I (sorta) Love Consumer Reports

In a piece posted to its website today, Consumer Reports describes how its January report on infant car seats went very wrong. Given that the Consumers’ Union (CR’s parent) does the most product testing of anyone, it’s not surprising that CR would eventually screw up in some way. They’ve done it before and will do it again. Many people who share most of my ideological sympathies will use this as a chance to rag on Consumer Reports and its parent the Consumers’ Union.

I won’t. It sounds like CU made a series of well-intentioned, understandable mistakes. They do great product testing and, on the whole, raise the bar for products of all types. More than once, Consumer Reports has uncovered rather serious safety problems that government and industry regulators missed. More importantly, the magazine’s focus on how people actually use products has raised the bar a lot. I love the 10-year-old GE alarm clock beside my bed: I’m told it was engineered just to top the magazine’s ratings. Consumer Reports, in fact, has probably done more to raise the overall quality of the things consumers buy more than any other single entity public or private. I’m a loyal subscriber.

The thing I honestly don’t get is why a magazine that does so much to improve the functioning of the market has a non-profit arm and editorial voice that’s anti-market in just about every way. I remember an article within the last year arguing that all deregulation of EVERYTHING was bad. Some of the evidence included the shrinking number of banks  — even though the typical market now has more choices and consumers have a much broader range of products — and higher cable bills — even though cable now includes a many more channels, Internet, telephone service, and movies on demand. This is absurd on its face.

It’s not clear to me, frankly, why the consumer movement has been so dominated by the political Left. Good information for consumers, including independent product testing, makes for a better functioning market, speeds uptake of useful innovations, and leads to the quicker discarding of useless products.

From its own business perspective, CR would be better off without a massive regulatory state. (Although it’s non-profit, CU gets nearly all of its revenue from selling magazine/web subscriptions, books, and data.) Why not a little more support for the market?