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The Invisible Consumer

Let’s pick up on something I mentioned in the opening posts here: that consumers don’t really exist in economics.

Absurd? I don’t think so. Now let me see if I can make you agree.

Other than some niche fields that are indisputably about consumers in an economic view, you can read any year’s worth of econ journals without finding a significant reference to “consumers” except as a monolithic, largely undefined element in economic discussions. E.g. “Consumers bought $8B in left-handed rubber doorknobs in FY2019.” Consumers are exactly as important, considered and valued in this usage as, say… “Landfills were believed to accept some 42B used disposable diapers in FY2019.”

Clearly, the writer doesn’t spend too much time thinking about either consumers or landfills. They’re just… objects, concepts, there, a container for the important economic points being made.

I find it easy to understand why consumer issues are always marginalized and why the battles are always steeply uphill. In the minds of those who control, or at least describe the system, we don’t really exist.

The edge of the consumer shadowland is framed in another economic staple, one treated with reverence second only to profit (may gains and dividends be upon it). That would be… sales. Sales are all. Most discussions of both industrial and consumer goods end with the concept and statement of sales. Sales were up/substantial; good! Sales were down/marginal; bad! Tune in to next week’s thrilling report.

So little is the role and complete view of the consumer valued that not one discussion or report in a thousand acknowledges that sale == purchase. That electric vehicle sales are exactly and wholly equivalent to electric vehicle purchases. This may seem nonsensically pedantic (or semantic) until you step back and consider the slightly larger picture, which ACE does.

Economic transactions from a pack of gum to a single-family home are inherently, inescapably that two-part event, a sale and a purchase. But in all but dusty corners of conventional economic thinking, only the sale counts… because consumers basically don’t.

A while back, in explaining this misleading concept so integral to economic discussion, I started with the idea that consumers, individually and as a mass, are just a bin into which sales are dumped, as irrelevant and instantly forgotten as those used ‘baby burritos.’ But then I hit on an even better image, which dovetails with… well, a lot more to come here. We're not just a bottomless bin—

As consumers, we are—our role in the process is as—de-vending machines.

And we are only considered, like any silent machine in a corner, when we fail to do our job. And usually get thumped and kicked for our failure.

—published on Quora, 13 Dec 2021

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