Cloudy, With A Chance Of Film

Have you ever felt like you’re reenacting a TV commercial in which you’re the baffled consumer unable to resolve a curious household problem?

Frustrated woman with haunted look as she hears mocking taunts of “ring around the collar!”: “I’ve tried scrubbing them out, and soaking them out, but nothing seems to work!”

Embarrassed woman who sees a cloud of gas with images of dogs and babies in diapers inside lingering in her living room as she prepares for guests: “What can I do to give my house that clean, fresh scent?”

Mystified Webners: “The glasses that come out of our dishwasher seem to be coated with some thin kind of film. How can we eliminate the scourge of cloudy glasses and make our glasses sparkling clean?”

In the commercials, at this point some officious busybody named Madge shows up and gives the answer that allows the grateful consumer to solve the problem of ring around the collar or reeking rooms. So far, though, no complete stranger, genie, or disembodied voice has provided us with guidance on resolving the cloudy glass conundrum, and none of the additives, rinses, or other commercial products we’ve tried have done the trick.

This isn’t an earthshaking problem, of course, but it would be nice to have glasses that are transparent. And while we could pre-wash or post-wash them, that defeats the point of a dishwasher, doesn’t it?

I guess all we can do is cast our gaze skyward, say “what’s a troubled dishwasher owner to do?,” and hope for the best.

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A Consumer’s Responsibility In A Capitalist Society

On a couple of occasions recently, I’ve been with a group of people doing what consumers commonly do:  bitching about the companies that sell them a product or service.  It might be a bogus new monthly charge from their bank, gouging fees by their cell phone provider, jacked-up rates from their property insurance company, or crappy, insolent customer service from just about anywhere.

When these conversations occur, I always ask:  well, what have you done about it?  Have you actually shopped around for a new bank, or cell phone provider, or insurer?  There are lots of them around, and they are supposed to be competing for your business.  When a customer service rep treats you like a bothersome fly, have you taken your purchasing power elsewhere and let the company that employed the jerk know why?  If you haven’t done any of these things — and most people sheepishly admit they haven’t — you really don’t have much of a basis for complaint.

The theory of capitalism presupposes that consumers won’t mindlessly consume whatever is offered to them.  Instead, they will make thoughtful decisions about what to buy, based on a comparison of the cost, quality, and other benefits of the products offered by competing businesses.  Through that careful decision-making process, responsive companies that provide quality at a competitive price will be rewarded, and their overpriced competitors that peddle shoddy goods and services will wither and die.  If the consumers don’t make educated decisions, therefore, they aren’t fulfilling their rightful role — and their inattentiveness is promoting bad practices and allowing bad companies to stay in business.

Don’t look to government to fill the educated consumer’s role, either.  Government regulation is always after the fact, and often is ineffective.  It will never replace the consumer who zealously guards her pocketbook, reads her bills, questions fees and charges, and is willing to shop around for a better deal.

Confidence Game

On Friday the index that purports to measure consumer confidence in the United States fell to its lowest point since May 1980.  May 1980, of course, came during the grim, final months of the Jimmy Carter presidency — and I’m sure the fact that consumer confidence has fallen to Carter presidency levels probably doesn’t make President Obama very happy.

Why is consumer confidence so low?  Well, wouldn’t it be fairer to ask why consumer confidence should be higher?  The American consumer is like a punch-drunk fighter that has been absorbing repeated haymakers for months now.  Whether it is the continued high unemployment rate, record numbers of home foreclosures, unending deficit spending, or paltry economic growth, there just isn’t any good news to grab onto.  Why should consumers have confidence when the trading patterns of the Masters of the Universe on Wall Street have all of the stock exchange indices jacking up and down like a bungee jumper and our political leaders can’t or won’t present any plans that plausibly seem capable of changing things for the better?

Consumer confidence needs to be inspired.  There just isn’t much inspiration out there right now, and more tired speeches from the President and congressional leaders aren’t going to provide any.  I’d be surprised if the consumer confidence index surges anytime soon.

The Stubborn Problem Of Consumer Confidence

The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index fell in May to a recent low, causing some to fear that we may be on the cusp of the dreaded “double-dip” or “W” recession.  Economists expressed surprise at the news.

The only thing surprising about this news item is that some economists are still expressing surprise that American consumers aren’t more bullish about things.  Seriously, what world do these guys live in?  Leaving apart the weird notion that you can gauge something intangible like “confidence” with anything approaching scientific accuracy, what has happened recently that would encourage anyone to feel more upbeat about the economy?

For those who live in ivory towers or in the canyons of Wall Street, here is what those of us out in the country are seeing.  We know people who are out of work and have been out of work for a very long time.  We know college graduates who have gotten their degrees from fine institutions and can’t find even an entry-level job.  We know that gas and food prices have gone up since last year.  We’ve watched businesses close.  We’ve seen houses in the area sold at foreclosure and other houses in the neighborhood that seem to have been on the market forever.

So don’t tell us that some arcane leading economic indicator should cause us all to be doing handsprings.  We’ll believe the economy is getting better when our nephew can find a job and the house down the block gets sold.  Until then, understand that we are going to be cautious, and careful — and don’t be “surprised” that we are staying that way.

The Small Pleasures Inherent In Using Things Up

Lately I’ve been focused on trying to use things up.  It has been a very pleasant and rewarding process.

After the kids left for college, I slowly came to realize that we have lots of extra stuff around.  My first step was to inventory what we had.  What I found amazed me.  We had more than a dozen cans of shaving cream, about 30 unused disposable razors, 10 different kinds of shampoo, and a large box full of bars of soap — and that’s just in the personal hygiene category.  We also had countless pens and pencils, notebooks and pads of paper, iPod chargers and earbuds and extension cords.  So, I put them all together and, for some time now, have been slowly using these household goods — drop by drop, lather by lather, blade by blade, and pen by pen — until they are used up and can be discarded in good conscience.  I’ll probably never have to buy a can of shaving cream again.

This effort has been extremely satisfying, and not just because it scratches my cheapskate itch.  I’m one of those people who think the advertising-driven consumer culture makes Americans accumulate too much stuff.  We end up with all of these unnecessary possessions, and then we cart them around with us from place to place.  It becomes absurd, and suffocating, and embarrassing.  No human needs a dozen cans of shaving cream or a hundred perfectly good pens.  Using them makes me feel a bit more responsible, a bit more virtuous, and a bit less egregious in our contribution to waste and conspicuous consumption.  Every time I use one of these items it’s like I’ve won a small but meaningful battle against the overwhelming forces of consumerism — and that feels good.

Lessons From The Blockbuster Bankruptcy

On Thursday, Blockbuster Inc. filed for bankruptcy.  The retail video rental chain, which employs about 25,000 people, is close to $1 billion in debt and is getting hammered by Netflix and other companies that offer different approaches to delivery of movies and entertainment options to consumers.

I haven’t been to a Blockbuster store in years, but I pass one on my commute to work every day, and there has been a noticeable decline in traffic at that store.  Consumers obviously prefer the mail order/on-line alternatives to driving to the nearest Blockbuster store, rummaging through the shelves in hopes of finding a worthwhile video to watch that night, and then paying late fees when they forget to return the movie in timely fashion.

The lesson of the Blockbuster bankruptcy is that the tastes and practices of American consumers are ever-changing and often influenced by new technology — which is why so many people are skeptical when the federal government tries to pick winners and losers, subsidizes particular industries or lines of business, or otherwise attempts to influence consumer choices or the direction of the American economy.  Blockbuster was once a mighty company, with busy stores in every shopping mall.  People who looked at the company in its heyday probably thought that, of course, Blockbuster would be profitable indefinitely.   When something better came along, however, Americans left the Blockbuster model behind without a second thought.

At least no one is suggesting that we should bail Blockbuster out.

Cautious Consumers

Yesterday still more data was released that indicates that American consumers are not bullish.  This news follows on the heels of other statistics that reflect a significant lack of confidence in the economy and in prospects for a better future.   Consumer confidence is a leading indicator because cautious consumers do not spend, and when consumers are not spending the modern American economy is not growing.

It is hard to argue that the lack of confidence is misplaced.  Americans have been hit with lots of bad economic news lately.  Jobs are scarce.  Money is tight.  Businesses seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach to investment, hiring, and growth.  The constant efforts by the Obama Administration to convince us that the economy is, in fact, recovering leaves the feeling that our leaders are either out of touch or blowing smoke.  There aren’t many signs that the economy is going to be booming any time in the near future.

Still, it doesn’t take a lot to change attitudes.  BP’s apparent success in capping the blown deepwater well in the Gulf of Mexico may help people to start feeling better about America and its prospects.  Let’s just hope we don’t get hit with more bad news that overwhelms a resurgence in consumer confidence.