Transcript

591:

Get Your Money's Worth
Transcript

Originally aired 07.15.2016

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/591

Prologue.

Zoe Chace

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Zoe Chace. Ira is away this week. He's actually doing a dance performance in Australia. So I'm hosting the show, and it happens that this week's show is about something I am not very good at-- getting your money's worth.

This is something I know about myself. I am bad at saving money. I don't haggle. I never comparison shop. It's been an especially acute problem for me because I used to report on economics, and so I'm aware that, in economics terms, I am wildly inefficient with my money. I waste it. I am not good with it, and I've been trying to get better for years.

My friend Jacob Goldstein, on the other hand, is a master. We worked on the Planet Money podcast together. Jacob's ability to navigate spending is impressive. He just always seems like an expert in this area of life.

We're at a grocery store. I came with Jacob both because I needed food, and I wanted to watch how he shops, how he spends his money. Going through the aisles, Jacob talks like we're on a trading floor. He uses the word commodity for the basic food staples, which is fair. It's just technical.

He has an idea about a reasonable price for each item based on a running catalog in his head of what those items cost at nearby stores and online-- the market. Organic baby carrots, $2 a pound. Bananas, $0.79 a bunch. This is a reference price.

Jacob Goldstein

So like commodity cheddar cheese-- $5 a pound is my reference price. For sharp cheese-- that's $8.50 a pound. No.

Zoe Chace

Yeah, yeah.

Jacob Goldstein

Not for-- that's not a-- no. It was too expensive. It's just commodity cheddar cheese, which I know I can get for $5 a pound at my grocery store.

Zoe Chace

If there's not an obvious way to measure what the best price is, for my friend, it's a little maddening. It's an unsolvable puzzle.

Jacob Goldstein

Paper towels are complicated. They make it hard to compare because they're different size rolls. This says 6 huge equals 15 regular. And then this says 8 giant equals 12 regular.

So clearly it's not the same math? And they don't have any that are regular, so it's really hard to compare. It's like buying mattresses or something.

Zoe Chace

I'm going to buy this coffee purely because it says New Orleans.

Jacob Goldstein

You like chicory? I'm going to guess it's going to have like that chicory flavor.

Zoe Chace

When I'm in a grocery store, I choose the canned tomatoes that look the most authentically Italian. I pick the olive oil with the fancy name, which, in front of Jacob, I find embarrassing, obviously.

Jacob Goldstein

So regarding coffee, I go like middle. So this is $10 a pound. Expensive coffee is $20 a pound. So we go through about a pound of coffee a week, so that's like $500 a year difference.

Zoe Chace

And how often are you annualizing costs?

[LAUGHING]

Just tell me.

Jacob Goldstein

That question is almost mean.

Zoe Chace

That question is almost mean, he says. That I did not expect-- that he would think I was being mean. I was impressed. Taking your friend to the grocery store, it's like showering with them. Both of you get really vulnerable.

Like, he's good at this. I'm bad at this. Why is he embarrassed?

Jacob Goldstein

Oh, I'm not proud at all.

Zoe Chace

You're not?

Jacob Goldstein

No.

Zoe Chace

But you get good deals.

Jacob Goldstein

So what? It's not a moral virtue to get good deals.

Zoe Chace

It seems like it's smarter.

Jacob Goldstein

I think so. There's an interesting thing, I think, here. I think people conflate getting good deals with like being moral or virtuous-- virtuous, right, like thrift or whatever. And I think that's wrong. I don't think it is virtuous to get a better deal on cashews.

Zoe Chace

When you put it like that, I see. I don't know, but I--

Jacob Goldstein

I really don't, unless like every dollar I'm not spending on cashews I'm sending to the poor, which I'm not. I give some amount of money to charity, but it's not like the more I save, the more I'm giving to charity.

Zoe Chace

But there's something about it that just-- it does seem like something to aspire to.

Jacob Goldstein

I don't think-- I mean, look, this doesn't really matter. This is just a thing that I do.

Zoe Chace

It's not a choice, he's saying. It's how he was brought up. So at this point, it's just him. It's not just grocery shopping. Jacob does this in all areas of his life.

It can be paralyzing. He feels some shame that he's like this. And I feel shame that I am not like this.

Money is a practical thing. How much do I have? What do I need? Can I afford it?

But getting your money's worth? That is much more personal because it's emotional. That's when you ask yourself, what's the most important thing to me? What might I regret? What should I sacrifice?

We have three stories about this today-- people trying to figure out if they're getting their money's worth, trying to figure out if they're getting one over on the world, or if the world is getting one over on them. First up, a man tries to get his money's worth out of the presidential election. Stay with us.

Act One. The Final Countdown.

Zoe Chace

Act One, The Final Countdown.

OK, so for the past six months, I've been covering the presidential election. And I've been particularly interested in this group of people who are trying to get the biggest bang for their buck out of this election season-- Republican donors, people who are in a rare position to put enormous sums into campaigns and watch what the money can do. People like this.

Zoe Chace

So are you a billionaire?

Doug Deason

No, I'm not. My father is.

Zoe Chace

This is Doug Deason. He's a millionaire. His dad, Darwin Deason, is the billionaire. Years ago, the dad started a computer services company and made a ton of money in the 20 years since, rolling up and selling off companies. Just money making money. Five years ago, he sold it to Xerox.

Now Doug, the son, manages their money and their political strategy. Doug is the one in charge of translating money into political power. He doesn't think of himself as a donor, exactly. There's much more thought and strategy than just throwing money at a campaign. He's more like an investor. He's looking around for the best place to put their money-- the best Republican place.

Doug is a dedicated Republican, the kind who does not miss an opportunity to insult Democrats in any context. Take our first conversation. We were talking about his daily routine. He's 54. He's trim. He sees his trainer a few times a week. He just had a protein shake for breakfast, same as every morning.

Zoe Chace

Every morning?

Doug Deason

Every morning.

Zoe Chace

I feel like this is like a common thread. Some of the other donors I talked to, they're always running off to meet with their trainer or whatever and eating almond milk and blueberries for breakfast.

Doug Deason

But you're talking about Republicans, who are winners and know how to run their life, not Democrats, who are losers and don't know how to run their life and want the government to give them a food pyramid to tell them how to eat, right?

Zoe Chace

How did you know?

I started talking to Doug at the beginning of the primaries, back in February.

Doug Deason

Hey, Zoe.

Zoe Chace

Hey.

Doug Deason

What's happening?

Zoe Chace

Not much. What's happening with you?

He and his dad budgeted $2 million for this election cycle. And over the last five months, over many phone calls and visits, I watched Doug try to figure out how to make the most of that money in one of the most confusing elections of his political life. His usual tricks failed, not because he was doing it wrong, but because the Republican donor playbook was being rewritten.

For the Democrats, money and politics went pretty much as expected during the primaries. It wasn't like that at all for the Republicans. Here's the story of how it went down from the money's perspective.

To set the scene, Doug lives in one of the Republican capitals of the world, Dallas, Texas. He walks past former presidents while chatting on his cell phone.

Doug Deason

Literally, the reason I was hanging up so quick was President Bush was coming towards me as I was walking out of the garage in the office building.

Zoe Chace

Dallas is one of the best places in the world to raise Republican dollars. Like Doug says, hands down nothing-- nothing-- compares to Dallas.

This election year started like usual. Every election cycle, the major candidates come to Dallas in search of big money and support from guys like Doug. Think of it like a cotillion ball. You've got the big Texas donors on one side of the room. On the other side, the candidates, trying to find dance partners.

Doug and his dad started out as Rick Perry supporters-- he'd been their governor-- but he dropped out. They started taking other meetings.

Doug Deason

Ben Carson. Super guy, very interesting.

Zoe Chace

But not savvy enough. Carly Fiorina.

Doug Deason

Brilliant. She'd be a great vice president.

Zoe Chace

So no. Jeb Bush.

Doug Deason

We went out, got in the car, and somebody said, well, that was thoroughly unimpressive.

Zoe Chace

Some of the meetings got testy. Doug fought with Marco Rubio over sugar subsidies. In a meeting with Ohio Governor John Kasich, Doug says he got in the governor's face because he thought Kasich implied that if they donated to his campaign, they'd get access to him when he became president.

Doug Deason

We don't care if you ever call us, or we ever see you, or you ever invite us to the White House. I will never spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom. Neither will Dad. And we could give a [BLEEP] if we ever do. That's not the point.

Zoe Chace

For the most part, though, business as usual. Some candidates got money and kept going. Some candidates flamed out. All this is happening in close consultation with people like Doug. One notable exception-- Donald Trump.

While Doug was meeting with candidates, Trump was making a big show of not being one of those puppets-- his word-- who depended on other rich people's money.

Donald Trump

And those PACs control the candidates, OK? They totally control. Carson is controlled by his PAC. Bush is controlled by his PAC.

Rubio is controlled by his PAC, and he needs a lot of water on top of everything else. Did you ever see a guy-- did you ever see a guy sweat like Rubio? I've never seen anything like it.

Zoe Chace

Trump was out there conspicuously ignoring the donors. Doug was ignoring Trump, too.

Doug Deason

If you fast-forward through the debates, you can get through pretty fast. And when Trump's talking, I'll fast-forward through most of that because he can talk all day, but you don't really learn anything.

Zoe Chace

This situation can't stand. No Republican nominee in recent history has made it to the presidency without Texas money, without the help of people like Doug. And Trump is going to be the nominee. But in March 2016, deep into the primaries, they are still paying no attention to each other.

April 2016, Doug and his dad have done their due diligence. They took all the meetings. They have their guy, Ted Cruz. They put in a couple hundred thousand dollars into a super PAC for him, and Doug has put in some time.

He's calling other donors as candidates drop out, trying to win them to Cruz. Three days before the all-important Indiana primary, Doug helps pull off a big endorsement. He gets Indiana Governor Mike Pence to back Cruz. I talked to him right as it was happening.

Doug Deason

Oh, here they're announcing it on Fox right now. I think he's about to do his-- looks like he's about to do his-- is he about to do it? We'll see. Yep. Yep, yep, yep, yep, yep. He's just about to announce.

Yeah, we're holding a fundraiser for him. Mike and I are pretty good friends and we're doing a big fundraiser for him here in Dallas on May 31. And-- oh, look. There's Ted and Carly with him. Pretty cool.

Oh, and that [BLEEP]-off Hannity. Sean Hannity. What a lame-- gah. I can't stand him.

Zoe Chace

Doug's guy endorses Cruz. Primary night arrives, and Ted Cruz drops out of the race.

May 2016, there's one man standing, and it's Donald Trump, the one guy Doug hasn't vetted. Mike Pence has reappeared recently as Trump's vice presidential pick. Doug's money seems to have done nothing.

In fact, after $645 million dollars spent by these candidates and their super PACs over the course of the primary race, the money did not pick the candidate. It was a brand-new, unwritten chapter.

Beginning of June, Trump's got $1.3 million in cash. That's nothing in this world. Hillary Clinton's campaign has $43 million in the bank. GOP donors are holding back, unsure if Trump even needs the money.

Is he going to just keep funding his own campaign? Is he going to start raising money from other rich people? Once one jumps in with a lot of money, more jump in. Millions beget millions. In short, Trump needs Doug now.

Doug Deason

Am I excited about Trump? No, I'm not. You might be able to tell from the tone of my voice I'm not enthusiastic about Trump.

I'm disappointed that Governor Perry's not going to be our next president of the United States. I'm disappointed that Ted Cruz is not going to be our next president of the United States. You know, I think Jeb would have made a fine president. He didn't have a chance of getting there, obviously.

But I think that we have some really good options. I don't know what we're going to get with Trump.

Zoe Chace

The moneyed Republicans start choosing sides, just like the Republican voters did after Trump won the primary-- Yes, Trump or Never Trump. Doug has to figure out what to do next with his money.

One of the most influential Republican donors in the country comes out in April and says he can't do it-- Charles Koch. He can't stand Trump. Asked about Trump's idea to register Muslims, Koch said, "That's monstrous. This isn't Nazi Germany." He said that Trump's behavior is the opposite of what the Koch network stands for.

This complicates Doug's decision about whether to invest in Trump because Doug thinks of Charles Koch as his mentor, his guru, almost.

Doug Deason

Charles Koch has certainly been one of the most influential people in my life. I admire everything that he does and what he stands for. You know, I say that I often get accused of drinking the Charles Koch Kool-Aid. And I said, as a matter of fact, I have it for breakfast instead of orange juice. I drink it at lunch instead of iced tea. And I have it with vodka at night. It's pretty nice.

Zoe Chace

You might already know about the Koch brothers. David and Charles are the famous ones. There's been a lot of reporting about them.

The main agenda of the Kochs is this-- smaller government. That means no EPA, no Department of Education, little regulation, low taxes, cut back on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, basically get rid of all the programs that have been put in place since LBJ's War on Poverty, no corporate subsidies.

During those days of back-to-back candidate interviews with Carson, Bush, Rubio, Fiorina, Doug and his dad asked everyone the same questions. They had this checklist based on the Koch way of thinking. What did the candidate intend to do about corporate subsidies, any kind of subsidies, getting power back to the states?

Doug went to his first Koch seminar in 2011, and that's where he got religion. Before Charles Koch came into his life, Doug and his dad gave money locally, and yeah, to presidential candidates, but not to PACs. Instead, he and his dad would meet a candidate. If they seemed nice and conservative, they'd throw money at the candidate. It was all about the people. Now he talks about it like this.

Doug Deason

So this is a battle, not a war. So short term, we give directly to the candidates' campaigns.

Zoe Chace

The candidates are just there to fight the battle. It's not only about the candidates anymore. The candidates are the soldiers fighting to put in place the big ideas. The big ideas come from the think tanks. And that's what the war is over, the big ideas.

Doug Deason

And then the war is influencing legislation, influencing the way things are taught, history is taught, economics is taught at universities-- getting a conservative footprint on liberal universities. So that's the think tanks.

Zoe Chace

Now that's where most of the Deason money goes-- to the war, to their favorite think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and also to Freedom Partners, the umbrella organization run by the Koch brothers.

The one bipartisan issue the Kochs and Doug support is criminal justice reform, especially regarding sentencing. And Doug is really into this one. This was high on the list of questions he asked candidates.

He recently wrote an op-ed about how his own arrest when he was young could have ruined his chances for success if he'd been charged with a felony. It was a big spread in the New York Times, even though he claims the paper bursts into flames whenever he touches it.

Also, it's an economic issue. Locking up so many people costs Texas a lot of money. The Deasons and the Kochs funded a new criminal justice research center in Dallas. Doug was hugely influential in getting a new law passed in Texas last year to seal certain criminal records.

So that's how he thinks of his political spending now, like his money is part of this long-term, change-the-world strategy. His money has meaning. That checklist of priorities-- small government, criminal justice reform, ending government subsidies-- Trump hasn't said anything about those things. At least, nothing that seems like it would appeal to Doug and his dad.

Doug Deason

I watched as he came in. How did I know he was coming? Because there were a bunch of helicopters, and they were hovering over his entourage.

Zoe Chace

Of course, Trump does show up in Dallas in the middle of June. He's got no money and a brand new deal with the RNC, and they got him to suck up his pride and realize that what serious candidates do is they go ask for money. Trump Force One is landing in Love Field.

Doug Deason

You could watch it all the way from Love Field, all the way through Highland Park, right past down here, across that little bridge down there. And then there were news helicopters just following along.

Zoe Chace

Trump's got three meetings scheduled with rich guys, including Doug and his dad. It's set for Friday, June 17. I talked to Doug the night before.

Doug Deason

So we're not going to make a commitment to him until we meet him. So Dad and his wife Katerina and I are headed over in the morning to his hotel to spend 30 minutes with him in private, just ask him some questions. Where do you stand on criminal justice reform, corporate cronyism, entitlement programs, Social Security, that kind of thing-- you know, food stamps, which is part of the farm subsidies, for some stupid reason. How do you feel about farm subsidies?

Zoe Chace

What is it actually going to be like? Are you going to sit down with him in a room and just say to him, how do you feel about corporate subsidies? Just like that?

Doug Deason

Right.

Zoe Chace

Here are the options. He can donate to the campaign itself, up to $5,400. He'll probably do at least that much, but he can do way more. He can donate to the Trump Victory Fund, which was set up by the RNC to raise money for Trump in some congressional races. The cap is for $450,000. And he can donate as much as he likes, of course, to a super PAC that's supporting Trump.

Zoe Chace

What about Charles Koch? Have you talked to him about meeting with Trump?

Doug Deason

No, we haven't. No.

Zoe Chace

Why?

Doug Deason

Dad-- we will. We probably will. Dad voiced his frustration over the Charles interview a few Sundays ago. And his statement that he couldn't support Trump-- and he kind of insinuated that if Hillary softened her rhetoric and did certain things, he might even consider supporting and/or voting for her.

And obviously, Dad didn't take that very well. And so he let the Koch team know. So Charles sent him a very detailed letter.

Zoe Chace

Before his involvement with the Kochs, Doug was just a rich Republican. Post-Koch, he's a warrior, and that feels good. The Kochs have provided a map for political donors and a community for billionaires. It's called the Koch network. The idea is they can act as one unit, leveraging hundreds of millions of dollars toward their goals. Doug loves being part of that. He believes in it. And now Trump is rattling the unity of the Koch network. This letter from Charles to Doug's dad confirms that.

Doug Deason

So Dad got it. He read it. Called me. They cc'ed me. He said, what do you think I should do? I said, I don't know. Let's meet Trump first and see how passionate we are about him, what we think about him. Maybe we ask Charles to meet with him, at least give him a chance.

Zoe Chace

Does it feel weird, like your two dads are fighting?

Doug Deason

Well, no. I mean, Charles is not my dad. He's obviously hugely influential on me and what I focus on in life and my political thinking.

Zoe Chace

I know your analysis, but I mean, does it feel bad to have your dad and Charles Koch disagree?

Doug Deason

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it does.

Zoe Chace

Why?

Doug Deason

I don't know. We've always been-- Dad and I are 99.9% of the time on the same page, and I kind of see where Charles is coming from.

Zoe Chace

The day Doug met with Trump, I meet up with him in his office right after.

Zoe Chace

So what happened?

Doug Deason

We just went over and-- went over to the Park Cities Hilton. And we met with Donald Trump.

Zoe Chace

So to start from the beginning, Trump kept them waiting. They're sitting in the hotel lobby. At one point, Doug checks in with his dad.

Doug Deason

I go, what are you going to talk to him about? He said, oh, I don't know, whatever pops up. He goes, I'm kind of counting on you. I said, OK. Well, here's-- and I had a piece of paper, read through it. He said, perfect.

Zoe Chace

Where's that piece of paper?

Doug Deason

Right here in front of me.

Zoe Chace

Can I see it? "Admit you are not perfect, not without sin, but who isn't? Stop racial remarks. OK, it's criminal justice reform, corporate cronyism, federalism. How does he feel about big government and states and stuff?"

Doug Deason

Getting power back to the states, yeah.

Zoe Chace

Did you ask him about that?

Doug Deason

No. Didn't get a chance. He's just such a nice guy. He's so pleasant and so personable in person.

Zoe Chace

Did you ask any of your questions about your issues?

Doug Deason

No, not really. I did some. I'd kind of research some online a little bit, and I felt pretty good about them. But I didn't expect Dad to talk as much as he did.

Zoe Chace

What did he say?

Doug Deason

The reason he did is because Trump just engaged him, asked him about Dad's business, how did he make his money. And they talked about-- he kept complimenting down on me that he's got-- I know how great it is to be able to turn something over to your kids and let them run it and let them do it, which obviously is what I do. So it was nice to be complimented, right?

Zoe Chace

By Trump or by your dad?

Doug Deason

By anybody. They were both saying that, so that was really nice.

Zoe Chace

They didn't discuss subsidies or criminal justice reform or any of the other issues because something else was at work on Doug in that room. Something more visceral than long-term strategizing about conservative ideas. From the sounds of it, Trump just charmed him. And suddenly it's morning in Dallas.

Doug Deason

You know, he said many times, things are just great. Things are really great. Things are really great. Things are really going good. If there was a pause in the discussion, it would come out with that. Things are really good.

Zoe Chace

And you walked out of that meeting and what did you and your dad say to each other?

Doug Deason

Just, hey, that went really well. He's a really nice guy, and seems to think a lot like we do. He believes that a businessman-- at the end of the day, a country is a business.

Zoe Chace

What made you think he believes that? You didn't ask him about that stuff.

Doug Deason

No, but he said it. I mean, he just talked about, hey, you guys are businessmen. You understand how a business works. Really, that's how a country works.

And this country needs to be run like a business. We need to cut costs and support people where they need to be supported and cut fat out and bloat. I'm a businessman. I've run businesses. That's what I intend to do. And that's why we voted for Ross Perot twice. Threw away our vote there.

Zoe Chace

Then Doug pulls out his phone.

Doug Deason

There we are. So that's Dad, Trump, and me.

Zoe Chace

Three businessmen-- Doug, Dad, Trump-- suits and ties, thumbs up. There you go. That's the decision.

To be clear, Doug and his father don't have any special insight into Trump's policies or thinking. They know the same things regular voters know about what he's going to do. But in this meeting, Doug wasn't choosing between Republicans. He'd set aside the war of big ideas in that room. He focused on the battle against Hillary Clinton. This has turned into a team sport for him, and there is really only one team that Doug can be on.

The Deasons are going to do a lot more than $5,400. Here's the plan. Between Doug and his dad, they're giving $900,000 to the Trump Victory Fund. Dad's going to throw a fundraiser at Laguna Beach. Doug's going to call around to find the right super PAC for supporting Trump and then maybe give the PAC a million, or two, or three.

Doug Deason

I had my Trump jerseys dropped off today.

Zoe Chace

Oh, gosh. What are these?

Doug Deason

Trump jerseys.

Zoe Chace

I saw a bunch of these for Ted Cruz.

Doug Deason

Yeah, same guys made them. It's Toby Neugebauer.

Zoe Chace

You are like those guys. You just move on to the next one.

Doug Deason

Well, no. It's a Republican.

Zoe Chace

I know.

Doug Deason

Yeah.

Zoe Chace

I know.

Doug Deason

You're right.

Zoe Chace

There are a lot of Republicans like Doug, apparently. Trump's gone from that million dollars at the beginning of June, when he hadn't figured anything out, to $51 million just last week, according to The Washington Post. Half of that money is grassroots-- people getting online. Half of that is the Dougs of the world maxing out with the RNC, and Charles Koch.

Zoe Chace

So you're going to call Charles and say you met with Trump. And you're going to say--

Doug Deason

We'll probably send him a letter back.

Zoe Chace

Uh-huh. And what are you going to say?

Doug Deason

Just say, hey, we met with him. We had the opportunity to meet with him. We were withholding judgment on him until we met with him. Now that we've had time to spend time with him, we intend to support him financially. We think that it would be in everyone's best interest, and your own, and the network's, if you would meet with him.

Zoe Chace

But I just got an email from Doug last weekend. He wrote, "Charles is not ready to meet with Trump yet. He may never be."

Coming up, a high school principal loses his morals over boots. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two. Bean Counter.

Zoe Chace

It's This American Life. I'm Zoe Chace, sitting in for Ira Glass. Today, we're talking about getting your money's worth for things, and just how powerful that drive can be to spend our money wisely. Sometimes it's millions of dollars, but now we're at Act Two, Bean Counters.

There's a way to calculate how satisfied we are, as a country, with all of our things. It's done by the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Of course, we are never satisfied, but in the last two years, this little index has been in a nosedive, which is weird. Like, what was so great about two years ago? Apparently, we are epically dissatisfied with all the things-- health insurance, cable, government, airlines.

This is why I like this next story. It's a test. What happens if you guarantee complete, eternal, 100% satisfaction to the habitually unsatisfied? Sara Corbett has this story.

Sara Corbett

Here's a story my friend Derek tells for penance-- those are his words, for penance-- a story in which he says he's--

Derek

Being a dirtbag.

Sara Corbett

Maybe even more than a dirtbag.

Derek

Total sleazebag.

Sara Corbett

Because we're in America, this morality tale takes place in a customer service department at LL Bean in Maine, where we both live. This story involves a pair of cross-country ski boots.

Derek

I had these boots that were given when we were first married.

Sara Corbett

When was that?

Derek

'92. And so this was maybe-- we'll say 2007 or something, maybe later than that. And one of the boots gave out. And it had LL Bean written right on it, so I knew where it came from.

Sara Corbett

What had you heard?

Derek

Yeah, the understanding is that they will accept returns at any time for no reason at all, for any reason. So I decided I had to test if this was true. So I went and I remember the woman pretty clearly. And she asked a few questions.

And she says, so when did you get the boots? And I said, I don't recall exactly. They were a gift. And she said, roughly how long ago? And I said, I don't know, maybe 15 years? She said, thank you. So what is your reason for return? They just fell apart.

Sara Corbett

After 15 years.

Derek

Thank you. So were you satisfied with their performance? Yeah, they were great. They just wore out. Thank you. You get the sense I could say anything and they'd say thank you. Here you go.

And with each kind of bit of her gratitude, my shame just expanded till it was supersize. And then she gave me the check for the amount of the boots, and I went and got new boots.

Sara Corbett

Technically speaking, this is allowed at LL Bean under their return policy. Technically. No one at the store was going to tell Derek to his face that he had done anything wrong. But that didn't make it feel right.

Derek

I had the long drive home of shame. It felt like every police officer was on notice, and they would now know who I really was as a human being because I returned boots and got a free pair for no good reason.

Sara Corbett

And tell us what you do for a living, Derek.

Derek

I'm a high school principal. I try to shape the young minds of tomorrow to make correct moral choices.

Sara Corbett

I started asking around, just curious to see who else had sailed into the moral Bermuda Triangle that is the LL Bean returns desk. A different friend of mine told me he had been returning his elementary school backpack every five years or so since sixth grade. He's now 30.

I made a quick phone call to another guy about another backpack.

Sara Corbett

Hey, Matt.

Matt

Sara, hey. How's it going?

Sara Corbett

This is my brother Matt. He bought his backpack at the beginning of one summer in college then spent three months camping in the woods of New Hampshire, doing trail maintenance for a summer job. He lived out of that backpack-- an LL Bean backpack-- for three months before deciding it wasn't roomy enough. So he took himself, and it, to the returns desk.

Matt

It was trashed, but it was still usable. And it was all greasy from like-- they get all greasy and smelly and stuff like that. The bug dope we use is Old Woodsman.

Sara Corbett

This particular bug dope is made with pine tar, which is very sticky. Sticks to everything. And then everything sticks to it-- pine needles, dirt, dead bugs. So all of this was on Matt's backpack along with three months of young man back sweat.

Matt is clear-- and was clear at the time-- that it wasn't LL Bean's fault that he bought a too-small backpack. It was his fault.

Matt

Oh, absolutely. Yeah. But then again, I had heard that you could return stuff. And I was like, well, would they really take this back?

Sara Corbett

Yes, they did, and so, so much more. LL Bean sells a lot of stuff, all kinds. It's sort of like Target, but for outdoorsy New Englanders, and a lot more expensive. Part of the reason it's more expensive is because the company, which has been around since 1912, claims their products are extra high quality, built to last. And the company's return policy is built to last, too. Other stores give you a week, a month, maybe a year. LL Bean gives you forever.

And I sort of knew that. I knew the gist of their policy, or at least the urban legend version of it. For 19 years, I've lived down the highway from the flagship store in Freeport, Maine. I have friends who work there. But I didn't know that people were truly, truly returning 15-year-old boots and getting away with it. Is anyone calling bull-[BLEEP] on this? Is anyone on either side of these transactions drawing the line?

Once I started looking into it, it felt more and more like LL Bean's return policy is this giant, 100-year-old psych experiment.

Jonathan Woodward

You just bring it back and we'll give you-- honestly give you-- as much money for it as humanly possible. That was told to me by the guy who trained me.

Sara Corbett

This is Jonathan Woodward. He worked at the LL Bean returns desk seasonally up until last year. He says the store used to give out cash for returns. Now it's store credit, but the principle is the same.

Jonathan explained that the return policy is called, with reverence, the guarantee. And within the company, it's not so much policy as sacred foundational text. It's printed on every receipt and on the store's website. It reads, "our products are guaranteed to give 100% satisfaction in every way. Return anything purchased from us at any time if it proves otherwise."

Jonathan says, for him, behind the returns desk, the guarantee means not just that the customer is always right, not just that the customer is going to walk away satisfied that they're right, but also that they're going to walk away with--

Jonathan Woodward

As much money for whatever they bring in as you can possibly figure out how to do.

Sara Corbett

Wow.

Jonathan Woodward

Yeah. It's the Magic Kingdom in flannel.

Sara Corbett

LL Bean does sell a lot of flannel-- flannel sheets, flannel shirts, flannel pajamas. Also non-flannel-- fishing rods, mountain bikes, luggage, bathing suits, food, moccasins, watches, books, hunting rifles, sleds, furniture, canoes, socks. They sold a total of $1.6 billion worth of those things last year, all of which, of course, can be brought back.

And Jonathan says, at the returns desk, people are trained to keep their face and tone neutral, to not register any judgement whatsoever. Like when someone shows up at the front of the line wanting to return a half-eaten cookie. This actually happened to Jonathan once.

Jonathan Woodward

You can't even look at them meaningfully when they're returning.

Sara Corbett

What do you read on their faces? Is it a certain kind of person who--

Jonathan Woodward

No.

Sara Corbett

It's anybody?

Jonathan Woodward

Oh, no. It's everybody.

Sara Corbett

And here we are, Monday morning, the return area at LL Bean. Customers are pouring in. People are holding boots, fly rods, jackets, a pair of seersucker shorts, a Swiss army knife. One guy's carrying an entire Adirondack chair. Another has lugged in a bike rack.

There's one of those roped-off corrals that keeps people in line, and a long row of registers, where the customer service people stand, each one of them wearing a forest green shirt, each one of them looking cheerful and accommodating.

Cashier

Your receipt has our guarantee on the back. And the survey is on the front. Thank you very much.

Customer

Thank you. Have a good day.

Cashier

Congratulations--

Sara Corbett

A woman sets a pile of clothes on the return desk, including a v-neck T-shirt that she's just not into. It plunges too much.

Customer

I don't do plunge. Our daughter does, but not me.

Sara Corbett

Seems like a legit return to me. The shirt was new. She got it home, regretted the purchase, and promptly brought it back.

I spent hours hanging around the returns desk over the course of a couple of days, and I'd say that maybe 50% of the returns I saw were straightforward like this. But there were plenty that seemed to me questionable, if not outright crazy-- on part with the half-eaten cookie-- like a woman who showed up with a huge load of used twin-sized bedding. Seriously used bedding, I should say, because she'd upgraded to a queen bed. Is dissatisfaction the right word for this?

Or the people who brought back a living room chair because they'd done a bad job strapping the chair to their car, so when it fell off and broke in the middle of a highway, they were upset. Or maybe they'd call it dissatisfied. They got store credit. They all did. Every one of these customers got store credit.

Then there was this guy, an older gentleman who patiently waited in line and then found himself in front of Cindy Wilson, one of the returns desk people. He pulled three extremely worn-out shirts-- two T-shirts and a chambray-- out of a paper bag.

Customer

I love these. I wonder if they can be repaired. I've had them for years. They never wear out.

Cindy Wilson

Oh, no, we can't repair them. What's wrong with them?

Sara Corbett

He gestures at the shirt, saying something about how the stitching is coming apart around the armpits, though it's hard to see any specific wear and tear because the shirts just look generally worn and torn.

Cindy Wilson

If you're not happy with them, we're happy to take them back for you.

Customer

Well, I've had them for years. I don't know.

Cindy Wilson

Well, it says satisfaction guarantee. We're going to leave that up to you, if you're satisfied or not.

Sara Corbett

Do something with them, he says.

Cindy Wilson

And how long do you think you've had them?

Customer

These I've had about 40 years.

Sara Corbett

40 years?

That's me in the background blurting out, 40 years? Cindy doesn't blurt anything out.

Cindy Wilson

Wow. Good for you. We'll get you a couple new ones.

Sara Corbett

She issues store credit for the guy's shirts. $84.19, which has got to be more than he paid for them in 1976, so yay for inflation. In some ways, this is exactly the customer LL Bean wants-- loyal, loves the stuff.

If he and his shirts embody a larger dilemma here, when it comes to the guarantee, there's a clear subtext-- or I think it's clear, anyway-- which is basically, be cool, everybody. Please, after 40 years, maybe you are satisfied. Maybe it's time to pay for a new shirt.

I made my way backstage, right behind the returns desk, to a huge warehouse-like room. It's full of returned stuff in giant bins and plastic bags. Heaps and piles of them.

Cindy Wilson

Shoes and tops, socks.

Sara Corbett

Cindy showed me around. She's been working in the returns department 25 years. She's a lifelong Mainer. Cheery, matter-of-fact.

She says one of the best things about working for Bean is the employee store, which is where some of the nicer stuff in the bins ends up. It gets sold to employees at a deep discount. $0.50 pants, $15 comforters. Cindy's house is full of other people's castoffs. Her towels have strangers' initials monogrammed on them. Her dog slept on a dog bed, also monogrammed with another dog's initials? Somebody's initials.

Cindy Wilson

Dog collars.

Sara Corbett

A dog collar? What would somebody say about the dog collar? Just didn't fit?

Cindy Wilson

Well, I've heard stories from my dog died, so they no longer need the dog collar. It's their perception of the satisfaction guarantee.

Sara Corbett

I'm just going to say what Cindy won't say. It seems like some people are sort of renting stuff. But it's actually better than renting, like renting/borrowing almost.

There's a kind of seasonal ebb and flow to what people bring back. At the end of ski season, skis come back. When turkey hunting season is over, turkey hunting equipment comes back. Cindy had a story from the cash era, when the band Phish put on a three-day show in the tiny northern town of Limestone, Maine, and 60,000 people showed up for it.

Cindy Wilson

When the Phish concert happened years ago, they would buy their equipment on the way to the concert, and when the concert ended, they returned all their equipment.

Sara Corbett

And you just gave out cash?

Cindy Wilson

Yes, we gave out cash then. Yes.

Sara Corbett

What kinds of stuff were people buying and returning?

Cindy Wilson

Camping equipment. It was tents and stoves and sleeping bags. I don't know if you remember that concert, but it poured all weekend, so everything was soaking wet when it came back, and muddy.

Sara Corbett

And your job was to just take it back and say thanks very much?

Cindy Wilson

If they said they weren't satisfied. Their tent didn't hold up in the rain and their sleeping bags got wet. They all had receipts, so there was no reason for us to say anything. It was all receipted returns.

Sara Corbett

Cindy says not everybody can hack it at the returns desk.

Cindy Wilson

We try to gauge by personality who we want to bring in here because it does take a certain kind of person. People come in here and they do it for a week or two, and they just can't set their personal issues aside. So they just choose to go back to the sales floor. There are some people that have been here 30 years that will not come in here and do this.

Sara Corbett

Because?

Cindy Wilson

It personally bothers them.

Jonathan Woodward

It's difficult. It's a real mind-bending experience to just witness people coming in.

Sara Corbett

Here's Jonathan again. Unlike Cindy and pretty much every other returns desk person I interviewed, he didn't hesitate to spell out exactly how it felt to stand before, say, a pair of used sheepskin slippers presented for return, not because the customer wasn't satisfied with them, but because the customer clearly loved them.

This isn't an isolated situation, by the way. There are masses of slippers piled up in the returns warehouse.

Jonathan Woodward

These truly disintegrating pieces of animal hide and fur that have been exposed to their feet for years and years and years of wandering around. The hide is all shiny. The shearling is totally mustard-colored and damp and matted. And it smells like four years of somebody's toes.

Sara Corbett

[LAUGHING] OK. I get it. I get it.

Jonathan Woodward

And they put them in front of you and they say, I want to return these. And there's no question you can ask that would-- there's no question, like don't you think that you might have gotten enough use out of these to warrant buying some new ones? I mean, Nikes fall apart in a year, but you don't even ask that. You just look at them, and your face is totally neutral, and their face is totally neutral, and you're going to both agree that the normal rules of retail interaction do not apply in this situation.

Sara Corbett

Honestly, hearing what I heard, seeing what I saw, I wasn't sure who I felt upset with, the customers for their brazenness, or the company for just passively letting it all happen. LL Bean officials won't say how much the returns are costing them. They don't even try to estimate the ratio of legitimate returns to whoppers. Everyone I talked to there just kept saying, it's up to the customer. Customer makes the decision about what it means to be satisfied or not.

Here's what the company does now. The guarantee was not built for modern times. It came from one main shopkeeper, Leon Leonwood Bean, who sold mail-order hunting boots with a promise. If you weren't satisfied, you could return them. A century later, people are buying used LL Bean products in bulk on eBay and returning them for full price. Others scoop up piles of old parkas and shirts at thrift shops, stuff them into garbage bags, and bring them back for store credit. I talked to one guy who found an LL Bean jacket at Goodwill for $10 and returned it, triumphantly, for $360 in store credit.

I'm not saying this is a tragedy for the human race. I am saying that a hundred years ago, when the guarantee was born, the internet didn't exist. Thrifting was not a verb.

The company tries, in its earnest flannel way, to push back. They've asked Goodwill stores to put a big, black X on the label of donated LL Bean clothes. Anything with an X on the label can't be returned. They've started asking for driver's licenses to keep track of a person's habits. If you're returning a lot but not buying a lot, you might get a polite cease and desist letter basically asking you to shop elsewhere.

One woman on Twitter bragged recently about how she got some old boots for $8 at Goodwill and swapped them for a new pair at the store. She got a gentle reprimand tweet from LL Bean, signed LB. That's about as far as they'll go.

I found out employees actually used to be allowed to inject just a tiny bit of judgment into their interactions with customers. They could, for example, say primly, that's not in the spirit of the guarantee. They could ask pointed follow-up questions or pause meaningfully before granting a return. That's what the employees I spoke with actually called it-- the meaningful pause.

There were even situations-- four of them-- where they could outright refuse a return. This is Bridget, who worked seasonally at LL Bean for several years.

Bridget

Fire, death, divorce, weight loss.

Sara Corbett

Meaning that if somebody came in and said, I lost 20 pounds and so I don't want my pants, you were supposed to say no?

Bridget

Right. Yeah, we would say, well, I mean, it's 100% satisfaction guarantee. That actually-- that's not covered under it, those things.

Sara Corbett

But LL Bean has let all those things go. Meaningful pauses are no longer allowed. Death, divorce, fire, and a killer dieting streak now officially count as situations that might, in fact, lead to dissatisfaction with your stuff.

This move wasn't just to coddle customers. It was too hard on the staff to have to parse everyone's reasoning to make judgments about people all day long. Cindy, the returns veteran, says she sees her job more like being a bartender, listening to people's stories if they want to talk, giving them what they want, whether she thinks it's good for them or not.

It's hard to be both a bartender and a moralist, especially because, yeah, she's seen people who are probably gaming the system, but she's also seen people who are probably just trying to get by. She's seen people bringing their old stuff back at Christmastime so they can afford presents for their kids. She said people tell her they're going to sell their store credit on eBay so they can get money to buy oil to heat their home. She said sometimes people bring in their dead spouse's clothing, saying it just makes them too sad having it around.

When I first approached LL Bean about doing this story, I thought they'd never agree to it, that they wouldn't want me talking about the guarantee on the radio at all, like I'd be offering some sort of playbook for the return policy maximizers of the world. But actually, they seemed to think the opposite. It's like they doubled down. Or maybe they're worried enough about the stretching of the guarantee that they want us all to be thinking more about our satisfaction.

There's been a debate recently inside the company about whether to change the guarantee, whether it's just too generous for the times we live in. But for now, they say, they will continue to accept people, and their stuff, and their lack of satisfaction, every day, as is.

Zoe Chace

Sara Corbett is a writer in Portland, Maine.

Act Three. Make It Count.

Zoe Chace

I am not embarrassed to say on the radio that I read that book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which, if you haven't read it, says you should go through everything you own one by one, ask yourself, looking at the object, does this bring me joy? And if it doesn't, get rid of it. Doesn't matter if you got a deal on it or you paid a lot of money because this is how you will feel the magic of being surrounded by the things that you love.

I like this idea a lot, but what is that like for the object? The book does not talk about this. What is it like for the object to be constantly worried about whether or not you love it enough to keep it around you?

This is Act Three, Make It Count. We finally hear from the voiceless object in a story from Simon Rich called "Unprotected." Heads up, this story acknowledges the existence of sex-- safe sex.

Simon Rich

I born in factory. They put me in wrapper. They seal me in box. Three of us in box. In early days, they move us around. From factory to warehouse. From warehouse to truck. From truck to store.

One day in store, boy human sees us on shelf. He grabs us, hides us under shirt. He rushes outside. He goes to house, runs into bedroom, locks door. He tears open box and takes me out. He puts me in wallet. I stay in wallet long, long time. This is story of my life inside wallet.

The first friend I meet in wallet is Student ID Jordi Hirschfeld. He is card. He has been around longest, he says. He introduces me to other cards. I meet Provisional Driver's License Jordi Hirschfeld, Swimming Pool Access Card Jordi Hirschfeld, Jamba Juice Value Card, Business Card Albert Hirschfeld, DDS, Scarsdale Comic Book Explosion Discount Card

In middle of wallet, there live dollars. I am less close to them because they're always coming and going. But they are mostly nice. I meet many Ones and Fives, some Tens, a few Twenties. One time, I meet Hundred. He stayed for a long time. Came from birthday card, he said. Birthday card from an old person.

I also meet photograph of girl human, very beautiful, eyes like Swimming Pool Access Card. Blue, blue, blue.

When I first get to wallet, I am "new guy." But time passes. I stay for so long, I become veteran. When I first arrive, Jamba Juice has just two stamps. Next thing I know, he has fives stamps-- then six, then seven. When he gets 10 stamps, he is gone. One day, Provisional Driver's License disappears. In his place, there is new guy, Regular Driver's License. I become worried. Things are changing very fast.

Soon after, I am taken out of wallet. It is night. I am scared. I do not know what is happening. Then I see girl human. She is one from photograph. She looks same in real life, except now she wears no shirt. She is smiling, but when she sees me, she becomes angry. There is arguing. I go back inside wallet.

A few days later, picture of girl human is gone.

That summer, I meet two new friends. The first is Student ID New York University Jordi Hirschfeld. The second is. MetroCard. MetroCard is from New York City and he never lets you forget it. He has real "attitude." He is yellow and black, with Cirque du Soleil advertisement on back. When MetroCard meets GameStop PowerUp Card Jordi Hirschfeld, he looks at me and says, no wonder Jordi Hirschfeld not yet use you. I become confused. Use me for what?

That night, MetroCard tells me many strange things about myself. At first, I do not believe what he says. But he insists all is true. When I start to panic, he laughs. He says, what did you think you were for? I am too embarrassed to admit truth, which is that I thought I was balloon.

It is around this time that we move. For more than two years, we had lived inside Velcro Batman. It is nice, comfy. One day, though, without warning, we are inside stiff brown leather. I am very upset-- especially when I see that so many friends are gone. No more GameStop PowerUp Card Jordi Hirschfeld. No more Swimming Pool Access Card Jordi Herschfeld. No more Scarsdale Comic Book Explosion Discount Card. Only survivors are MetroCard, Driver License, Student ID, myself, and a creepy new lady named Visa.

I am angry. What was wrong with Velcro Batman? It had many pockets and was warm. A few days later, I meet Film Forum Membership Jordan Hirschfeld. At this point, I am in "panic mode." What is "Film Forum"? Who is "Jordan Hirschfeld"?

Jordan Hirschfeld is same guy as Jordi Hirschfeld, MetroCard explains. He is just trying to "change his image." I am confused. What is wrong with old image? That night, I poke my head out of wallet and look around pocket. It is dark, but I can see we have new neighbor. He says his name is Cigarettes Gauloises. He is very polite, but I get weird vibe from him.

It is about this time that I meet strip of notebook paper. On him is written [email protected] Now we're getting somewhere, MetroCard says. I have never been more frightened in my life.

That Saturday, five crisp Twenties show up. I assume they will stay long time, like most Twenties. But two hours later, they are gone, replaced by receipt La Cucina. MetroCard looks at receipt La Cucina and laughs. She better put out after that, he says. I am confused and worried.

Later on, I am minding my own business, when Jordi-- sorry, "Jordan" shoves his finger into me. I am terrified. What was that? I ask. MetroCard grins. He is checking to make sure you're there, he says. For later.

My friends try to calm me down. One of the dollars, a One, tells me about the time he met Vending Machine Pepsi. He was stuffed in and out, in and out, so many times he almost died. I know he is trying to make me feel better, but I am like, please stop talking about that.

Eventually, the moment comes. It is like other time. I am taken out of wallet and tossed on bed. It is very dark. I can make out shape of girl. She picks me up and squints at me for a while. Then she turns on lamp. I am confused. So is Jordan Hirschfeld.

"What's wrong?" he asks. His face is like Jamba Juice Value Card. Red, red, red.

"I think," she says, "that this might actually be expired."

There is long silence. And then, all of a sudden, the humans are laughing! And then the girl is hitting Jordan with pillow! And he is hitting her back with pillow! And they are laughing, laughing, laughing. The girl reaches into her bag.

"Don't worry," she says. "I've got one."

Part of me kind of wants to watch what happens next, but I'm quickly covered in pile of clothes.

When I wake up the next day, Jordan is dangling me over trash can. I look down into pit. Inside are Cigarettes Gauloises and Film Forum Schedule. They are talking "philosophy." I sigh. I do not really want to move in with them, but what can I do? I figure this is "end of the line" for me.

Suddenly, though, Jordan carries me away-- to other side of room. I am placed inside shoebox under his bed. At first, I am afraid because it is dark, but as vision adjusts, I see I am not alone. There is strip of notebook paper [email protected] There is receipt La Cucina, on which is now written, "First Date." I spend long, long time in shoebox.

When I arrive, I am new guy. But as time passes, I become veteran. I welcome many new friends-- Birthday card Rachel. Happy Valentine's Day Rachel. And many, many Post-it notes Rachel. Good morning, Jordi! Rachel. I love you, Jordi. Rachel. Everything in here is Rachel.

I do not know how things are in wallet these days, but I'm glad to be in shoebox. I feel as if I have "made it." I am happy. I am warm. I am safe.

Zoe Chace

This story came to us from Simon Rich, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. It can be found in his collection Man Seeking Woman.

[MUSIC - "I'VE GOT FIVE DOLLARS AND IT'S SATURDAY NIGHT" BY FARON YOUNG]

Credits.

Zoe Chace

Our program was produced today by Karen Duffin and Chana Joffe-Walt. Our production staff, Sean Cole, Emmanuel Dzotsi, Neil Drumming, Stephanie Foo, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Lyra Smith, Matt Tierney, and Nancy Updike.

Other important people here, Elise Bergerson, Emily Condon, Kimberly Henderson, Seth Lind, and Julie Whitacre. Research help from Christopher Swetala. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to my boss, Ira Glass. He's been gone all week. We did get one message from him.

Doug Deason

Things are just great. Things are really great. Things are really great. Things are really going good.

Zoe Chace

I'm Zoe Chace. Ira's back next week with more stories of This American Life.