Operation Enduring Warranty

Chasing that warm, fuzzy feeling of American safety

Illustration By Michael Klein

I have come to notice a new pattern of obsessive fear here in the homeland, demonstrated by both our habits of consumption and our response to the threat of terrorism. Is it possible that the American collective consciousness has become mesmerized by the message that we—and, by extension, the products we buy—need to be protected from harm at all costs? Certainly, in these few years since 9/11, much energy has been poured into quenching our thirst for security, but at some point, doesn’t security become just an illusion? We can marvel at the sheer volume of business ventures waiting to sell it to us—whatever kind of security we are looking for. In fact, today’s ubiquitous extended warranties can be seen as a scale model of homeland security, helping to illustrate a very flawed logic that has fueled the insidious process of injecting fear into every facet of our lives.

I recently bought a new laptop computer. I considered my basic needs, found the features I was looking for and read some reviews. Then I scouted out the best price and made my purchase. I entered a local electronics chain with the steadfast resolve to politely deflect the all-too-predictable sales pitch that comes at the end of every big sale. It’s fascinating: They sell you the stuff, and then they try to sell you the feeling of safety. Of course, I got the fastball pitch at checkout time, and when I declined, I got the subtle scare tactic: “Well, OK. … It’s your computer.” But this time, there was something new: a phone call a few days post-purchase, from this electronics retailer’s telemarketing team. Under the guise of “making sure everything was OK,” they hit me up again!

Now, here’s a simple question I usually offer those trying to sell me an extended warranty: “Are you claiming this is not a quality piece of merchandise I’ve purchased? Because just a minute ago, you told me it was.” This time, the person batting cleanup cleverly responded, “Yes, Mr. Feliciano, of course it’s a quality product. But things do happen.” Things do happen? That feels like a threat from some neighborhood Mafioso, trying to intimidate me out of my lunch money on my walk to work. (“Look, Mr. Feliciano, all I’m sayin’ is, uhhh, we like you, and it’s a long way to your office. … We’d, uhhh, hate to see something bad happen to ya, capisce?”)

Consider that, according to research published by Consumer Reports magazine, an extended warranty can add as much as 30 percent to the price of an electronic device or appliance. Also consider that failure rates for such products in the first five years of their lifespan can be as low as 1 in 18, making the extended warranty almost pure profit for the retailer. Equipped with this knowledge, it is difficult to pin down the logic of the extended warranty. Am I to hope my product breaks so that I can get my money’s worth, or should I feel OK with the idea that I have paid more than the original retail price for the product longevity that the manufacturer’s statistics indicate I probably will experience anyway? Neither of these rationales feels very warm or fuzzy. But what if mine is the defective one in 18, and I don’t buy the extended warranty—or what if it doesn’t break until after the manufacturer’s warranty coverage ends? Well, that doesn’t feel very warm and fuzzy, either. That feels like I should be on orange alert!

As you can see, the potential for anticipating undesirable outcomes is nearly endless. Regardless of research by industry and advocacy groups suggesting extremely high product reliability, there’s a huge profit margin motivating retailers to push the “crap insurance.” What does it say about us, as citizens, that such scare tactics have become so normalized, and how much are we willing to pay in order to plan for the worst and feel that we’re “covered”?

In a Scripps Howard news story earlier this summer, Thomas Hargrove wrote that “the Department of Homeland Security, during its first hectic year of operation, paid private contractors at least $5 billion to make America safer from terrorist attack.” He went on to explain that “the nation’s newest and third largest federal department signed at least 18,505 contracts for an astonishing array of goods and services, ranging from almost $800 million on airport bomb-detection devices to $14.8 million on hotel rooms.” And we’re left with no doubt that intelligence gathering has improved, considering that every other week, the Department of Homeland Security issues another terror alert and proudly passes details to the media about another Al Qaeda plot uncovered.

But, as security expert Bruce Schneier, author of the book Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World, recently argued, “terrorist attacks are very rare. So rare, in fact, that the odds of being the victim of one in an industrialized country are almost nonexistent. … The events of September 11 were a statistical anomaly.”

Maybe we can regain perspective with the reminder that 2,978 people in the United States died from terrorism in 2001. Not to minimize in any way the extreme tragedy of any fatality related to terrorism, but that same year, 157,400 Americans died of lung cancer, 42,116 died in traffic accidents, and 3,454 died from hunger. Ralph Nader, in his June 2000 acceptance speech for the Green Party presidential candidacy, pointed to a huge epidemic of preventable deaths, referring to “the silent environmental violence … the 65,000 Americans who die every year from air pollution, the 80,000 estimated annual fatalities from hospital malpractice, and the 100,000 Americans whose demise comes from occupational toxic exposures.” These deaths are equally tragic, but they do not seem to inspire frenzied government spending or to capture media attention for very long.

In fact, so much of our attention has been focused on the looming threat of another terrorist attack that all of the other possible ways for an American to suffer preventable death seem relatively unimportant.

And, while it is very clear that a great majority of this administration’s attention—whatever has not been used to make war—is fixated on the supposedly desperate need for improved intelligence and further enhancements to Homeland Security, there has not been another terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11. One would assume that we could rest easy at night with all the tapped phone lines, airport security and public cameras with face-recognition software. Here in downtown Sacramento, we even have metal detectors at the post office. We can be good, compliant citizens and not complain. We can take our shoes off and place them on the X-ray and drop our keys in the little bowl—but it seems like we would be able to cut out the multicolored terror alerts at some point.

And just a reminder: On August 10, George W. Bush placed yet another brick in the wall, nominating Porter Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, as the new “intelligence czar.” Goss would replace CIA chief George Tenet, who resigned amid charges that his agency dropped the ball with pre-9/11 intelligence. The Bush administration is creating this new post, which essentially will have one person overseeing 15 different agencies with 15 different areas of specialty. The idea of centralizing responsibility for intelligence gathering—and all of the important decisions that are made based on that intelligence—with one Republican white guy doesn’t seem like intelligence at all. That just seems like one person with way too much power.

As shown throughout history, centralized power does not generate security, and neither does widespread fear. Centralized power simply creates unrest, as we are seeing globally and locally. Fear leads to malaise, and America’s only hope is that this malaise gets expressed this November at the voting machines. If there is any question as to why the government with the largest military on the planet struggles to protect its citizens on their own soil, there are also plenty of answers to that question. Schneier offers one answer, explaining in a Newsweek article that “we have built a geopolitical situation where more people dislike America, more people hate us, and in that respect we have made the world a more dangerous place.”

And so, maybe a more constructive question is “What are we doing to make all of these people hate us?” What if we had spent that same $5 billion, plus just a fraction of our 2004 military budget, on food, medicine and shelter? Just imagine! Instead of getting ripped off by Halliburton, we could be doing something nice for all of the countries that the Homeland Security Act names as “states that sponsor terrorism.” Call me naive, but I am willing to bet that no one would be plotting any terrorist attacks against us. Indeed, that kind of spending actually might buy us some homeland security.

Obviously, no amount of surveillance, checkpoints and military might can ever insulate America from a terrorist attack, just like no extended warranty can prevent my spiffy new laptop from taking a dump on me. I recall that once, a neighbor of mine watched her child riding his bicycle and complained, “He’s got a helmet, but I’m afraid he’s going to break his leg or something.”

Our leaders continue to bombard us with the frantic message that more needs to be done to prevent another terrorist attack. But this message seems to have departed from the real risk that exists, and has morphed into an ominous political version of the extended-warranty pitch—with the mantra that “something bad is going to happen.” It feels just like the neighborhood Mafioso, asking me for my lunch money again.