Wednesday, January 25, 2006

America, the New Switzerland

Tibor R. Machan

Back in the mid-80s I lived a while in Lugano, Switzerland but I had traveled in the country and through it several times before. And while there are innumerable desirable features of the place—the great Alps, the brilliant lakes, the clean neighborhoods everywhere, the efficiency of the train system and the general abundance rarely found elsewhere in Europe even back then—one runs across a few irritants as well. One of them I used to find comical was that in Swiss restaurants one had to pay for everything—well, maybe not the use of the napkins. But if you wanted water, you had to pay for it. The same thing for bread, then butter, and so forth, although if I recall right, there was no charge for using the salt shaker.

One reason all these special charges were so amusing to me was, of course, that in the USA one wasn’t normally charged for the amenities, not at least separately. In hotels, for example, the soap came with the room, the water, bread, and butter came with the meal. That is how it used to be but not so much anymore. At least not everywhere.

No, none of the hotels and motels I have stayed in around the country have charged extra for the TV use in one’s room. Some, in fact, have changed to offering free breakfast, something that most of them have been offering in Europe and elsewhere around the globe. But while in quite a few of the more reasonable establishments there hadn’t been a surcharge for using the phone, increasingly the big hotels do impose it. And while quite a few of the smaller places along highways and in cities throw in Internet connections as well as business center use free of charge, recently I have noticed that it is the big, plush, and expensive hotels, in places like New York, Dallas, and Atlanta, that charge even for toll free telephone calls and a daily fee for Internet hook-up in your room.

I have never placidly accepted the practice of charging for toll free calls and usually protest this at the front desk and get the charges taken off when I check out. If the people there won’t do it, I ask for the manager and usually get it done. I don’t get why the hotel charges for something that is also paid for the companies that one is calling. “Toll free” only means the caller need not but the party being called must pay, which is why one is treated so shabbily at the other end, with endless menus, waiting, and transfers from this department to the next, and with ads being blasted into one’s ears while on hold. Not to mention the usually lame music interspersed with all of this.

The charge of a daily fee of, say, $10.00 for an Internet connection is also difficult to tolerate, given that my own length of use of it on the road is no more than, say, three times 4 minutes over the day. And why, if a Holiday Inn Express in McAllen, Texas, offers the service without an extra charge, must The New York Hilton sock it to you good and hard, given how much more their rooms per day come to? (Maybe there is a good economic answer to this but I am not sure it amounts to anything more than, well, they can, so they do.)

But perhaps what’s at work is something more systematic. Maybe, whereas in the past service establishment in the USA could provide various perks, just like they could offer employees the same (in the way of health and other benefits), with the world emerging out of the dark economic ages and joining into the competitive market system, companies on all fronts have to tighten their belts somewhat. Although American labor unions haven’t accepted the fact that these days there are people abroad who will work for less money and fewer benefits than their membership has become used to over the years, companies cannot ignore it. (That is what the brief strike in New York City recently was about—the refusal to consider that the extension of longevity may also mean the extension of length of service, thus delayed retirement for many employees, especially new ones.)

What used to be amusing about all those Swiss restaurants is no longer so amusing, given how a good many American establishments are changing to those practices nowadays. But it shouldn’t be protested too much, even by me who has been rather successful in the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” department. Just as the American basketball global dominance has subsided as more and more teams have learned the tricks of the game, so the cushy economic times in American may give way to tightened belts, what with the world’s workers having cast off their chains and, paradoxically, come to join the capitalist revolution. Old Karl Marx is probably twisting and turning in his grave.

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