The Godfather

In the spirit of Dr. Rob’s What If Other Parts of Life Were Like Healthcare:

The Godfather approached me.  He said, “Groceries are expensive.  They shouldn’t cost so much.  Now, people can’t live without food, so I have a solution.  If you pay me $1,000 every month, I will protect you from the high prices charged by grocers.  You’ll be able to go to your corner grocery store and will only have to pay $20.  I’ll cover the rest of the cost of food.”

“But,” I countered, “There are a couple problems with that. First, I don’t spend $1,000 per month on groceries. Your plan would cost me extra money, not save me money.” Second, I don’t want to be locked into shopping at the corner grocer. I want to be able to buy my groceries based on the quality of the food they sell. I also want the freedom to take my business elsewhere if they don’t provide good service.”

“Oh, you need to look at the big picture,” the Godfather shot back. “Your groceries might not usually cost $1,000 per month, but sometimes they cost even more. You know you spend an extra $300 on food for the Super Bowl every year. I can reduce the cost of that Super Bowl party to $20. What about all the money you spend on potlucks over the summer? Then there are holidays: you know you like to host Thanksgiving and Christmas, and those get very expensive. But there’s one thing you especially need to think about. What about those times that company comes to visit? You never know when someone might drop in and eat you out of house and home.”

Threats notwithstanding, I said, “No thanks. I’ll grow my own vegetables in planters on my balcony, go fishing on the weekends to get some protein, and pay cash for the few groceries I do need.”

A while later I ran out of salt and stopped by the corner store. The grocer rang up my small box of salt and said, “That will be $50.” “What? For a little box of salt?” “I’m sorry,” the grocer replied, “but you don’t pay protection money to The Godfather. That means I have to charge you more.”

I won’t be intimidated, so I left the box there on the counter and said I’d get my salt somewhere else. But I discovered that lots of other grocers wouldn’t even let me in the door if I wasn’t paying protection money to The Godfather.

Finally I realized that my options were limited. Most grocers wouldn’t sell to me, and the few who would, charged exorbitant prices. I called The Godfather and said, “Okay, I need groceries, I guess I’ll have to pay your protection money so that I can buy food.”

Once I’d paid the protection money, my corner grocer was happy to see me. I paid him $20 and waited while he made notes on my grocery list. He asked, “Why do you need sea salt? This other kind works just as well; you better get that instead. Oh, and these coloring books for your nephew? I can’t sell them to you; you need to go to a craft store.” Turns out that The Godfather won’t really pay for all the groceries I want; I can only buy what he approves. Anything he deems unusual, he can refuse to pay for – even if I’ve already eaten it.

One day I asked the grocer, “I don’t understand. You could have happier customers and make more money if you would just sell people the groceries they need without involving the mafia. You’d have time to serve more customers if you’d quit turning in grocery lists to The Godfather for every person who comes in here. Why do you do it?”

The grocer was sad. He said he’d love to go back to the way it used to be, but The Godfather had been in control for so long that many people felt they were entitled to only pay $20 for groceries. They just didn’t understand that the mafia kept most of the money for themselves. If he started charging true prices for groceries instead of accepting payment from The Godfather, his customers would go to a different store where it would only cost them $20.

Grocers everywhere said the same thing. They’d gone into the grocery business because they know how important it is for people to have good food. With the mafia so firmly in control, raking in the profits for themselves while shortchanging both the public and the grocers, they didn’t know if they could continue. They loved spending time with people, getting them the ingredients they needed for quality meals, but the mafia often wouldn’t pay for what people really needed. Grocers either had to give people what they needed and take a loss, or provide an inferior ingredient in hopes that it would be “good enough.”

Over time it got progressively worse, until many corner grocery stores closed. People starved if they couldn’t afford to pay protection money. Those who could afford the protection money were forced to drive long distances and wait in long lines, never knowing if they would be allowed to buy the quality ingredients they hoped for, settling for whatever The Godfather decided was appropriate.

I wish this story had a happy ending. I wish I could say that, fortunately, the FBI stepped in. The insurance companies were Godfather was charged with price fixing. Threatening people with the dire consequences of the lack of health care food was deemed intimidation, and the insurers mafia was charged with extortion for all of the premiums protection-money demanded over the years.  People started paying for their own doctor’s visits groceries, and doctors grocers were able to make a good living while providing people with what they needed.

But I can’t say that.  The proposed solutions sound like the problem will just keep getting worse.

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