Why Can’t the Government Let Us in on Some of its Shopping Secrets?

The other day the Interstate Commerce Commission mailed out its announcement that the 1977 performance reports on household goods movers were available for consumer inspection. Attached to the release was a listing of the 10 largest movers by name and the statistics they filed concerning their servicing of individual householders. For movers like Allied Van Lines, Aero-Mayflower Transit Co., or North American Van Lines, the reader can determine which movers had higher or lower estimates than they earlier quoted the consumer. The fact sheet also reveals the percentage of consumer complaints filed by company name, the number of days required to settle these claims and the percent of claims settled after the institution of a lawsuit. (For a copy of the 1977 report, write to the Interstate Commerce Commission, Washington, D.C., 20423)

The ICC’s comparative chart on household movers raises a broader question for consumers who want to get the most out of their shopping: why doesn’t the federal government develop a practice of telling consumers what is known reliably about different companies, brand names and services that can affect the way consumers spend their money?

In many federal departments and agencies there is a mass of information which could be prepared in understandable and updated form for consumers to use. As taxpayers they pay for this information, so as consumers they should benefit from it to reduce their cost of living and improve the quality of their purchases.

Certainly, examples of raw data that could be informatively processed abound. The General Services Administration (GSA) buys almost every consumer product that consumers purchase in significant quantity. Government buyers know what the best buys are for various uses. But GSA has never wanted to tell.

The Veterans Administration and the military services know a great deal about medicines. Their information and experience could help inform people how to save money on drugs or at least properly question physicians and hospitals about their drug purchasing and prescribing practices.

It would be useful to know what generic drugs the Army and Navy believe are good enough to treat members of Congress with so that the next time the debate over generic vs. brand name drugs erupts, drug industry propaganda will not go unchallenged.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could prepare under its longstanding authority brochures for motorists that tell which model cars are safer in what respects and other comparative test data. Indeed the auto agency started to do just that in 1968 before the Nixon regime stopped it.

The principal fact now reaching motorists pertains to the hazards of Firestone’s 500 steel radial tires. And this alert is due to Firestone and its lawyers’ blunders in handling an internal agency tire survey by going to court and stirring up a still building controversy.

At the Department of Agriculture, there soon will be a listing of “problem plants” in the meat and poultry area. This is just a start and much more can be done on food products for informed consumer choice.

The Civil Aeronautics Board presently publishes the number of consumer complaints it receives airline by airline. But the Federal Aviation Administration has refused to consider ranking the airlines by their safety record.

The important point is that many more shopping facts can be issued from these and other agencies that will assist consumers and prod sellers into improving their performance. Problems of fairness and accuracy can be resolved. Computers are available to make the distribution of this information a wonder to behold.

Imagine the hundreds of millions of dollars a year that policyholders can save if the rates that companies charge for similar insurance policies were periodically disseminated.

Back in the last days of the Johnson administration, Betty Furness, the consumer adviser, was contemplating a major effort to make more consumer information available to the public. But the elections of 1968 brought an administration unfriendly to the idea.

Recently, President Carter expanded the role and status of his consumer adviser, Esther Peterson. She could strike a blow against the inflationary cost of living by setting up a lean task force to recommend how to take the government’s treasure trove of consumer information capability and extend it outward to the people of this country.

The tools are at hand to make such a capability flower. Only an imaginative sensitivity to consumer rights and a repudiation of discredited taboos are needed.

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