Over the last few months, I have put a lot of time and effort into finding and then buying a new car. The process taught me a lot about dealing with dealerships, which has never been easy but is now tougher than ever. Which made me reflect on middlemen and intermediaries in the production and distribution chain: sometimes they add value and sometimes they add nothing except extra cost and hassle. Which made me reflect on middlemen in the LDS Church: bishops, stake presidents, and the recently added layer of area presidencies. Sometimes they add value. Other times they add nothing except hassle and frustration. Let’s commiserate a bit about buying cars, then get to the Mo app.

Buying a Car in 2022

Here’s the initial problem. In the immediate wake of the first wave of Covid in 2020, buyers stopped buying and, predictably, auto manufacturers cut back on production and laid off workers. After a few months, federal checks went out to help people hit hard financially by the crisis, so people suddenly had money to spend. Other people just needed to buy a car to replace an older vehicle, Covid or no Covid, so lots of buyers soon came back to car lots to buy, but inventory was now low and the stream of new cars coming to dealers was down. Result: surging demand meets depleted inventory and reduced production. Prices went up, for both new and used cars.

If you’re a car dealer, that’s not necessarily bad news. No more discounts, and in some places a “market adjustment” of up to several thousand dollars was (and still is) added to the MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price). Recall that before Covid, it wasn’t very hard to find a fair or even a sizeable discount below MSRP on a new car. But that’s just not happening in 2022. But that’s not even the real problem.

Most buyers aren’t happy about paying a substantial premium over MSRP. Most buyers think that if the manufacturer suggests a retail price for the car or truck they built, that somehow the buyer ought to be able to actually *buy* that vehicle at or maybe below that suggested retail price. That is how the car market has worked for decades. We all know that the MSRP was set artificially high. To get around this problem (the dealer problem of buyers being unhappy about suddenly being asked to pay more than MSRP), many dealers will hold the ostensible price at MSRP but quietly add thousands of dollars for “dealer add-ons” that don’t appear on the window sticker and that you may not even find out about until you are going through the paperwork to finalize your purchase. Nitrogen, not air, in your tires ($200); a GPS tracker, described as an anti-theft device that will get you lower insurance rates (add $500 to $2000); fabric protection ($300). And so forth. But it gets even worse.

It’s not just the money. If you are persistent, you can get those add-on charges reduced or even eliminated. The deeper problem is they won’t remove the mechanical or electronic gadget or device or worthless whatever that they have added or attached to the vehicle. These aren’t just overpriced items that add a little value. Sometimes they are overpriced items that actually destroy value! These aren’t “add-ons,” they are “stuck withs.” I had a dealer in Minnesota want to charge $400 for a brake flashing unit they had spliced into the rear brake wiring, so when you press the brake pedal the center rear brake light flashes or blinks 5 times before settling into the usual fixed brake light you see on every other car. Is there a switch I can turn this off with? Nope, hardwired. Will you remove it? Well, no. Okay, so long Charley. Thanks for screwing up the perfectly adequate brake light system and compromising the wiring on that Jeep I might have bought from you. I don’t care if you adjusted the price of this “add on” to $1.

And don’t expect anyone at the dealership to actually be able to describe the add-ons. That GPS tracker that supposedly helps you find your vehicle if it is later stolen? Or maybe lowers your insurance rates? Go check out the companies that manufacture these trackers and how they market them to dealers. They market them to dealers (not buyers) so that (1) dealers can track their inventory better, and (2) if the dealer finances the car with a low-credit buyer who later stops paying, the dealer can track down and repo the vehicle more easily. In other words, it’s a dealer security system that the dealer wants *you* to pay for (as well as being a non-transparent way to add a thousand or two to the price of the car without having to disclose it on the sticker). And don’t expect them to remove the $49 tracker if you pay cash. You’ll have pay some mechanic to do that yourself — which might disable your engine, because that’s what some of the devices do if removed improperly. The sales people you talk to can’t even explain the crap the dealer adds on. A California sales guy I talked to was fairly sure their add-on GPS tracker was just a software thing, no device at all, he said. So they can’t even explain the worthless things they are adding to compromise an otherwise fully functional vehicle.

This is all good to know if you’re headed out to buy a car. And yes, if you look real hard, maybe you can find a dealer or an alternative buying service that avoids some of these problems for the particular make and model and trim you are looking for. But here is the larger point of this whole discussion: Dealers now make it almost impossible to, for example, buy a Jeep as manufactured by Jeep. They install a bunch of worthless or even harmful crap on every vehicle, new or used, before you even see it, then want to charge you thousands of dollars for the stuff. More generally, intermediaries in the distribution chain may add value, or they may do very little, or they may use their protected position in the distribution chain to extract money from end consumers while providing little or no value to the end buyer — and perhaps even reducing the value of the product or service. But sooner or later, worthless or deleterious intermediaries get eliminated from the market.

Going to Church in 2022

First point: Just as a car dealer is a middleman between you and the manufacturer, the bishop (and the stake president and the area president) is a middleman between you and the Church. You might think of yourself as a generic Mormon, but if you’re an active, church-attending Mormon, you don’t get a straight-from-the-COB version of church membership. You get a membership with some local add-ons that, just like with the ones at the car dealership, you have a very hard time removing. If your ward meets at 2 pm, you’re kind of stuck with it. If the bishop thinks your agnostic view of Book of Mormon historicity makes you some sort of apostate, there’s not much you can do about it (and just keep your mouth shut next time). If the bishop won’t give you a temple recommend if you pay on net instead of gross, you don’t have many options (maybe just put your tithing into your savings account for a few years, then start from scratch in three years when a new bishop is called).

Second point: As a middleman, does your bishop add value, add nothing, or maybe destroy value? This may sound like just a variation on the “bishop roulette” issue that comes up regularly, but I think this lets us dig a little deeper. There are some (many?) fine bishops out there who make their ward better than the average ward, who build up individual members, who do their best to counsel those with troubles, who might actually be able to help a doubting member understand a tough issue or look at it differently, and so forth. There are some bishops who are less involved and don’t really do much, sort of like a waiter who tries to be as unobtrusive as possible when delivering food or removing dishes. And then there are bishops who push their own personal doctrines (probably not realizing these aren’t really LDS doctrines), who require unusual variations on LDS practices, who cross a few too many boundaries when doing counseling or interviews, and so forth. The opposite of an add-value bishop. What is this or that bishop (or SP or Area guy) doing to the LDS product? How are they modifying “generic Mormonism” for you in your ward or stake or area? Which leads us to:

Third point: Discretion. Sometimes it’s nice when local leaders have some discretion in applying the guidance or directives they receive from Salt Lake. Other times you wish they didn’t have that discretion or that they would decline to exercise it. I’m sure senior LDS leaders wrestle over how much discretion to grant local leaders on many items. It’s a tricky issue with no easy solution.

Fourth point: Let’s say you want to avoid all the bishop add-ons and just live “generic Mormonism” the same way I want to buy a Jeep without any dealer add-ons, just a Jeep-as-manufactured-and-delivered-by-Jeep. Can you do that? Not as an active/practicing/attending Mormon, as far as I can tell. Just like manufacturers and (usually) state law requires you to buy a new car from a dealer, not direct from Jeep or Ford or Toyota, in like manner does the LDS system require you to be a member of this or that particular ward with an assigned bishop. That bishop is, in a sense, a mandatory gateway for participation in the Church, but also with the power and discretion to modify “generic Mormonism” as directed by his immediate superiors (SP and Area Guy) and as directed by his own personal sense of doctrine and practice. There is no generic Mormonism that you can practice, just ten thousand variations, one of which you’re stuck with, at least until you move across town or out of state, when you get stuck with a new variation.

Does This Matter?

Maybe, maybe not. If a middleman or intermediary stops adding value and enough people figure it out, big changes can happen. Just ask Amazon, which has made countless billions of dollars exploiting inefficiencies in the retailing system and giving you, the consumer, a better experience and more variety at a better price. Before Amazon, Walmart did the same thing with a less revolutionary approach. When Amazon or Costco or Walmart figures out how to sell cars direct, they might just put most car dealerships out of business and make another few billion dollars doing it. Plenty of small outfits are experimenting with alternative car sales and delivery systems for used cars, and Tesla is taking a different approach for new cars. It’s just a matter of time until one of the big players takes the plunge. I’ll bet some of you will be first in line to test drive an Apple Car or a Google Car. I’ll bet the Apple car will come securely packaged in an attractive white box.

With Covid, many of us have had the experience of online church or at-home church or just I’ll-go-have-some-fun-on-Sunday church. It’s sort of like an experiment eliminating the LDS middleman for a few months or a couple of years. It was enlightening, wasn’t it? Maybe personality has something to do with it. Introverts are quite happy to stay home and read a couple of chapters of Isaiah or a good commentary rather than sit in Sunday School while a teacher and other adult attendees try to understand those chapters but often end up repeating folk doctrine they heard in seminary or just making stuff up. Extroverts, on the other hand, might feel deprived if they don’t get to shake hands and chat with friends on Sunday.

But from what I can tell, most people missed church a lot less than they expected. That goes more to the Church as an intermediary between you and God than the bishop as an intermediary between you and the Church, but it has the same sort of dynamic. Maybe they are adding value to the God product, maybe they’re not. I ought to note that personally I’ve had fine bishops along the way. This isn’t a personal issue, just a relevant issue that seems worth discussing. Maybe the Church needs to start thinking about ways that individual members can be (in some ways if not all ways) active and participating members without being tied to a specific ward and without being required to go spend two hours in meetings inside a building every Sunday. The same way that Amazon lets you shop for and buy almost any product without driving over and spending an hour inside a big box store. There should be a “remote attendee” category or an “active but not attending a specific ward” category to supplement the usual “active” and “inactive” categories.

So here are a few things you might address in the comments.

  • Does seeing your local leaders as middlemen, as intermediaries, provide any insight for you? What if bishops saw themselves this way and regularly asked themselves, “What can I do in this ward to add value to the church activity of my ward members? How can I make Mormonism better for them?”
  • Have you had a truly add-value bishop, and what did he do to improve the LDS product or experience?
  • Have you had the opposite, a value destroying bishop, who made attendance or activity in that particular ward a chore rather than a pleasant experience? How did he muck up the LDS product or experience?
  • Some aspects of the LDS experience don’t need a middleman. You can hold family home evening or read your Bible just fine at home with no role for a bishop or other middleman. Other stuff, not so easy. Any LDS hacks you have found to get around an LDS middleman?
  • Do you see any Amazon-like changes on the horizon? The Church is a remarkably conservative institution — conservative in the sense that nothing changes unless senior leadership is absolutely forced to by circumstance or by law. The Church is so conservative that the smallest changes, even obvious and long-overdue changes, are celebrated as revolutionary or revelatory. Think of the relaxed dress code for missionaries or the move to two-hour church. The danger in being too conservative is the market might just pass you by. When was the last time you “went shopping” at a mall or even a big-box store?