The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." "...it is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32) akakyakakyevich@gmail.com

Saturday, April 16, 2005

INSURANCE AND ITS DISCONTENTS: James M. Cain, a much underrated writer, in my opinion, wrote in Double Indemnity, his classic story of love, murder, and getting what you prayed for and finding out that it's not what you wanted, that in a lot of ways the insurance business was a lot like casino gambling. Not in any flashy Vegas way, of course; I wouldn’t mind getting a good front row seat at a revue with beautiful showgirls wearing sequins and phony ostrich feathers and not much else every time I sent in a check for my car insurance, but I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it will never happen; but rather the two resemble each other in that you and your insurance company are placing bets on the great roulette wheel of fate. You take out insurance because you know that bad things happen to people and you want protection from the consequences of those bad things; you’re betting that something awful is going to happen to you. The insurance company, on the other hand, is a giant slot machine willing to take your money because they’ve got rooms full of actuarial tables that analyze down to the minutest detail every possible thing that can go wrong in your life and frankly, no matter what your Aunt Irma tells you about her friend’s uncle’s best friend’s cousin down at the beauty shop, the bad thing you’re worried sick about isn’t likely to happen and would you remember to write your policy number on your check, please, thank you very much.

Given the essentially sporting nature of their business one would think that insurance companies would employ a much happier set of people than they do. I can’t prove this scientifically, of course, but just from my personal observation over the years I’d say that insurance companies probably hire a high percentage of humorless anal retentives than almost any other large American institution I can think of, including banking, the military, and the humanities department of any large university you could name off the top of your head, and if you think I’m overstating the case then try this: file a claim. Your friendly insurance agent is more than happy to take your money when you don’t need his help; your giving him the check fills him with bonhomie and a love of his fellow man most touching to behold. Paying out on a claim, however, upsets their digestion, no small problem in a group so prone to constipation, and causes their skin to break out. You’d almost think that the pot of money they are sitting on belonged to them from the tenacious and usually unpleasant way they defend every penny in the pot. Having real croupiers, pit bosses, and casino managers would, I think, do wonders for the collective image of the insurance industry, since those guys know how to convince people that they are having a good time handing over their hard earned money to complete strangers, and they know that every so often one of the suckers hits the jackpot. The people working in insurance these days make paying your premiums seem like what it is: another damn bill that’s got to be in the mail by the end of the month. I make the check out, I sign the check, I mail the check; let’s face it, at no point in this process am I having fun. Maybe if they sent me lottery tickets I wouldn’t mind giving them the money so much.

And the hoops they make you jump through to get what is, after all, your money, convinces many people who have legitimate claims to forego the opportunity to file a claim and to settle their problems themselves, an outcome that frankly causes some mixed emotions amongst insurance insiders: they are glad that you aren’t filing a claim since that leaves them with more money to invest in miniature golf courses in Miami Beach, but they also dislike the policyholders depriving them of the opportunity to drive the premiums through the metaphorical roof. I know this because the children’s librarian here in the egregious mold pit in which I while away the hours until my death sideswiped my car some years ago. When she came into the library to tell of this unfortunate event I immediately dashed out of the building, if you can call it dashing; I suspect most people would classify my actions that afternoon as more of a slightly animated slow mosey, my heart racing…well, more of a slight uptick, really, in gruesome anticipation of the horror without.

It wasn’t that bad, all in all, although I’ve rather unfairly used the damage as the basis of more than one guilt trip over the years, and I immediately called my insurance company to have them take a look at it. They sent a man out, a very nice fellow, as I remember, but he made it very clear very quickly that he wasn’t going to give me a red cent for the damage and that he regarded my even asking about it as an unconscionable waste of his valuable time, but he was nice about it, so I guess that counts for something these days. The children’s librarian, on the other hand, was utterly aghast that I’d said anything to an insurance company at all, her opinion of her insurance carrier not being something one can repeat in polite society, and offered to pay to have the minimal damage to my car fixed out of her own pocket. I took her money, and no, I never did have the damage fixed; I spent the money on graduate school and a three volume edition of Edward Gibbon’s The decline and fall of the Roman Empire. I read volume one, but not the other two, and now I get this awful twinge of guilt whenever I look at those books; she didn’t pay me so I could indulge my taste for gladiatorial combat or to learn about the fetid and utterly decadent fever swamp of imperial politics as the Christians sat huddled in the catacombs to worship. But then I get over it—guilt, like caffeine, only works for so long before you’ve got to take another shot of it.

But almost all insurance people are positive party animals when compared to those sad and somber actuarial wretches who must peddle life insurance for their daily bread. Like card counters at a blackjack table, life insurance is the one area of the insurance casino where the advantage lies entirely with the policyholder; even with the best efforts of doctors and life insurance salesmen to dissuade them the vast majority of people insist on dying. This is disheartening, to say the least, for your average life insurance peddler, who must constantly rethink his commitment to capitalism and the free market in the light of the millions of people willing to die in order to get their hands on the insurance company’s money. Your insurance representative may, like the good neighbor, be there for you during the worst periods of your life, lending comfort and support to you, but he certainly doesn’t want to give you a check. Sympathy is one thing and a good thing too, after all, and has the added advantage of being free, but money is something else again, and who can tell what might happen to the life insurance business if the companies started handing out money to people because they’ve run into a prolonged bout of decomposition? The insurance-minded imagination boggles at the possibility.

The refusal of many in the life insurance business to admit that they will eventually have to pay off on all of those policies causes some odd behavior on occasion. The news that the life insurance companies spent millions of dollars a year on psychic research, especially in the field of spiritualism, did not surprise me as much as it seems to have surprised the broad range of people in this country, if the opinion polls are anything to go by. If the life insurance companies can definitely prove the existence of an afterlife, that Mr. John Q. Public, recently deceased policyholder, is still alive, albeit on another spiritual plane, then there is no need to pay off on Mrs. Public’s claim. Alive in heaven or hell is still alive, after all, and your friendly life insurance company does not have to pay off if the deceased isn’t really deceased. That Mr. Public is, given his current circumstances, unable to pay his premiums every month is a shame, but not one that requires an insurance company to pay off on his wife’s claim.

What did surprise me was the extent to which the insurance companies’ support Christian Science and its missionary efforts. I suppose if you can convince enough people that death is an illusion then paying off on a claim becomes moot, since there is no death, only, as with the previously mentioned Mr. Public, a sudden and altogether unfortunate inability to pay one’s premiums. And when the existence of heaven and hell is finally proved, of course, this opens a whole new field for insurers: afterlife insurance, in which one pays a reasonable premium in this life in order to avoid the pain of hellfire in the next. This has the further advantage of turning insurance companies into religious organizations of a sort, and hence, tax-exempt entities, a prospect which will maximize profits and bring a smile to the lips of even the most hard-hearted of insurance men.
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