RUMER HAS IT that the consumer, as those who spend money were christened inthe '60s, is dead. Some blame supply-side economcs and other special interest groups with real problems -- Social Security recipients, Medicare patients, the unemployed. I have another theory. I blame consumer writers. I eel free to do this because I am one.
It's been 15 years or so since Ralph Nader roared into the national consciousness with his "Unsafe At Any Speed" and gave birth to a movement loosely caled "consumerism." Before long, newspaper and magazine publishers, recognizing a popular movement when they saw it, gave birth to a new breed of writer, loosely called the consumer reporter.
But, like most children, we soon began to stray. We grew tired of subjects like the rollover characteristics of the Corvair, requiring as they do hours of painstaking research in dreary libraries. So articles on corporate chicanery gradually gave way to articles on how to get the best deal on a new car and 101 ways to fix tuna fish. Under the guise of Naderism, subjects long the sole province of women's magazines found their way into respectable newspapers and magazines. Even the august New York Times finds debating the relative merits of the Cuisinart over the Moulinex fit reading for its subscribers. In fact, much of its Living Section (called by some the Having Section) is devoted to such weighty subjects. If Nadar had foreseen the quick descent of consumer reporting from auto safety to an upscale version of Hints from Heloise, he might never have taken pen to paper.
In defense of my colleagues, it should be said that these pieces certainly made for easier reading than the susceptibility of the Ford lower control arm to hairline cracks. They certainly made for easier writing. I financed three years of law school on the auto repair issue alone.
But after 15 years of earnest reporting, it may be time to acknowledge that man's ingenuitywith tuna fish has reached its zenith and that we have plumbed the depths of recycling. Is there anything left to be said about unit pricing, meatless menus and toaster ovens?
By now, anyone who has read just half of the available literature is living at the height of his power to pinch pennies.
A quick look at one writer's desperate suggestions for next year's columns points up the paucityof the genre: "Build Your Own Papier Mache Hot Tub" and its companion piece, "Low Cost Foods That Float." "Turn Your Used Car Into an Extra Bedroom." "That Untapped Feast in Your Backyard: 101 Ways to Fix Crabgrass." "Organ Meats: Your Butcher's Tripe Is Your Treasure." And finally, "The Latest in Collectibles: Bus Transfers."
One fellow consumer reporter decided to go straight and write about the things that truly cost the public millions -- oil cartels, industrial bonds, oligopolies -- after a gruesome nightmare in which, unable to come up with yet another column idea, he turned in a piece entitled "How to Cut Your Cost of Living: Don't Get Out of Bed."
Daring in its simplicity; the article showed how staying in bed costs pennies as compared to getting up, where the potential costs are limitless. It pointed out how, as soon as you get out from under the covers, the spending begins. First, you want a little heat and to turn on a light or two. The next thing you know, you're running water; using up soap and toothpaste, putting on clothes that are just going to get dirty and need to be cleaned. Before too long, you want to have something to eat.
Be contrast, the simple stroke of not getting up cuts expenses drastically. Personal hygiene costs go way down. Smoothing out the covers burns up very few calories, so food is not a problem. Without newspapers and magazines (cut out in an earier moment of budget trimming), there is no need to turn on the lights. Boredom could become a problem, the author concedes, but soon friends will be calling up wanting to jump onto your consumer bandwagon where you have so conscientiously been trapping body heat. Each day ends the way it began, with no nasty little accidents or surprises that can end up costing you a bundle.
I, for one, can learn from another's nightmare. Let's acknowledge that 15 years is a good run for any movement and get back to the library. If we don't curb ourselves, someone may step in and do it for us. We may not just get our typewriters takem away but be sentenced, for the rest of our natural lives, to a lifetime of buying at retail.