threat of losing his job may not mean much either. Being fired these days is not always unattractive. With so many social welfare services to cushion the impact of unemployment, some people treat being fired almost as a paid vacation. In fact, lots of people do. In a single week, New York has mailed as many as 20,000 unemployment checks to tropical resorts. In some industries, labor unions have even begun to demand that senior employees have the right to be laid off first.
We've rigged the system to enable ourselves to be lazy producers and thus have provided another proof of Oscar Wilde's famous quip: "When the gods wish to punish us they grant us our wish." We wanted to create a society where almost anybody could be paid for doing nothing. And we have. The trouble is that the benefits we gain from being lazy producers are taken away from us as consumers. We are paid more to do less. But we have to pay more to get less.
It is a problem which can best be appreciated while standing in line to have something repaired. It doesn't matter what: television, sewing machine, refrigerator. These days you need an appointment, just as if you were going to visit a good brain surgeon. And unless you are lucky enough to know some little old man who still does a good job from force of habit, chances are the repair won't be done properly.
For example, not long ago I took an automobile in to be repaired for the 23rd time. It was purchased new in February 1976. Most of the early repairs were covered by the warranty, but they were nonetheless aggravating. At times I felt like suing the dealer, running the car off a cliff, or shipping it to Africa as a gift for Colonel Khadaffi. I didn't. I stuck it out, imagining that some combination of replacement parts could make the thing work like it was supposed to.
This outstandingly stupid optimism persisted, past the day when the service manager was fired, literally for "trying too hard to please customers on matters which weren't the dealer's responsibility." I only wised up after the manifold cracked into little pieces. After weeks of hassling for an appointment and waiting for more parts, the thing finally was replaced and I was told, "You shouldn't be having any more trouble with it." Right. No sooner had I driven away than a gasket caught fire and the manifold came loose.
Sitting there by the side of the road, listening to the unmuffled roar of the engine, I had my first vision of a new form of paranormal experience—consumer revenge. Of course, it was probably brought on by carbon monoxide poisoning. No matter. That didn't reduce the pleasure of imagining that some strange process of telekinesis would henceforth, by means unexplained, inflict raw justice upon those who abuse consumers with bungling, incompetent service.
The first to get what he deserved was the mechanic—who at that moment dropped a monkey wrench on his foot. The problem is that he probably did not realize that his swollen toe reflected justice at work. To him, it was mere clumsiness. To become really useful, consumer revenge must become a well-publicized fad. Henceforth, the mechanic should imagine that while he works some poltergeist is sizing up an anatomy chart with an eye to grafting the manifold to his person should he not bother to install it properly. In that case, there would be a marked improvement in the quality of repair work.
And it needn't be confined to mechanics. Think what a change would come over your friendly monopolists at the post office and the telephone company if they thought there could be some bad consequence of providing bad service. The mailman who dawdles on delivery, for example, should be tormented into imagining that everything he touches is turned into a sort of rank Limburger—until all the mail that he slowed up is in the hands of persons for whom it was meant. It could be amazing.
Admittedly, however, not everyone is prepared to believe that poltergeists are hovering over his shoulder while he works. But some would. You could fill stadiums full of people who believe that soothsayers can step into another dimension and that Saint Joseph of Cupertino could fly. And this says nothing of the even greater numbers who place full credit in out-of-body experiences, Uri Geller, and congressional news releases. Such people are capable of believing in anything.
To make consumer revenge the occult fad it should be, all we need is a series of unsubstantiated reports that blind justice has suddenly struck some of the bunglers, dead beats, and ripoff artists who have heretofore gone scot free. From Mississippi could come the rumor that a washing machine repairman has been sucked into a top-loader during the rinse cycle and is being held for ransom until he refunds all the money he exacted over the years by dead beating during house calls. From Philadelphia could come the story of a corporate lawyer found strangled in red tape.
You see how it might work. The reports would be passed on as in a game of Chinese Whispers by disc jockeys on FM radio stations. Before long, the power of suggestion would have millions thinking about consumer revenge.
Soon, the National Enquirer would be running articles such as "Maître d' Chokes on Own Words—Amazed Investigators Identify Unchewed Sentence Fragment: '…will be ready in a moment.'" Pulp magazines, such as Beyond Reality, would adapt to the new fad by setting aside, along with regular reports on psychic predictions, a section on consumer revenge. By offering $25 for each "true-to-life" account, they would generate a flood of stories. For instance, Mr. R.U. Burlador of Miami might recount an episode of an electric clippers turning on a barber—after he scalped a customer requesting "only a slight trim." "When I seen them clippers chasing that barber around the chair, I didn't even wait to see what happened. I'm telling you. I just jumped up and ran…"
The trouble with this whole scheme is that, no matter how successfully consumer revenge flourished as an occult fad, it could never reach the people who most deserve torment. The power of suggestion is wonderful. But no amount of reiteration that supernatural vengeance for wrongs to consumers occurs is likely to affect the imaginations of those who have contributed most to consumer troubles—the monetary authorities and government economists. They are the accomplices of all the little dead beats, incompetents, and chiselers. When they cheapened money, they made it almost inevitable that products and services be cheapened too. The inflationists are the ones who not only took the extra nuts out of the candy bar but supplied the conditions for most of the consumer's other troubles, as well.
It is too bad that a series of nightmares and ghostly visitations of the sort that plagued E. Scrooge cannot be arranged for the architects of inflation. Each night, at the stroke of midnight, they should be handed a big shovel in their dreams, so they could spend the hours until dawn laboring to rearrange the mountains of paper money they caused to be printed. But this could never happen. The economists and the rest of the funny-money crowd are probably incapable of having bad dreams. Each night they drift into bliss, imagining that they are dots frolicking in the interstices of function curves on a piece of graph paper.
Then again, the very fact that consumer revenge could never penetrate to the imaginations or the consciences of government experts might help to insure that it becomes the trendy fad it ought to be. As time passed and stories of consumer revenge gained wide currency, two things would happen. There would be a great increase in the efficiency and competence of services of all kinds. And there would be the inevitable government investigation.
A panel of experts such as were assembled for Project Bluebook (which investigated flying saucers) would be brought together to sift all the evidence for consumer revenge. In 27 months the panel would report back: "There is absolutely no reason to believe that consumer revenge is real." Of more than 13,400 items investigated, all but 600 would be conclusively attributed to natural causes. The remainder, simply marked "unexplained," would be described in materials deposited in the National Archives.
Needless to say, that would remove all doubt. Sixty percent of the population would be convinced that the whole thing is real. You could see it by reading the graffiti in any bathroom: "CIA Hands Off Consumer Revenge.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Viewpoint: Consumer Revenge".