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Consumers Unite!

You know, I’ve been thinking … always a dangerous thing. The last several months of political madness in the U.S. has demonstrated many things – how a mass movement can coalesce around the unlikeliest of allies; how millions of people can be summarily excised from the political process of a pseudo-democracy. It has also demonstrated how convenient it is to divide and conquer, and how easily we devolve to type, endlessly playing Charlie Brown to Lucy-with-the-football.

So rather than write about all the ways we are different from one another, I thought I’d concentrate a little on how we are the same. And no, I’m not about to go down some “We Are the World” kind of rabbit hole. In this consumer-based economy, we are, all of us, the little engines of consumption that keep this gas-guzzler going.

No matter the sex, race, color, creed, ethnicity, country of origin, sexual identity, religious beliefs, political leanings, height, weight or eye color; no matter whether we like hip hop or country, are urban or rural, drink Pepsi or Coke – we are all getting royally shafted as American consumers.

We are like a giant piñata, hung up in the yard and being bashed with a stick for every last cent. We are playing a never-ending game of whack-a-mole and we’re not holding the hammer. We are all united in being on the receiving end of the latest “gotcha” gimmick that legions of companies spend billions of dollars to legions of people to figure out how best to screw us out of yet another hard-earned dollar. We are all in that particular boat together.

And I think we’d better start acting like it.

I think it’s time to come together on that one basis of commonality and turn the tables, if only just a little, on those who have been beating us into submission for decades. Like the banks that insist on holding your money for 3 or 5 or 10 business days, even though the electronic transfer into their accounts took seconds to complete – and then have the nerve to charge you a fee for calling to ask about your money. Or the cellphone company that charges us the highest rates in the world for the same service offered other places for one-third the cost. Or the cable (or satellite, they’re no different) provider that does the old bait and switch with rates that stealthily and inexplicably climb month over month. Or the insurance companies that penalize you for where you live, even if you’ve never made a claim. Or the gasoline companies that raise rates when there’s scarcity, keep them high when there’s a glut, and change prices lock step with their competitors (all three of them). Or all the companies on the internet that require you to click away your privacy and your right to redress for the pleasure of having them screw you over.

How did we get here? Well, back when we were customers and there was a little thing called competition, it was harder to mistreat us with such audacity and impunity. Back when there was customer service (because who ever heard of consumer service?) and you could actually reach a live person, there was the possibility that your complaints would be heard and acted upon. Back before the courts were owned by the corporations, we had a sliver of a chance at righting wrongs. Back before our entire culture was sold to the highest bidder, and before everything was a commodity for exploitation, we had a modicum of power as customers.

Now we are all electronic impulses sending our complaints by those endless surveys asking us “how are we doing.” We are disembodied voices talking to computers belonging to companies that “care about our business” as they make us wait on hold for hours. We have been studied, categorized and marginalized as mere cogs in the wheel of commerce with only one true function: to shut up and consume.

Well, I’ve about had enough of that noise. And I don’t think I’m alone. I think we should make a list of the worst offenders – by industry – and start a movement. I think we should approach the market leader in each industry and identify those practices that we want them to change on threat of boycott. If they refuse, we should boycott them and then go to the number two market leader in the industry and make the same offer. I suspect by the time the number three market leader is approached, they will bend to our will. And I think we should replicate that simple tactic across as many industries as we can identify – and they are legion.

All it would take is a movement, and unity. Otherwise, we should just shut up and consume.

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