We should be treated as people, not commodities

It was George Bernard Shaw who is reputed to have asked a lady whether she would sleep with him for £10,000. "I might," she replied coquettishly."Then would you sleep with me for a fiver?" he pressed. "Certainly not," she retorted, "what sort of woman do you think I am?" "We've established what sort of woman you are," he replied. "Now we're just discussing the price."

It strikes me that we are now part of a social culture that treats its populace like commodities to be traded. Whether it's the government or big business, they have decided what we are and now they're just discussing the price.

Take government policy first. My wife recently slipped on our polished oak floor and broke her hip. Everyone has an A&E horror story and we waited at a local hospital from 6.15pm until half past midnight to see a doctor. But it isn't the way we were treated that is really my point.

Minimally tolerable service

All the medical staff we encountered, from the ambulance crew to the orthopaedic surgeon, were professional, kind and dedicated, if rather knackered. They simply had no resources or money to spend. The Department of Health has calculated the least price that can be spent for a minimally tolerable service. In short, it's a commodities market.

It's the same in other areas of government policy.

When Chancellor George Osborne called off his Budget-announced 3p hike in car-fuel duty, it had slap-all to do with stimulating the economy by encouraging consumer spending - there are better ways of doing that - and everything to do with avoiding some bad PR from the motoring lobby.

Again, what's the least price that can be spent to stop consumers being unhappy to the extent of not voting for Osborne's party? Of course, they could make a lot more people truly happy by pumping cash into our public infrastructure and maintaining employment but that would offend their ideological zealotry and, anyway, would be money "wasted".

And it's the same with our business psychology. Time was when corporations thought that keeping customers happy was good for business. Now it's a question of treating them with just the right level of contempt and just as little service as they can get away with.

Unnoticed bank charges

The banks are the most obvious recent example of this quality brinksmanship. The manipulation of interest rates to rip off small businesses is just the most visible symptom of the underlying disease. Do we now think that banks might add unnoticed charges to overdrafts to tip them over into unauthorised levels of borrowing, so that they can charge penalty fees?

Surely not. Would their automated phone systems be so impenetrable as to dissuade customers from using 'free' services or making insurance claims? Don't be so cynical.

It was another much-quoted wit, Oscar Wilde, who wrote about people who knew the price of everything but the value of nothing. But we've culturally moved on from that.

Our businesses and policymakers predicate services on the minimum price that can be paid for the value of a service to be considered acceptable. The crime isn't defrauding the public; it's being caught doing so. Would a banker forego a bonus if he hadn't been caught out?

Don't be silly.

It's easy enough for this commoditisation of customers to occur during the years of plenty. But the worm has turned with the economy.

I'm full of quotes today and here's another one, sometimes ascribed to a young Gibbon, sometimes to Macaulay: The child doesn't speak until he's five years old, then complains about a disgusting pudding. His mother is amazed, assuming he couldn't speak, and asks why he hasn't spoken before. "Because, Mother," replies the child, "everything hitherto has been satisfactory."

It may be time that we all started spitting out what politicians and financiers are feeding us.