The confused consumer

About a decade ago businessmen began complaining about the number of forms they had to fill out as a result of living in a regulated economy. With everything else businessmen have to complain about, including the weather, taxes , obstreperous unions, and foreign imports, the filling out of forms would seem a minor grievance. Yet anyone who, like me, falls into a state of total confusion when confronted with a long list of bureaucratic questions will understand that the hundreds of forms required for conducting even a small business may be a very serious burden indeed.

The simplest demand for information makes my mind a blank. I cannot remember the dates of birth of my nieces or grandnieces, or even of my sons. My wife's maiden name escapes me. When the monosyllable ''sex'' appears, I am startled; when the need is for figures, I just give up. Being of this disposition, I have long been in sympathy with any move, by anyone, for reducing the number of forms with which human beings must deal.

Since governmental regulation had caused the multiplication of forms in the first place, the obvious solution was to deregulate. This the businessmen of the country demanded, and this they apparently got. I trust they are happy with the result. I would be happy if I were a businessman, but being a plain citizen, or what is sometimes called a consumer, I have certain doubts about this process of deregulation. Its consequence has been to make things complicated that once were relatively simple, and to present the aforesaid consumer with such a plethora of choices as to be-dazzle the mind.

When the airlines were regulated, for example, they were few in number and their fares were steady and reasonably comprehensible. When the telephone company was a single entity known as AT&T, there was only one way to make a long-distance call. Now it requires a genius with up-to-the-second information to penetrate the airline schedules. A modern form of wizardry is necessary to tell which of a dozen long-distance services will provide the cheapest rates.

When I was buying an airline ticket recently I became confused by the complex options. Should I pay one fare with no right to cancel or alter my reservation? Or should I pay another with a right to cancel and no meals but free newspapers and a current movie thrown in? Other possibilities even more bizarre were presented. I asked the young lady at the counter whether she could not give me some sort of written schedule which I might contemplate. Alas, she said in effect, everything changed so fast that before anything could be written down it would be out of date. According to authoritative information at my disposal (and this is quite serious), there are sometimes 1,500 changes in domestic air fares in a day!

I am not sure what has happened to banks - whether they, too, found the filling out of forms objectionable - but in one way or another, through law and legislation, they have achieved a large measure of deregulation. The result once more is confusion for the consumer. It used to be that one had a checking account or a savings account. Today one can have money market accounts, retirement accounts, NOW and Super NOW accounts, with many other permutations too wonderful to mention.

As a plain man who wants his money safe, and wants to get it out when he needs it, I find that I am quite out of my depth. One cannot even tell anymore what is a bank. Banks look like gift shops, or like hot dog stands, and one recalls nostalgically the days when a bank was something in a marble building, usually with columns in front of it.

We are told, by people who ought to know, that the confusion is temporary. Consumers will learn to master the new choices. Educational centers will be set up to instruct them in these novel mysteries; counselors will guide them through the maze. As a result of such innovative services, unemployment will be measurably diminished. Perhaps so, but if this all began because businessmen objected to filling out governmental forms, they might well be urged to reconsider. For the sake of simplicity I would even fill out a few forms myself!

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.