Down and Out In the New Service Economy

Remember the “service economy”? You know, the wonderful new “paradigm” that was supposed to replace the tired-out, boring old manufacturing economy. Have you forgotten already? The new economic “model” at once so clean and modern; the one advertised by all those smiling stockbrokers, software gurus and celebrity chefs; the one that was going to free everyone from the drudgery of production and give us the time and money to be more “creative.”

No more dull and dirty factories making steel and crayons, just a lot of non-union Wal-Marts, Internet cafés and Merrill Lynch offices staffed with cheerful “associates” whose only goal in life was to … serve.

In truth, I never got that excited about the service economy. To begin with, I couldn’t help feeling bad for the masses of low-wage retail workers, the exhausted types described in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed , who used to make more money at factory jobs that went to even more desperate wage slaves in Mexico and China. Also troubling was the large number of illegal Mexican immigrants working at sub-minimum wage in the celebrity chefs’ kitchens, the ones trying to escape wage slavery in U.S.-owned factories in Mexico.

Nevertheless, as a member of the New Economy upper class, I still expected good service, at least for people like me. It might be unfair to the servants, but I assumed that the service economy would, at a minimum, deliver service to those with enough money to buy it.

Not anymore. It turns out that the service economy’s principal characteristic is a lack of service-for everybody.

My disillusionment began in June, just a few days before my birthday. To mark the occasion, my wife had reserved a table at a chic newish Manhattan restaurant called Jean-Luc. Jean-Luc himself had left a message on our home answering machine, asking if we wouldn’t mind switching to another night, even though my wife had only recently confirmed the reservation. It seemed that Jean-Luc had booked his place for a “festive corporate event,” and that if we insisted on keeping our reservation, he would only be able to offer us a “limited” menu.

It wasn’t hard to deduce what happened: Jean-Luc got a more lucrative offer for a slow Tuesday night, and he grabbed it. When I had my secretary call to refuse the “limited” menu, Jean-Luc responded with an obsequious letter that confirmed my supposition-and revealed that he had only three reservations on my birthday. Evidently concerned about my media connections, the P.R.-conscious restaurateur offered me dinner on the house-or, if that didn’t suit me, to pay for my meal at another restaurant.

“A grand disappointment requires a grand gesture for your birthday,” he wrote. Actually, I wasn’t that disappointed. And anyway, a really grand gesture would have been to honor the reservations of the three confirmed parties (including another birthday) and cancel the “festive corporate event,” which, as Jean-Luc weirdly acknowledged, “would alter the Jean-Luc dining experience a bit, perhaps in a more joyous way.”

I doubt there’s ever anything “festive” or “joyous” about a contrived corporate dinner-but I was more skeptical than usual because of a simultaneously unjoyous experience with another “service” company, one a good deal larger than Jean- Luc’s restaurant. By coincidence, when I arrived at work the day after my birthday plans were subverted, my general manager informed me that J.P. Morgan Chase, our merged monster of a bank, had permitted about $20,000 to be debited from the Harper’s Magazine account without any warning. As “explanation,” J.P. Morgan Chase had sent us a form letter, which read in part, “This has been done for the following reason: Funds have been deducted from your account as per the attached legal document. For further information, please contact the plaintiff.”

That’s it: no phone call from a bank manager, no chance to object. We were certain that the debit was obtained improperly by the collection agency for the plaintiff (our former telephone “service provider,” whose last bill we refused to pay because of lousy service-but that’s another story). That was irrelevant to the bank, which simply obeyed a court-ordered levy on our account.

When I told my general manager to call our branch down the street and complain to the manager, she replied that we really didn’t have a branch manager anymore-that a “team leader” named Charles Corales was the man in overall charge of our account. She had tried to call him, she said, but Mr. Corales couldn’t come to the phone right away, and his secretary had responded to her complaint with something less than urgent attention.

This time I took matters into my own hands and called the chairman of J.P. Morgan Chase, a Mr. William Harrison, whose secretary-like Jean-Luc-worries about bad publicity. Very soon, public-relations agents and lawyers were phoning. Meanwhile, Mr. Corales called to say that there was nothing he could have done to stop the debit, the reason being that thousands of such judgments were processed every week through a single office in Long Island that acted independently of the bank branches … so we shouldn’t feel singled out.

Eventually I received the following rationalization from a J.P. Morgan Chase lawyer named Lynne Federman: Since many court-ordered levies stemmed from criminal cases (drug dealers and the like), J.P. Morgan Chase had decided to move such sensitive matters out of the hands of the individual branches because-as you can imagine-it could get very awkward for the bank personnel.

But what about the non-criminals? Didn’t we deserve minimal service, like Jean-Luc’s phone call? Suppose the letter had taken a week to arrive-too late for legal action to keep the money from leaving the bank? Well, replied an exasperated Ms. Federman, what was the letter? Wasn’t that minimal service? I had to admit it was-just that.

The truth is that gargantuan J.P. Morgan Chase doesn’t care about individual “service” any more than Jean-Luc cares about three customers on a slow night. And neither does most of service-economy America. “The customer is always right” has become “The customer is a blight.” With government regulation (not to mention basic civility) on the wane, the relaxation of antitrust laws by Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton has eliminated the last corrective for most bad service-competition.

All is not lost. On my birthday, I ate at an excellent French bistro (the lower-priced Nougatine room at Jean Georges). And our $20,000 (thanks to my prompt protest) is sitting in a holding account awaiting legal adjudication.

But the other day, just when my mood was improving, I received a form postcard from J.P. Morgan Chase announcing that “Team Leader” Charles Corales was moving offices. Here’s what it said: “We are moving-New Location same great service … This move will in no way affect your accounts, your relationship or how you conduct business with JPMorgan Chase.”

I guess we’ll have to put the money under a mattress.