A Resolution for Capitalists: Be a Better Consumer

When you endeavor to be a better consumer, you improve society a small bit. It can add up.

William Davies has an interesting editorial in the Leftist Salon magazine: “New Year’s resolutions are a scam: Your anxiety makes the 1 percent mega-millions.”

Somewhere between December 25 and January 2, tradition states that we should perform an existential U-turn. The season of goodwill, giving and family morphs rapidly into that of neurotic self-improvement and fitness plans. January is the month when we strive to confront some of our most disquieting questions: Who do I want to be? What do I wish to look like? Which of my habits do I hope to cast aside?

In my opinion a great deal of maturity would be displayed if we could get people to really ask “Who do I want to be?” –and get them to ignore the vain question, “What do I wish to look like?”

fitness trackers

Ever since advertising agencies first studied how to prompt specific emotions during the 1920s, anxieties about self-improvement have been deliberately cultivated by capitalism. The ‘new year, new me’ mindset of January is a rich opportunity for those wishing to sell us stuff. Our dietary pledges and lifestyle goals leave us vulnerable to the most idealistic advertising messages regarding who we might become over the next year.

Even though I have problems with the article, I think it can help us be better consumers.

The main problem with it is that no one should care if we make the “one percent” extra money. Our individual contributions to their millions are miniscule. And, after all, the one percent should want us to make them millions. It is precisely what should drive them to use their vast resources to develop products and services of value to us.

After all, when two people freely engage in trade, they both do so in order to be better off. If I want a pedometer and someone else wants a few bucks, who is exploited in that transaction? No one! We both become better than we were before the trade.

[See also, “Consumers Say They Prefer “Junk Plans” to Obamacare: Thankfully All-Knowing Dems Took Choice Away from Them.”]

There are of course, problems with this model. For example, we wouldn’t want adult marketers to have access to our children to offer them what they “need.” Parents want to have some level of control of who engages in commerce with their children. Sometimes, one party might think he will be better off, but he is deluded.

Adults are supposed to be mature and able to handle freedom. But sometimes that is not the case. In those situations, transactions can be critiqued as not really improving the situation of both parties in the transaction. Every piece of exercise equipment that gathers dust in a person’s home is a testimony to how people can engage in transactions that don’t make them better off.

The typical response to this situation is to blame the one percent for manipulating people through the magic of marketing. But is that realistic? Businesses go bankrupt all the time because no one wants their products. Marketing is not able to simply make people buy things they don’t want.

A more realistic view, I think, is that people who are capable of making products or services are not always able to resist the temptation of selling to a stupid public. Yes, they use marketing, but they do so because people are sometimes, sadly, open to it. Furthermore, the one percenter who invests in treadmill production cannot tell the difference between the buyer who will use it productively and the buyer who will allow it to take up space in his house and gather dust.

So if you want to see better products and services on the market, endeavor to be a better customer. In other words, try to hold on to your cash as much as possible. When you make stores and the companies behind them work harder to produce stuff of real lasting value to exchange for cash, then you make them into better people. You both are better off in a real sense.

What this means, often, is that you have to be highly suspicious of any desire for a product or service that is based on fear, guilt, anxiety, or unproven hope (which is almost always mere wishful thinking). Those feelings seem to easily cause us to make irrational spending decisions.

As you set out on that first painful jog of the year, or forgo that glass of wine, you may find yourself wondering if there is an app, a wearable device or a brain exercise that could make the experience a little easier. There probably is. The question is how far into the arms of the new self-transformation industry you wish to throw yourself. And that’s a whole different ethical quandary altogether.

Here is my recommendation: If you want to make a resolution for 2015 regarding health or endurance or strength, stick to committing to some basic disciplines you think might improve your life. Delay consideration of a new gadget for a few months as a “reward” for keeping to your resolution—when you have proven to yourself that you will use the device. Of course, when you get to that point, you might decide you can do fine without the purchase.

For what it is worth, the best helps online are those which give free encouragement and advice and only make a sale to people who have found it helpful. In other words, you want to look for merchants whose business model entails making you into a better person who can benefit from what they sell, rather than a business model aimed solely at selling to hope (and perhaps holiday guilt).

This issue applies to other areas as well. By adopting a lifestyle of careful purchasing, you force everyone who wishes to sell to you to improve on what they offer. If you can model that kind of life, and get others to adopt the same practice, we might see a gradual change in the entire economy.