The awkwardness of capitalism

“Why so large cost…”

— William Shakespeare, Sonnet 146


Though it’s pretty clear that capitalism is here to stay, and I know it’s better than communism, there are certain people – and I’m certainly one of them – who don’t do all that well in a capitalist economy, either as a buyer or a seller. I’m fine if the price is set at a store or something, where bargaining is not possible. I’m also fine if I’m a worker at a large organization, where what I’m paid is pretty much out of my control. It’s where individuals determine their own prices for things – especially their services – that I have problems.

For example, here’s something that happened to me many years ago. I was going to do a performance of my songs at a local venue, and I wanted to have it professionally videotaped. I asked around about who would be good, and was given a name and phone number. I had absolutely no idea what it would cost.

I called the guy and told him what I had in mind, and then asked that inevitably awkward question, “What do you charge?”


“How much are you willing to pay?” he asked in response.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I have no idea what the usual cost is for something like this.”

“Well, don’t worry about that,” he said. “I’m reasonable. What can you afford?”

“Okay,” I said, and I gave some number which seemed reasonable to me.

“What, are you kidding?!” he said, practically yelling. “I’m a professional. I have very good equipment. That’s insulting!”

Needless to say, I didn’t use his services, and wound up asking a friend to do the taping. He did it for free, and, of course, it came out terrible, certainly nothing I could use to get gigs at other venues.

I learned that the first rule of negotiating prices for services is to ask what the person charges, and focus on that; never say what you have in mind first. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily lead to a pleasant interaction either, especially if the charge is way above what you want to spend, because then you have two choices. You can be a wimp and accept whatever they say (“Oh, $10,000 for videotaping my daughter’s wedding? Of course! I assume you take credit cards.”).

Or you can bargain, although this can bring you right back to the possibility of being yelled at. “That’s a bit more than I can afford,” you might say. “Could you come down a little?” Now you are leaving the opening for the videographer to say, “Well what can you afford?” Which brings you back to the possibility of being snapped at when you come back with, “Well, how about $2,500?”

The solution to all this is to deal with people whose prices are clearly posted somewhere (perhaps on the Internet), though in this case, too, you may feel tempted to ask for a lower price, especially if you feel the person doing the work is not getting much business lately, and is, in fact, desperate. One of the joys of capitalism is that someone is always scared of running out of money, and fearful people are fun to manipulate for your own gain or savings.

All of this leads to my second rule, which is this: Forget the first rule, and deal only with major companies – you know, the ones that are destroying the world – whose prices are fixed and non-negotiable, but generally lower than all the smaller companies they are driving out of business.

Sometimes in price setting, the shoe is on the other foot. Over the years, I have often been hired to entertain, either by reading my exceptionally humorous columns or singing my even more hilarious songs. I will get an e-mail or phone call asking me if I’d provide entertainment for a luncheon or for after a dinner.

I suppose I should have price lists on my website, but I’m too old-fashioned for that, so I call back, and everything is fine until, as it inevitably must, the question of cost comes up. I feel like saying, “Couldn’t we talk about something else?” but I know I have to respond.

“Well, I typically charge — dollars,” I say.

Now, one of the two things happens. They say, “Perfect. That’s just what we were thinking,” in which case I feel, “Sh-t, I should have asked for $– more!”

Or they say, sounding rather pitiful, “Well, that’s kind of high for us.” Inevitably, this is some kind of community organization for seniors, and I feel the guilt pouring over me.

“Okay,” I say, “how about — (which is 10-20% less)?”

“Thank you,” they say. “That’s fine.”

And I get off the phone with a combination of joy over being a good person and anger at myself over a being a patsy. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and I am clearly a miniature poodle.