The Consumer Mindset

After I graduated from university, I did the Aussie-backpacker-in-the-UK thing. My first stop was London where I arrived with what, in hindsight, was far too little money. I didn’t have any contacts there and London was much more expensive than I imagined. Had things not gone well, I may have been flying home with my tail between my legs in short order. Fortunately, I managed to pick up a job almost immediately working as an administrative assistant in a small law firm. The principal was an Australian expat who was also from Melbourne originally, which no doubt helped my chances in landing the job. The offices of the firm were in Gray’s Inn, which is one of the four Inns of Court in London and which is over six hundred years old, three times older than the country I had just arrived from. Because of the location of the Inn, I would often go on foot to carry out various tasks such as lodging paperwork at the Australian Embassy down on The Strand. It was almost the perfect job for a young man wanting to experience the sights and sounds of London.

The work itself was mundane but what was really interesting were the people you got to meet and the aspects of human psychology that were revealed by the various cases we dealt with. I was amazed by how much money people would waste on matters which clearly had no merit. We had people coming to us with cases they were never going to win often because they were the ones in the wrong. As a lawyer there is a code of ethics you must abide by in such matters so that you don’t take money for cases that have no basis in law. But in practice there is a huge grey area and there is almost always some glimmer of merit in a case; some thing where the other person was to blame. In fact, that’s true of almost all cases. Both parties are at fault but both parties think they are wholly in the right.

I was reminded of my time at Gray’s Inn recently when an acquaintance spent tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees. It was obvious from her story that she was just as much at fault as the other person. But she thought she had been wronged and it was that grievance which led her to take legal action thinking that justice would be done. I did my best to talk her out of it explaining that the only people who win in such cases were the lawyers and that she would be far better off negotiating an end to the matter with the other person directly. But she had to learn the hard way. When it was all over, she complained of all the money she had spent even though she didn’t get “justice”. Actually, from an objective third party point of view, she did get justice as she was also to blame for what amounted to nothing more than a communication problem. As Robert Plant once sang: “Communication breakdown/It’s always the same/Having a nervous breakdown/Drive me insane.” Lawyers earn an awful lot of money because of such communication breakdowns.

One of Australia’s most famous lawyers, Geoffrey Roberston, once noted that the justice system does not guarantee justice, it only provides the possibility of justice. He needed to point that out because the average person seems to think the system does guarantee justice where “justice” means prove they are right and the other party wrong. That’s rarely possible, however, for the simple reason that there are always at least two versions of justice: yours and the other person’s. But the main reason the justice system doesn’t guarantee justice is because it would be enormously expensive to do so. In the real world, systems are set up according to cost-benefit considerations. We don’t optimise, we satisfice. This follows from the 80/20 rule which states that eighty percent of the value comes from twenty percent of the cost. Every extra percent of value after that becomes more and more expensive so that the last one percent costs more than the other ninety nine and the last 0.1% more than the other 99.9% and so on. That’s why murder cases get more resources than fraud and fraud gets more resources than traffic infringements. There are no doubt all kinds of crimes that occur every day that never get addressed because the system doesn’t have the resources to attend to them. Ideally the major crimes do get dealt with but even then there is still only the chance of justice not a guarantee.

It’s a strange fact of our culture that so few people understand this. People seem to think systems are these flawless machines that deliver a fixed result every time where the result just happens to be what they want. They think that if somebody does you wrong, the justice system will make it right. They think that if you get sick, the medical system will bring you back to perfect health. Actually, the justice system and the medical system are there as a safety net when things go wrong. The best thing you can do is avoid them. If you never have to see a lawyer or a doctor in your life you can consider yourself very fortunate. And you should try and make it so you do avoid lawyers and doctors. You can avoid the justice system, especially in business dealings, by making all expectations clear upfront and signing agreements and contracts that stipulate clearly what people are agreeing to. It’s far cheaper to get the lawyers involved at the start than at the end. Same with the medical system. Keep your health in order, eat well, exercise, practice basic hygiene and you will avoid the medical system as much as possible. That’s the best strategy. But many people seem to think that they must go to the doctor in order to be healthy even for things which are obvious lifestyle problems like high blood pressure.

No doubt there are many factors that have led us to this strange position but one that I think is a big part of the issue is that people apply the consumer mindset to such systems. The consumer economy works by providing an item that does a fixed thing for a fixed price. You buy a toaster for $30 and it cooks your toast. You buy a microwave for $150 dollars and it warms your food. Simple, linear and reliable. Of course, the consumer economy itself relies on an enormously complex system of mining, manufacturing, transport and electricity generation but all that is hidden from the consumer. With the rise of consumer society, people have learned to think in a linear, simplistic fashion. They then apply that model to domains where it doesn’t belong. They think that they can just pay a lawyer to get “justice” or a doctor to get “health”. But the legal system and the medical system are not the consumer economy. They are irreducibly systems and in systems there are no guarantees, only probabilities. They should be used as a last resort but that’s not the way that people think about them these days. Thus, the medical system and to a lesser extent the legal system have come to be seen through the consumer mindset.

When the system doesn’t deliver the desired outcome, some people blame the practitioner. Lawyers already have a low reputation for this reason but it wasn’t long ago that doctors did too. We used to call them “quacks”. My grandmother always used to say “we better get you to the quack”. Doctors and lawyers were seen as necessary evils. They didn’t guarantee you an outcome but they did guarantee that you had to pay them. Fancy offices at Gray’s Inn don’t pay for themselves after all. On current trajectory, I wouldn’t be surprised if we again start referring to doctors as quacks in the near future. That won’t be a bad thing. It will be a recognition that systems don’t guarantee outcomes, that self-responsibility is the best bet and, to use another favourite phrase of my grandmother, “life was never meant to be fair” (where “fair” means almost exactly what my acquaintance meant by “justice”).

8 thoughts on “The Consumer Mindset”

  1. We saw this dance play out recently in Christchurch following the earthquakes. The ‘rebuild’ has turned into quite the farce for a lot of reasons – mostly political ineptitude.

    But one of the obvious standouts is that most people treated insurance from a consumer mindset – my house is broken, therefore I just get it repaired, or if I’m lucky swap it for a new one. Of course in the real world it is nothing like that simple because even a simple definition of damage is not possible, let alone suitable repair. The result has been a flustered-cluck of epic proportions stemming from unrealistic expectations and endless arguments along with endlessly exploding costs.

    In contrast, Japan had a much larger quake shortly afterward, and have successfully rebuilt. Much of that is due to Japanese efficiency and greater resources, but a large part is also because as a culture there is much less insurance coverage. I have read about 20% coverage for the quake damage, vs 80% for Christchurch. That means a lot less to argue about – those who lost have little choice but to acknowledge such, and those with the resources can rebuild without an adjuster peering over their shoulder. And there are less white elephants, because if there are no resources to rebuild it is probably due to the item in question not actually being required.

    It is an interesting trade off. Less insurance makes life less ‘fair’, but can be much more efficient.

  2. Daniel – there was a similar thing over here with the bushfires a year and a half ago. The weird thing is that getting screwed over by insurance companies is a very common meme in our culture. I guess people have to experience it directly before they understand it. In any case, it looks like the consumer economy is falling apart in real time. We’re already hearing stories about supply shortages for Xmas. I wonder at what point people will realise that it’s gone and it ain’t coming back.

  3. Hi Simon,

    Enjoyed the story and conclusion. Hey, I read a few years ago that the legal system is also a system which seeks to administer itself. And there is a lot of truth in that observation, although I can’t now recall where I read it. And you’re right too. Mate, I know a lot of people taking daily medications for health matters which could be addressed by lifestyle changes, which for many and varied complicated reasons, they probably don’t want to make. As you quite rightly point out, you can’t purchase your way to good health, and ultimately even the health system can’t stave off the inevitable conclusion to life.

    I too am watching the supply story pretty closely, and correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that e-commerce pick ups on the east coast were recently halted for what was it, four days, or something like that. I don’t know whether to be impressed at such stratagems, or floored or whatever? I should find out how that is playing out on the ground this week. My work has the unfortunate side effect of providing rather rapid feedback from events on the ground. Unfortunately I see the decision makers as blunt lumbering behemoths unable to quickly respond to rapidly unfolding events.

    Did I note that in the news of the day, the UN has told Oz to get out of coal within the decade?

    Oh, incidentally since the topic of insurance came up, it is worth noting that some insurance companies have a better reputation for paying out after insurable events than others, and that guided my choice. It’s expensive though and increases each year on a compounding basis between 18% and 20%, and some easy Excel work suggests that sooner or later, but probably sooner, I may not be able to field that bill. The thing is, by the time that point is reached, I expect that a goodly proportion of the population would have already dropped out of the system and be exposed to massive economic risk. That’s a feedback loop.

    Cheers

    Chris

  4. Hey Chris – given that Australia has destroyed our tourism, international higher education and associated industries in the last year and a half, how exactly would we keep food on the table if not for mining? Maybe the UN will give us free money. Yeah, all kinds of things like insurance that are cheap because fixed costs get split between a large number of payers can get expensive very quickly when the payers stop paying but the fixed costs stay fixed.

  5. Hi Simon,

    It’s a bit of a mystery, and coal is one of our big exports along with iron ore. Despite the rhetoric, worldwide demand for coal is strong, because well, coal fired power stations are relatively cheap to build and despite the inherent climate problems, they work 24/7.

    I’ve been mucking around on a very serious basis with solar PV (and solar hot water too) technology for about a dozen years now, and after bonkers levels of expenditure, kind of got the system to work on all but about 3 days (on average) each year. At a guess the system owes me about $70k – although I can assure you it didn’t start that way (something, something about the psychology of previous investment). Those 3 days I have to run the generator for a couple of hours just to top up the battery charge. We’re talking about maybe 10L of petrol a year. To avoid that would require an exponential level of expenditure again that just isn’t worth the hassle, and would cause other problems when the sun decided to shine. Each component in the system has it’s own limits, including the batteries. The Pareto principle is real, much to my horror… Oh well.

    Hey, I read a fascinating article today on supply issues. And this time around, a lack of ships was to blame. Maybe it is just me, but if we have less stuff sourced from abroad and this is also the case elsewhere on the planet, how could a lack of ships be the problem? I smell a rat.

    Retailers warn against last minute Christmas shopping amid supply chain chaos

    Apparently it will all be sorted out by 2023. Well that’s one less thing to worry about.

    As to the fixed costs issue, I expect that we’ll get to find out how that rolls. It is worth noting that supply shortages push up prices for materials.

    Cheers

    Chris

  6. Chris – at the rate India and China are building coal power plants I reckon we’ll be selling more coal not less. Wouldn’t be surprised if we get some of their technicians to come and build a few plants here in the years ahead too.

  7. I imagine this could be applied to education as well, no?

    Pay money to university, follow instructions to collect degree, have “education” (credential). It helps explain why “education” and actual learning seem to have drifted so far apart…

  8. El – yeah, that’s another good example. Learning is an iterative, evolutionary process but we still treat it in a linear fashion where we insert knowledge into your brain a little bit at a time and your job is to absorb it at the required rate.

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