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October 2015

Who is the Consumer?

Some people express disdain for “consumers” and “consumption,” but being a consumer is really just going about the business of living.

Treat all economic questions from the viewpoint of the consumer for the interests of the consumer are the interests of the human race.

-Frederic Bastiat

Who are we? At a casual gathering, a friend of a friend might try to get a sense of who you are by asking “what do you do?” You’re a manager, or a programmer, or a dentist; it’s always very convenient if there’s a widely understood word for what you do. From there they might move on to asking where you live, or where you’re from. There’s a tacit belief that you can get a crude idea of a person from their background and the sort of work they do.

I’m a Virginian in New York working in adtech; that sounds like it adds up to something. I’m an “entrepreneur of myself,” or a maker, or a writer, but surely I’m not a consumer. There would appear to be no one more hated than such a person. The political right and left, the philosophical consequentialists, deontologists, and virtue ethicists, divided in so many ways, come together in their contempt for the consumer and “consumerism.” From Thorstein Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption” to Nassim Taleb’s “neomania;” the consumer is invoked as nothing but shallow, and obsessed with both status and the next shiny new toy.

But just who is the consumer?

He is the college student trying to get the best deal he can on food because he’s paying his own way and he can’t afford to be imprudent. She is the software designer ordering the big, glossy book collecting some of the best work in her field and explaining the principles behind them. They are the parents planning out the family’s meals for the week—-roughly—-and buying all the groceries they need ahead of time. They are the kids who spend their allowance on a shiny new toy, or convince their parents to get them the latest Xbox game that all of their friends are talking about (“only if you keep your grades up,” the parents say, knowing how to drive a bargain).

They are the young married couple buying their first home and imagining the future they will have in it. They are the coworkers who went to a bar nearby their office together because they needed to blow off steam after a particularly tough few days.

They are the gym members, health book readers, and dieters who strive to hold themselves to a higher standard than just going with the flow and indulging short term satisfaction.

They are the high schooler who buys the O’Reilly book hoping to learn how to code for the first time, and the Netflix subscriber who just wants to get lost in a story. The hobbyist maker and the romance novel reader. The foodie and the home cook and the fast food customer who simply knows what they like and doesn’t want to pay too much for it.

The laptop purchaser who hopes to write the next great American novel, or make the next great documentary, or simply surf the web and play World of Warcraft.

The consumer, in short, is all of us. All of us who need to feed and shelter ourselves and maybe our loved ones. But also all of us who seek companionship, and diversion, and entertainment, and fulfillment. All of us with needs and wants and loved ones and aspirations.

The consumer is us at our best and at our worst, trying to do better however we can. “What do you do?” may tell someone a lot about you, but don’t forget that the ultimate point of making a living is to make a life. And the marvelous thing about commerce is that we make our living by providing something that can fit into someone else’s life, someone else with needs, wants, dreams, loved ones, and aspirations, just like ours.