The Compliant Consumer

WASHINGTON–Officials of the giant New York Telephone Company are dumbfounded. They obtained a 15 percent increase in home telephone rates early last mont but the expected avalanche of consumer complaints never materialized. They had expected this torrent of outrage because when the rate increase was proposed in late 1972 there were, as for previous rate hikes, individual and organized protests of some strength.

Maybe, the telephone executives speculated, people were diverted by energy problems. Perhaps the sudden rise of gasoline and. home fuel prices, the industrial shouts of shortages and the general stampede on an overwhelming inflation have so disconcerted consumers that they have despaired of fighting on so many fronts.

Given the massive abuse of consumer interests by both corporate and governmental policies just in the last year, consumers should be rallying into a powerful economic and political force. Instead, with the exception of a few groups such as the National Consumers Congress, there is a listlessness, a feeling of puzzlement, powerlessness and a loss of confidence that anything can be done.

Such a widespread state of mind could lead to a number of developments. It could be the calm before the storm awaiting any number of elected officials who can provide the catalyst of leadership and focus.

It could lead to loss of consumer zest for the marketplace–an enthusiasm which many producers and merchandisers have found to be very important grist for their mill. An auto executive once told me that buying automobiles was one part good sense and two parts fantasy. He said this by way of emphasizing how necessary it was to portray automobiles as stylistic dreamboats if they were to keep selling automobiles to meet people’s wants rather than their needs.
The auto moguls in Detroit are now finding out how fast the public’s taste can change away from the big cars that once were thought to be inseparable from the American psyche.

This glaring weakness of consumers in the marketplace and as citizens toward their government is not limited to the woman or man in the stores. Other kinds of consumers also are not fighting back.

For example, hundreds of airline flights are being cancelled. The airlines are saying this is due to lack of fuel but it is well known that they have long wanted this excuse to dump less profitable routes and to compete less over the more profitable runs. So it will be very difficult to restore airline service even after this contrived energy crisis is ended.

Besides passengers, three groups are adversely affected. First are the thousands of airline pilots and employees who are being laid off. Second are the cities and towns who are being cut off from airline service entirely or cut down drastically. Third are the businesses who have a vested interest in adequate air schedules. So far there is little sign that these groups are organizing themselves into a coalition to counteract the airlines and its governmental puppet–the Civil Aeronautics Board.

In our economy, the most organized forces are the production and selling side while the least organized are the consuming and buying side. Consumers on all levels have got to think deeply about how this imbalance can be redressed structurally over the long term and not just in terms of temporary protests or boycotts. The first thought to ponder might be: “Why do consumers spend thousands of hours to earn money to buy goods and services yet refuse to spend hardly anytime to learn and organize so that earnings, instead of withering away, can count more in the market­place.”

Most consumers pretty much realize that government will be taken over by business if it is not taken over by consumers to promote justice. What is not yet realized sufficiently is that a modest contribution of time and resources can flex and focus the muscle of consumers, as buyers and as citizens, to start turning this economy around toward economic value and efficiency.

Public Citizen has published a “Public Citizen’s Action Manual” to suggest specific ways by which consumers and citizens can start having impact. If you are really serious in taking hold of these challenges, write to Public Citizen Action Manual, P.O. Box 19404, Washington, D.C., 20036, for a free copy (while the supply of 1000 copies last).

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