By James R. Hood

January 30, 2006

This is the time of the year when consumer organizations, attorneys general
and the Federal Trade Commission rummage around in their complaint files
from the previous year and announce that -- horrors! -- identity theft,
Nigerian scams and auction fraud are big problems.

It's hard to disagree with this but, on the other hand, it doesn't really
address the root cause of the financial, physical and emotional turmoil
inflicted on consumers in recent times.

Rather than flip through the roughly 150,000 complaints in our database, we
decided to gaze out the window and pretend to smoke a cigar while pondering
what we'd say are the companies, institutions and human inclinations
responsible for giving the hot-foot to so many of us.

Here's what we came up with -- our list of the top 10 scourges confronting
those of us still sentient:

1. Congress
A dome full of monkeys would do a better of job of protecting the rights of
Americans than the buffoons currently haunting Capitol Hill. These clowns
have weakened or downright repealed vital consumer protections in virtually
every corner of modern life and are now embarking on a new War of Northern
Aggression aimed at gutting state laws which provide some small measure of
comfort to the afflicted.

Personally, we think Congress has forgotten that it is there to protect the
interests of what the Constitution quaintly refers to as "the people." Last
time we looked, Pfizer, AT&T and MBNA were corporations, not people.

2. Rebates
Rebates are, very simply, fraudulent. They are based on the assumption that
most consumers won't bother to send in the rebate forms and are engineered
to frustrate and hog-tie those who have the audacity to actually try to
collect what is legally theirs. The practice of promising rebates that are
not paid on the spot should be outlawed. Legislators lacking the guts to do
so should be voted out of office, stripped of their retirement benefits and
made to work for a living.

3. Usury
Every now and then, an Ameriquest or Cross Country Bank is prosecuted for
taking advantage of low-income consumers. This is similar to the practice,
common in totalitarian countries, of executing some poor soul at random
every day or two: it looks good on the evening news but doesn't accomplish
anything. Even "legitimate" lenders think nothing of charging their good
customers 29% interest. Is it surprising less well-heeled clients are
stripped and left for dead?

4. Ford Motor Co.
A true American institution, Ford has produced such icons as the Windstar's
weak-gasketed V-6, the self-immolating F-150 and the top-heavy and
rollover-prone Explorer, among many other fatally-flawed products. Not
content with this, it has ignored each problem, refusing to lift a finger to
help its stranded, maimed or killed customers and has trained its
customer-service reps to deny ever hearing of any such thing despite the
thousands of examples that come easily to hand.

5. Extended Warranties
The best you can say about many extended warranties is that they're not
worth the paper they're written on, never mind the hundreds or thousands of
dollars consumers spend on them. While there may be exceptions, most
extended warranties do nothing but line the pockets of those dispensing
them. As they say in the MBA mills, revenue from extended warranties, a/k/a/
service contracts, "goes straight to the bottom line." Translation: all
price, no product.

6. Federal Agencies
Don't even get us started on this one.

7. Our Health Care "System"
Actually, there is no health care system in this country. There is instead
an odd form of anarchic socialism, in which everyone pays exorbitant fees to
insurers and drug companies in exchange for which group practices and
hospitals render impersonal care of wildly varying quality. And then there
are the elderly. Abandoned by their supposed advocates who refuse to use the
word "elderly" and instead portray their members as "vitally aging"
post-pubescents eternally riding their bicycles on the beach, America's old
people are driven into insolvency by the high cost of long-term care, even
though they receive very little of it.

8. Disability Insurance
This is perhaps the cruelest hoax ever perpetrated on a large population.
Earnest, hard-working people pay hefty premiums for years, thinking their
families will be provided for should they have the misfortune to become
disabled. Instead, all too many wind up homeless and bereft. Back in the
day, they would have been driven into bankruptcy but Congress has spared
them this misfortune by making it unavailable to all but airlines, energy
companies and other big contributors (see #1 above).

9. TV Talk Shows
We don't watch these but now and then we're trapped in an airport lounge,
trauma ward, Jiffy Lube or other torture chamber where an inaccessible
television is blasting away. Apparently, when the mental hospitals were
phased out a few decades ago, the most hopeless patients were given suits
and fancy hair cuts and then turned loose in the nearest TV studio. No
wonder our government has been taken over by corrupt loonies. Look what
passes for political discourse.

10. Beef
Though some might disagree, there's probably nothing inherently wrong with
eating animal flesh. The problem is that the production of beef, pork, veal
and other meat has become so industrialized that it's no longer possible for
us to know whether what we're eating contains mad-cow-inducing prions,
harmful hormones or exotic bacterial contamination. Personally, our 2006
resolution is to learn a lot more about the joys of tofu.