Sara Mosle

Sara Mosle

A weeklong electronic journal.
Feb. 13 1997 3:30 AM

Sara Mosle

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       I was walking around the Upper West Side today when I noticed that the Eddie Bauer shop (one of several yuppie stores in the new outdoor mall that is now on Broadway between 64th and 69th streets) will give you points if you buy their clothes. This points thing is getting out of hand. I don't like points. I don't do well under the system. No matter how much I fly or buy, I never seem to have enough points to do anything. I feel like the kid who keeps getting a C in math and can't go on the special class trip.
       Just keeping track of my points is a major headache. I have one file folder with point statements from airlines, one folder with point statements from credit cards, and one bulging with point junk mail. I should probably just throw the stuff out, but all the offers--5,000 miles if I change long-distance companies, etc.--fill me with indecision and anxiety. I'm afraid that I'm missing out on some great deal. I keep thinking that one weekend I'll sit down and go through all these offers and figure out this point business once and for all, but I never do. I know I'm mismanaging my points, and it scares me. Given the state of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, points may be all that I and the rest of my generation have to depend on when we become senior citizens--around 2030.
       Like all point plans, Bauer's is hopelessly complicated. But basically, if you earn enough points, you win a free trip on some wilderness adventure with other Eddie Bauer shoppers. The trip, of course, necessitates the purchase of even more Eddie Bauer clothes. But hey, if you can afford the clothes that won you the points in the first place, you don't need a free vacation. It's those of us who haven't been on a trip in years who could really use more points. But we're the people who don't have a prayer of getting any. Points beget points. The fewer you have, the less chance you stand of getting more. As in the regular economy, the gap between rich and poor just grows and grows.
       There's a whole economy that's grown up around the expense-account culture. It's like the underground economy, only it's overground and serves the overclass. It's not a market system, because it offers little incentive to shop around. In New York, a restaurant industry has sprung up to serve the expense-account client. Then there are the $4 Cokes in most hotel minibars and the hefty surcharges on phone calls from any hotel room these days. These establishments know they can overcharge, because their client has no incentive to save, unless, of course, he or she is misfortunate enough (like me) to be self-employed. Yet the people who benefit from these perks are the very same people who tout the virtues of market forces. They don't live by them, so why should we?
       Those of us not on expense accounts just lose and lose. Everything is more expensive for the individual than for the corporate employee: health insurance, hotel rooms, even tickets to Cats. And although business travelers aren't hurt by the high price of doing business, companies and consumers are. Those prices get passed down to the rest of us in the cost of goods and services. And we still don't get any points.

Sara Mosle is a contributing editor for the New York Times Magazine.