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The real American hustle

Posted: May 27, 2014 - 4:53pm  |  Updated: May 27, 2014 - 4:54pm

We’ve all seen the pharmaceutical ads on TV -- you know, the ones that typically offer relief from something like, say, itchy elbows. Once you get past the narrative and the video, which shows the deep shame that anyone feels when scratching his elbow and introduces the blessed relief of some medication named Arm-Bend-numb or whatever, we get the long disclaimer: “Do not use Arm-bend-numb within 16 hours of eating. Arm-bend-numb can cause feeling of deep depression, a variety of cancers and problems with your immune system that can result in death.”

I don’t know about you, but by the time that’s through, I’ve decided to take my chances with the itchy elbow. The drug companies probably hate the disclosures that cut into their profits, but we get to decide whether relief is worth it.

Right now, we get some sort of disclosure from the airlines, who are required to tell us the full cost of flying from here to there, listing not only their base price, which allows you to stuff yourself into one of the plane’s fetal-position seats, along with the mandatory taxes and fees. Luggage and just about everything else are extra. Currently, the airlines need to inform us about all that when we are looking for the best fares.

They’re not happy about it, so in true American corporate fashion they’ve influence-peddled members of Congress to try to introduce legislation allowing airlines to advertise only the base price, and add the other charges once you’ve gone several steps into the booking process. The deceit even extends to the title of the bill. It’s the Transparent Airlines Act of 2014.

Notwithstanding the shameless dishonesty, the airlines do make one semi-valid point, and that is that other biggies in the travel industry, such as hotels and car-rental companies, are allowed to get away with the same subterfuge. We’ve all bristled at the car-rental counter when we’re informed that the rate we’ve been quoted “excludes” a long list of fees that often exceed the advertised rental rate. And how many of us have been outraged when our hotel adds on all the taxes, fees and, my personal favorite, the facility charge for just being in the building. Our stay ends up costing not just an arm and a leg, but another limb as well ... probably the one with the itchy elbow.

Yes, the airlines have a right to be treated equally. But the answer is not to allow their filmflam, but to require hotels and car rental companies to end theirs and make clear what we’re really going to pay when we select one.

After a while, it gets truly wearisome that we live in such a caveat emptor society, where we have to expend so much energy trying to avoid the legalized swindle. The reason it’s not a crime is because usually our lawmakers are receiving financial incentives from those who want to get away with their chicanery.

While we’re at it, we have to include the politicians among those whose claims range between disingenuous and outright lies. This is bipartisan. They lie on both sides of the fence. Whenever Republicans want to oppose anything that would jeopardize their wealthy buddies, they attack it as “job killing.” That’s one of their bogus excuses for defending inequality. And we shouldn’t forget President Barack Obama’s claim that “If you like your health-care plan you can keep it.” It wasn’t true when he said it; he was consistently warned that it wasn’t. But it tested well with focus groups.

Maybe our campaign ads should come with a disclaimer like the drug commercials. Something like, “Electing this candidate may do serious harm to this country and have a negative effect on your own life.” Because these days, when it comes to all the rhetoric, more and more people just aren’t buying it.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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