Getting Gouged? | Opinion | Salt Lake City Weekly

Getting Gouged? 

Taking a Gander: Healthy competition could change it all

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Despite our country's wealth—and the traditionally-easy access of Americans to a highly-competitive, reasonably-priced array of products and services—everything seems to have changed. Whether it's the price of a fill-up at the neighborhood gas station or a stroll down the grocery store aisle, Americans are being reminded daily of the catchy name of the Iraq War's first campaign: "Shock and Awe."

In a very real sense, America's mega-corporations have declared war on the consumer, who is seeing the most dramatic price changes in the past half-century. Confronted with screaming increases in the cost of a gallon of gas—literally doubled over a very short time—$4 avocados and what must be gold-plated ribeye steaks and chicken breasts, no American is escaping the horrifying surge in the cost of living and the worst inflation of our lives. Prices on virtually everything have bounded upward, and the increases don't seem to be slowing.

When it first started, there was a tentative belief that the soaring prices were only momentary—the result of supply-chain issues caused by the pandemic and a world oil market being skewed by Putin's invasion of Ukraine. But anyone who assumed that this was just a short-lived, temporary glitch—and would soon be over—may be unpleasantly surprised. Reality says it's not easing, and not even the best crystal balls reveal an answer to where it will all end.

Whatever scapegoats have been employed in an effort to stifle consumer cries, there's a general distrust developing in the officially-presented explanations. It seems we're being fleeced. It's mostly about jump-on-the-bandwagon, wholesale gouging.

Whatever recent gains were made in bumping-up minimum hourly wages have more than disappeared. At least for now, the disparity between income and prices has widened, threatening virtually everyone, but especially the poor.

Though I am not the household member to be making routine purchases of everyday products, I find myself literally gasping at this latest round of inflation and cringing at the constantly updated price tags on everything from toothpaste to the cost of operating the family car. I'm not alone, and that seems to make it just a little more bearable.

Let's face it, misery loves company and we're all in the same boat. It's happening pretty much across the board. My countrymen and our friends across the globe are all bearing the rising costs.

Inflation is totally out of control, and we're being led to believe that this only-temporary surcharge on goods and services is a matter of patriotic endurance, necessitated by Putin's invasion of Ukraine and the economic stresses of COVID. Sure, I can afford to pay the higher prices—I'm not poor—and like many Americans and their brotherhood of world allies, I am certainly willing to help fund Ukraine's defense against the latest of Putin's imperialistic, empire-building moves. After all, it seems to make sense that there are times we must tighten our belts in order to support the worldwide economic consequences of war and disease.

Russia needs to sell oil and gas in order to fund its aggressive invasion. Its army and navy can't survive without a plentiful supply of cash, so most of the first-world citizens are willing to deal with the rapid, astronomical changes in the price of fuel.

Americans, unlike a large percentage of our world's population, are accustomed to the freedom of personal transportation and, like their guns, it seems that they'll only be willing to release the grip on their car keys as they breathe their last breaths. We view it as a fierce independence, but it's also an indictment of a wasteful population.

Independence and personal freedoms are the stuff on which our country was conceived and founded. The rest of the world, for the most part, is in the habit of personal dependency on public transportation and have accepted bus and train schedules as their reality.

Believe me, I'm not suggesting that Americans should be conceding their traditional, self-centered sense of independence. The U.S. is a land of plenty, and there's a traditional entitlement that simply goes along with its relative wealth. That said, even the oil executives—yes, the ones who just got $52 million bonuses from their companies—are miffed at the steep price increases.

Let's face it, their European vacations are going to cost an additional five grand, and the prices of new Rolexes are soaring. That's something even the rich notice, and nobody likes being gouged.

No matter what has been scapegoated as a cause, the gluttony of American and world corporations stands in the way of allowing prices to settle down. It isn't that there aren't laws to regulate monopolies, but the total absence of enforcement of criminal and civil antitrust statutes pretty much ensures that we'll continue to deal with this latest round of obscene profit-taking, perhaps for years to come.

This is the way the system works. Lobbyists spend billions on creating and maintaining the unholy alliances between business and government. And the unlimited "dark money" being funneled into political campaigns has corrupted the chance for legitimate business competition to prevail.

No matter whom we blame, none of this could be happening if SCOTUS hadn't opened the floodgates, in its Citizens' United decision, to wholesale corruption—the virtually-legal right to bribe our nation's lawmakers. If you don't enjoy being assaulted, it's time to call your senators and congressmen. Let them know: You're sick and tired of it, and you're not going to take it anymore.

There really are laws. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the Clayton Act and the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936 all provide for criminal and/or civil prosecution of companies using monopoly, pricing schemes and agreements to limit supply in order to maximize profits. Americans are ready for change, and that means ending the partnerships between big business and Washington. Without that separation—including strict enforcement of antitrust laws—the gouging will continue.

The author is a retired businessman, novelist, columnist, and former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He lives in Riverton, Utah with his wife, Carol, and the beloved ashes of their mongrel dog.

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