My 20-something son Dylan loves all things high tech. His television is the largest in his neighborhood. He insists he’s getting even with me for raising him without television. As long as he keeps inviting me over on game day to watch the Ducks, I’ll stoically endure my punishment. He likes his big-box electronics store job, where he can touch all the new gadgets and reap employee discounts. His holiday gift-giving follows a certain pattern, but this year there was a twist.
“I knew you wanted new earbuds for your iPhone,” Dylan explained over the sound of wrapping paper being torn. “I could have gotten a great deal with my employee discount. But the online reviews were not very good, so I got you the Sony brand because everybody online raves about them.” And then the skies parted, and the angels sang.
The heavenly chorus performed not just for this recipient of new earbuds, but for the father, the consumer, and the American.
My joy welled up from a deep place. It gave me a hopeful answer to this question that has plagued me since returning from Egypt last spring: “What do Americans do to feel empowered?”
Walk with me back in time from my holiday living room to a busy Cairo street market. I wore out my sandals on the last full day of my visit, so I went in search of a replacement pair. I was in a hurry and my standards weren’t very high. I bought a pair of cheap leather sandals for about seven American dollars. They were made in China.
After walking through airports on two continents, I reached home with sore feet from bad shoes. I counted it as part of the experience. My first day home, I stopped at Bi-Mart and they had their made-in-China sandals on sale — for seven dollars. They’re sturdier, more comfortable, and better looking than the sandals I bought in Cairo.
During the height of the Cold War, American strategists explained their confidence over the Russians this way: “We believe our German scientists are smarter than their German scientists.” So it was with the sandals. Our cheap Chinese imports are better than their cheap Chinese imports.
America may have lost its manufacturing base, but our purchasing agents are the best in the world!
As strange as it sounds, I wore those Bi-Mart sandals and I felt proud — empowered. I couldn’t help but compare that empowerment to what I had witnessed less than a week earlier in Tahrir Square. Egyptians were experiencing genuine empowerment, but my American feet were enjoying a cheap, knock-off version.
When do Americans feel more empowered than when they get a good deal on something as silly as sandals or earbuds? Suddenly, I understood why President George W. Bush comforted Americans after 9/11 by suggesting they express their defiance against terrorism at the mall. As the bumper sticker says, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”
Now zoom back with me to earlier this month, and my son’s reportage of his consumer conquest. Each of us has made purchase decisions based on more than price, but the only source of information we’ve had available came from the seller: the features described on the box, the pitch of the salesperson, and the price compared to similar products.
Dylan relied on others who had purchased the same product to help him make his choice. His smart phone allows him to do it while standing in the store aisle. This “crowd-sourcing” is reshaping and democratizing capitalism.
“I never buy anything anymore without checking reviews first,” Dylan told me. “Some reviewers don’t know how to use the product, so I write a review to correct their mistakes.” He described to me one new source of empowerment for the American shopper, and then another.
Reading reviews makes Dylan a better consumer. Writing reviews makes Dylan a better person.
Consumers are being empowered to do more than consume. By giving back to the Commons, Dylan is making the world better.
He pays attention. He corrects mistakes. He tells the truth. The world is better, and one father is prouder.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.