A Day 'Selling' Obama Phones

We walked around toward the rear of the building, where the government offices were located.  Another young man was already there, a company ID card hanging over his T-shirt.  The two marketers with whom I had come informed me that this more casually clad fellow was from a competing firm.  Apparently, representatives from both companies frequently came to the same corner to give away free government-funded mobile phones from different manufacturers and carriers.  This was a prime contact point because of the government offices inside the building, and I expected the usual tense moment that tends to occur when two competitors are forced to operate within close confines.  However, no such moment ever came.  Everyone nodded a friendly greeting, and the work commenced.

The reason for the lack of competitive spirit soon became evident.  It was not long before the marketer I was shadowing, signing someone up for a mobile phone, immediately referred her to his competitor.  The competitor then commenced to sign her up for one as well.  The marketer I was following -- we will call him Jake -- explained that these people were, in fact, allowed to have a mobile phone from each carrier.  This was useful because many of them had children who needed phones, and because the minutes on each phone were limited, with a requirement that the user pay fees whenever that limit was exceeded.  This general spirit of cooperation continued, with each company referring prospects to the other.  Whenever someone said he already had a free government-funded mobile phone, the next question was always: "Is it the black one or the silver one?"  Regardless of the answer, someone would suggest that the owner of that free phone consider getting another.

The day had been overcast, with a little rain in the morning, so we had brought umbrellas.  Mine was leaning against the wall.  "Don't walk too far away from that," warned Jake.  "It will disappear."  My umbrella made it home that day, but the umbrella belonging to the other marketer -- whom we will call Amir -- found its way home with someone who apparently needed it more.

Hours passed, and hundreds of people seeking government assistance filed in and out of the building.  Some of these did not speak English.  Luckily, though, while neither Jake nor Amir was bilingual, both had learned all of the basic lines in Spanish.  Being able to speak Spanish and Mandarin, I was able to help out in a few moments of confusion.

Before long, we Obama phone guys were not the only direct marketing personnel on that sidewalk: a cable salesman showed up, in his company's uniform, and started signing up various public benefit recipients for that as well.  Apparently, people on food stamps are prime candidates for cable as well as free phones.  Unfortunately, he faced a tougher task, as he actually had to charge for his services.  However, he apparently tended to be successful enough, as it became clear that this was a regular post for him.

I went and ate lunch with Jake.  He explained the company structure.  If I were to be selected for the position, I would be able to move up the ranks in this swiftly growing company.  Within a year, I ought to be able to open my own office and make six digits.  During that year, I would probably learn a lot more about business than I had learned so far in my ranked MBA program.  To illustrate the level of growth that was being seen, he told me that the company was opening six more offices in New England over the next few months.  Of course, I would have to settle for a very low level of pay in the beginning, but just until I had proven myself.  Then I could open an office, kick back, and let a bunch of other chumps do the work for me.

We continued to sign people up for free phones with free service, even if they already had an iPhone or a Galaxy.  Did they qualify for Section 8 housing?  Food stamps?  Mass Health?  Then they qualified for a free phone.  (Two, actually.)  One woman angrily said that she had previously been told she could have two phones, but that she had received a notice from the government after signing up for the second phone.  In this notice, she had been told that she could keep only one of the phones.

"Yeah, that's the loophole," Jake explained to me.  "They can sign up for a second phone, but then they have to choose between the two.  But they have eight months to do it, so they can have two phones for up to eight months."

Later in the afternoon, we walked to a nearby bus station and approached people there.  We asked the people crowded around the benches if they were receiving any kind of government assistance.  Whenever they answered in the affirmative, we explained how there was a government program that could help them get a free phone.  This program had actually begun under President Reagan, but it had recently been expanded under President Obama.  It was fine if they already had a phone.  Did their kids need a phone?  Was anyone else in the household phoneless?  One old man, hearing the specifics of the program, happily exclaimed: "What a country!"

After a day of selling on the street, we returned to the office, where I spoke with the manager.  As Jake had given a good evaluation of my shadowing, the manager happily offered me the job.  I told him I would need to think about it, which he did not seem to have been expecting.  The next day, I called and said that it was not economically feasible for me to accept the position.  This was certainly the truth, if not the whole truth.

Being a recent MBA graduate with an uncertain professional track lying ahead of me, I cannot be too judgmental of Jake, Amir, or even the management of this direct marketing firm that had invited me to become part of its growth and success.  Neither can I be judgmental of the firm's competitor or even the man selling cable to welfare recipients.  I cannot even bring myself to blame the people who accept the free phones that are being thrown at them despite a lack of need.

However, there is no reason to be so lenient toward the politicians and policies responsible for the absurdities of this experience.  A government that chooses to wantonly offer such "assistance" without substantial proof of need -- and which chooses not to recognize the simple fact that people respond to incentives -- deserves not only to be criticized, but to be ridiculed and punished.  By becoming a segment of people's regular income rather than a temporary splint for a temporary problem, our government welfare mechanisms seem to be motivated by something other than...well, people's welfare.

Ronald Kimmons rules the world from his comfy swivel chair and sometimes posts interesting and controversial things on his personal blog.

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