To be a responsible citizen, you ought to vote in each election, raise your children, and subscribe to Consumer Reports.
Though not in that order.
If I had to lose one of the three, I'd say skip voting and stick with the magazine. Every month Consumer Reports examines our vast, sprawling, shifting culture of consumption and asks not the standard question we ask ourselves — What should I buy next? — but tougher questions such as "Is this any good? Will it harm you? How can I push back against it?"
I was reading the June issue.
And you tend to really read Consumer Reports. Not a lot of skimming, because it tends to be so interesting, even focusing on stuff you never wondered about before, such as this issue's "Special Report: How Safe is Your Shrimp?"
Like you, my entire thought process about shrimp can be summarized as: Oh there's shrimp? Gimme shrimp. Am I taking too much shrimp? Can I have more shrimp? It never crossed my mind that there might be more to the subject. And I'm a curious guy.
Seven pages on "choosing the healthiest, tastiest, and most responsibly sourced shrimp." It leaps out of the box with interesting facts about American's love affair with shrimp — four pounds a year per person, three times what we ate 35 years ago.
I had no idea where shrimp came from. The sea, I assumed. (Wrong: Most is farmed in huge industrial tanks and football-field size artificial ponds.) It never dawned on me that there are different types of shrimp (beyond size, that is, tiny to jumbo). Four thousand varieties, the top six profiled in the magazine.
By the time I was done reading the article, I felt like an idiot, shrimp-wise, with my snout stuck in a bowl of prawns, never pausing to wonder, Geez, could this stuff be treated with harmful chemicals or silly with disease? (CR: You betcha!)
And I hadn't even gotten to the cover story, on the gathering peril of the "Internet of Things," as your refrigerator and your thermostat start spying on you and sharing your data with potentially everybody.
It's cool that your car can talk to your house and tell it to kick in the air conditioning as you near home. But "that convenience comes with a trade-off. The devices can also send a steady flood of personal data to corporate servers, where it's saved and shared, and can be used in ways you can't control." Not only loss of privacy, but exposure to hackers. In Britain, cruel pranksters took over baby monitors to scream at sleeping infants.
Something for society to look forward to. While it might be too early to truly worry that your Crock-Pot slow cooker is informing on you, it isn't too early to be aware of it.
There's more. Bicycle helmets. Getting the most out of your used car. And, as always, my favorite part, the back page snickering at the stupidest marketing blunders of the month. Consumer Reports not only takes citizenship seriously, but encourages readers to do the same, with a section, "Actions You can Take In June" ("Ask Congress for safer detergent pods" since thousands of children find them, think they're candy, and eat them). There's a call to arms against inaccurate, illegible unit pricing. "Don't suffer in silence. Tell a store manager."
And that's just June, with sunscreen and mosquito repellents and more on deck for July.
Consumer Reports spent nearly a half million dollars testing shrimp. Yet the magazine has no advertisements — itself incredible, in our ever-more-branded world. The government can't get by without selling out to corporations. But Consumer Reports manages. That's why it's important to not just read it, but to subscribe — it's only $29 a year, the cost of a couple pounds of dubious shrimp. It's something that should be supported. I almost called Consumer Reports a fifth branch of government, but then I realized that the press is the fourth branch, and CR is the press, though its gimlet eyed, let's-buy-every-model-and-test-them mentality is so out of keeping with mainstream journalism, and its general, tongue-lolling, seal-clapping applause for whatever junk is being flung at consumers, that it might deserve a category of its own.