With the proliferation of products and services and the magnificent rise in the global standard of living, it is easy to ‘give a pass’ to the organizations that are charging ahead, applying new technologies to add tremendous value. March 15th is World Consumer Rights Day, a good day to reflect on the importance of empowered consumers.  As with our political checks and balances, the consumer provides checks and balances to corporations. Reflect for a moment on a recent purchase decision: were you able to clearly understand whether the product or services met your needs prior to purchase? Were you confident that you and your family were safe from any potential harm? Were you confident that if you had a problem, you could easily contact someone and have your problem addressed?

As a teacher, I would ask parents what else they wanted their kids to know before they got pushed out of their nest.  Invariably, parents asked for financial, legal, and health education: real-life skills. But schools focus on academics, not life skills. Other than a few weeks of risk-avoidance health classes, our schools barely address real-world topics: we are all pushed out into adulthood with our wits, a copy of Lord of the Flies, and the confidence of invincible teenagers.

Our lives and responsibilities as consumers are getting more complicated as products and services differentiate and refine. Amidst a sea of content, consumer access to useful company information and decision-makers is increasingly complicated. Product information is replaced with free trials, and pricing is buried in web sites or not disclosed until after registration. Pricing often fluctuates by time and day, making it more difficult to make a purchase decision in a reasonable amount of time. Many companies do not publish corporate phone numbers or addresses, and service departments are being automated. Terms and conditions are written in incomprehensible legalese and arbitration clauses block consumers from legal action. Organizations are shifting laws to their advantage drowning out the voice and power of the consumer. Without this information and access, consumer decision-making is hobbled, and their wellbeing is diminished.

At the same time organizations are erecting barriers to customer education and choice while government protections are being weakened or eliminated. In a free market, buyers and sellers form a symbiotic relationship where prices rise and fill to meet demand as moderated by supply. If the buyer’s power is weakened, the free market gets tipped out of balance.

Business consolidation is accelerating, with many sectors now uncompetitive oligopolies. Start-ups are now the minor leagues where venture-capitalists to identify unicorns or groomed for buy-outs by sector-dominating companies. Meanwhile, the average worker is working harder and longer, must save for retirement in increasingly uncertain job markets, and absorb an ever-increasing share of health care costs.  All this with wages that have been flat for fifty years in uncertain job markets where employment is increasingly project-based: 35% of all workers are now in the gig economy as independent contractors with no employer health care or retirement plans. Consumers are squeezed, discretionary income has been harvested, leaving longer-term needs unfunded.

These threats to consumer empowerment are not likely to be addressed through our political processes. Our parties are gridlocked, our political debate is hardened. Public sentiment is ignored too often when economic growth and opportunity is at stake. It now takes lobbying muscle and the power of the purse to influence legislation. If we value free markets and free enterprise wouldn’t a better-educated more empowered consumer provide healthier pressure for the improvements of products and services?

Ok. that was a rhetorical question. So, why are these subjects not taught in school, and where should this education come from? Aside from the typical cynical reasons, they are likely not taught in school because students are not ready.  Can a fourteen-year-old really understand the ins and outs of health care and insurance? If they don’t have their own money and savings goals, what good is an investment strategy? The truth is, real-life skills training is best delivered when real life is the learning context.

We think the answer is to educate, empower, and engage consumers.

An empowered consumer shares many characteristics with an effective citizen: they know their strengths and needs, they can hold their integrity in stressful situations and make clear decisions under pressure. They know their rights to free choice, to be heard, informed, and educated, to receive service, and to be safe. An empowered consumer is a smart shopper, knows what they want, and can wait until they get it. They can do the math and know that quality is usually cheaper in the long run. They’ve been around the block. They know how sales works, can resist sales pressures, can ask intelligent questions, and have the support of other consumers. An informed and empowered consumer will save tens of thousands of dollars over just one lifetime! So, what’s a good consumer empowerment class worth to you?  $1,000? $2,000? $5,000? Have we got a deal for you!

The Public Square Academy is home to a library of civic and consumer education programs, all designed and led by subject matter experts and qualified facilitators.  Here are a few course offerings created to help you become a more informed and empowered consumer.

Health Care

We have the most expensive health care system in the world.  It’s a fine system if you are an R&D firm needing lots of revenue to keep ahead of the competition, but not so good if you are young, unemployed, or a contingent worker. The conventional debate is between a single payer system and a free market system.  Wouldn’t a free market system be driven by customer choice? Well, what if health-care were customer-focused? Wouldn’t you be able to research and select health care providers and procedures based on price and quality information? Try calling around for a quote, search for performance rankings of oncologists, call three internists and ask for an interview before you make a hiring decision. Taking a class in health care is not going to solve that problem, but educated voters just might. Let us help you beef up your Health Chops!

Financial Literacy

We are most irrational when it comes to love and money.  As we are not a dating service, we’ll focus on the do-re-me. Above and beyond becoming an empowered consumer, developing financial literacy forms a solid foundation for a healthy and happy life.  We will explore the traditional financial literacy topics such as budgeting, savings, and credit, and go beyond to develop participant financial perspectives. How the game of commerce is played. What is financial security and why would I want it? Understanding your values: relationships, experiences, and material things. How much is enough? Develop your own definition of wealth and a plan to achieve wealth?  Do you want to retire? If so, under what terms. Think of us as the Uncle you wish you had. Join the Financial Literacy program.

Technology Literacy

Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989. We are just at the very beginning of the information age.  Ahead of us lies the potential of universal education (hey, that's our game!), greater global equity and prosperity, and through constructive communication, resolutions to problems that have long plagued us. Berner-Lee, in his recent Wired article on the 30-year anniversary of the Web, frames up three challenges we must address three sources of dysfunction affecting today’s web:

  • Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behavior, and online harassment.
  • System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.
  • Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarized tone and quality of online discourse.

In developing your tech chops, your skills, and knowledge, you will develop a foundation of technical literacy while digging into these questions.

This is part two of a six-part series that surveys topic areas of civic and consumer education. We assess the needs and opportunities for adult civic and consumer education, then present a few ideas for individuals looking to enhance their knowledge. If you are interested in participating in a program with The Public Square Academy, you can view our courses here. If you are a subject matter expert in a relevant area and interested in designing a program, please contact us to discuss program development opportunities.