Torpedo telemarketers with caller ID

By DAVID MOON, Moon Capital Management
October 12, 2003

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

- First amendment to the U.S. Constitution

"Congress shall make no law ' abridging the freedom of speech'' Over the years, courts have determined that a lot of wacky things qualify as "speech" and are therefore protected from abridgement by the Congress. Nude dancing. Vulgar acts and images offered as art. If a painting of Jesus Christ splattered with urine qualifies as protected speech, I'm pretty sure we ought to afford the same protection to telemarketers.

It is silly for Congress to pass a federal law limiting certain types of telemarketing.

When the only tool you have in your box is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. We shouldn't fault lawmakers for trying to fix every problem with a new law. That's their nature. But it's the wrong solution to an admittedly annoying problem.

Even ignoring the terrible legal flaws in the language of the federal "do not call" legislation, Congress' attempt to provide a bit of peacefulness at dinnertime was more about making a point than making a difference. (Political and charity solicitors were exempted from the legislation.) If Congress really thinks legislation can cure all of our evening nuisances, let them pass a law requiring three-year-olds to stay in their chairs during dinner. How effective do you think that law would be? Passing a law against telemarketing would be like strapping my son to his chair during a meal; it may keep him in his chair for a while, but he will find a way to make dinner miserable if duct taped to a heavy piece of furniture.

The solution to the telemarketing problem is already occurring, all without congressional help. I know it's not available everywhere, but Caller ID works wonders. More sophisticated automatic screening tools are on the way, allowing your phone system to treat callers differently, based on a level of familiarity you assign certain numbers, or the willingness of unknown caller to fully identify herself. (Good email spam filters are quite effective at this.) The possibilities are endless. You could choose to require strange callers to identify themselves and their business before a call even rings in your home. A call from your mother's phone number would get right through, announcing itself with a special pleasant tone or song. Calls from any business with the word "investment" or "benevolent" in its name could be routed to a deep space black hole.

At our house, seldom do we receive a call from a stranger to whom I really wish to speak. In fact, seldom do I receive any calls at home, so my solution to this problem is simpler than Caller ID Deluxe; I turn down our ringer volume and just don't answer the phone.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management, a Knoxville-based investment management firm. This article originally appeared in the News Sentinel (Knoxville, TN).

Add me to your commentary distribution list.

MCM website