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Wake-up call

Where's the beef?


Trial balloons serve a purpose, especially when they're shot down. They give policy strategists in government and private industry a preemptive leg up on public and consumer outrage, which helps them better gauge their potential damage-control needs.

The story of Wendy's planned surcharge on menu items during peak hours made a media splash but is now not even a ripple. It's as though it never happened. That's because when the balloon burst, the corporate heads got concussed. Wendy's scheme to jack up prices, starting with the first customer on the queue when the clock struck the witching hour, didn't sit well with their customers.

Fortune.com anticipated that "items will cost different prices at different times. Even when framed as 'discounts,’ it's a process surrounded by land mines.”

It was almost called "surge" pricing, but Wendy's replaced "surge" with "dynamic" in order to obscure its purpose of being a profit grab. The corporate whitewash worked, because instead of their business taking a hit, as it should have, chicken nugget gunk is clogging the arteries of patrons in record numbers. 

Bud Light's receipts suffered from their miscalculation of the effect its advertising featuring Dylan Mulvaney would have on their target audience. Wendy's is far more deserving of a de facto boycott, because they insulted the intelligence of their customers.

Consumers are fair game for price gougers. We are propagandists for a market value system that first mocks and then co-opts our free-will. This is not limited to Wendy's, of course.

Mr. and Mrs. Nobody will go into hock to treat their kids to a sporting event where mediocre players earn more in an hour than the nurturing parents do in a month. They will pay for a hot dog what used to be the purchasing power of a ticket on a supersonic plane a generation ago. They will surrender an hour of their wages for a bridge toll. 

And though they will bitch and moan, they will take no revenge at the ballot box on the political leeches who gave them no choice but to submit.

Wendy's attempt to put one over its customers was particularly cocky. Their CEO, Kirk Tanner, makes words whirl faster than a spinning black hole in the Milky Way. He assures his Double Stack aficionados that Wendy's “will begin testing more enhanced features like dynamic pricing and day-part offerings along with AI-enabled menu changes and suggestive selling.”

“As we continue to show the benefit of this technology in our company-operated restaurants,
Tanner continued, “franchisee interest in digital menu boards should increase, further supporting sales and profit growth across the system.”

This guy's consultant must have been the late Professor Irwin Corey or a moonlighter from the Department of Education. 

Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy's, was by all accounts a decent and humble guy. His signature "Where's the beef?" has been answered: the customers have it!

Now that Wendy's has backed down for the moment, is this story not as stale as their french fries? No, because schemes to defraud customers are an eternal recurrence, and corporations just wait for the public's hangover of resentment to wear off to take advantage of the public's lazy memory.

Unless the public withholds its patronage, which it won't. 

The exploitation takes many forms and consumers put up with it, adapt to it and thereby ensure its perpetuation. As a mischievous exercise in instructional irony, it would be nice to see customers boycotting Wendy's during their peak hours. 

Restaurants often charge up to 4 percent above the posted menu price when payment is by credit card. To pay the listed price, you must pay with bills and coins. They call this a "cash discount.” That is a ruse devised by industrial psychologists to make the customer feel they are appreciated and being done a favor. 

It's called "Heads I Win, Tails You lose" pricing. The concept of "fair market value" no longer exists. Any excuse for a surcharge. The airlines charge extra, unless you travel in your underwear and consent to buckle yourself in a seat designed for the skeletal frame of a hunchbacked lemur.

A complaint to the manager of the Blood Bank Diner (I changed the name, just enough to make it unidentifiable, because their illuminated signage is a shade of red that I recall from Times Square blood banks, back in the day) got the reply "Enjoy!"

Gone are the days when businesses cared one whit about your satisfaction and convenience.

My friend recently bought an airline ticket over the phone, using donated "rewards points" from a relative's bank-issued credit card. The details were finalized, and the transaction basically completed when it was discovered that a few additional rewards points from a different credit card issued to the same name by the same bank had to be transferred.

In the five minutes that took, the price of the flight jumped 20 percent. 

We are all equal opportunity victims of government overreach and corporate milking. Every New Yorker is an urban Ozymandias, surveying a city ruined by the gouging of its residents.

Congestive pricing has made New Yorkers out-of-towners in their own city.

Last week, the last public hearing was held on this done deal. The final determination had already been made when the idea was conceived, but to cater to the fantasy that we are a participatory democracy, the pantomime was imperative to support the delusion of enfranchisement.

The MTA's Janno Lieber,  CEO and claptrapper par excellence, told city workers and other subjugated outer borough prisoners that they should just buck up and get with the program, or as the New York Post put it, "do as tolled.”

These "public hearings" have much in common with the "show trials" in despotic regimes. 

Does anybody actually believe that any observation raised at an MTA public meeting, or Con Edison, or any other powerful entity with a throttlehold on our lives, could ever sway their fixed and foreordained decision? Why do we indulge the consensual, collective make-believe that public hearings are held for any other reason than the mandate to go through the charade of seeking public consent?  

Ten thousand people may attend, and all of them oppose a proposed rate hike, and it will be implemented anyway. They may have much to say and they may each have said much, yet they had no say. Outcomes were predetermined by consultants who strut around with brooms up their butts and clipboards clutched in hand.

The gentle louts at E-ZPass figured that when you phone them to correct their invoice, the time you are put "on hold,” even if you call the first minute of the business day, should be proportional to the percentage of the most recent toll increases. A robotic voice promises an immediate callback, as you will not lose your place in the queue, if you follow their prompt. 

My facial hair grew dense and so much time elapsed before the callback, that my phone had to be upgraded four times, because the cell towers nodded away.

It was an ingenious way to get customers off their backs. The wait for Godot is shorter. 

E-ZPass is a phenomenon of the Twilight Zone, and waiting to speak to a non-robot is like crossing into it. Unless you have a hypertension specialist and mental health caregiver in tow, I would advise against testing your resilience by dealing by phone with any city or state agency. 

Many institutional changes are made in the name of "innovation,” which is automatically assumed to be an improvement. The language used to justify it is a special dialect of gobbledygook that is not limited to Wendy's or the MTA. 

It is becoming the native tongue of the media.

Reacting to a proposed transformation at CNN , an executive, quoted by the New York Post, said, "It's a five-point plan to make five-point plans. In other words, there is no plan, but we are really planning to make lots of plans. And rest assured, there are a lot of people overseeing the planning to make plans. And … is overseeing all of the people planning to make plans. So don't worry, we've got this totally under control.”

Very to the point!

Much of the dysfunction and insensitivity that engulfs us as we muddle through our pedestrian lives is due to cynicism in one form or other. For example, the city has a history of politicians doing the bidding of contractors, by exempting those contractors from doing any bidding. 

Are core values dominant over material interests?

A retired NYPD detective is running to unseat U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. He admits to having donated to both major political parties at the same time. The candidate explains: "I'm a businessman … and anybody who does business … donates to both sides of the aisle.”

I cast no aspersions, because he is just working within the system, and I accuse nobody except the system itself.

As the world turns, so do our stomachs.

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