Columns

2008.02.28 Are we stupid or what?

on . Posted in By The Way

By DAVID GREEN

Are we stupid or what? Both probably, stupid and what.

It was a visit to eBay that led me to make that harsh claim. It’s a place I seldom visit. It’s a place that leaves me head-scratching.

I probably should do some business on eBay. Think of all the “cultural artifacts” I could peddle, like about 70 percent of what’s in the Observer office.

In pre-eBay days, someone would occasionally come in wanting to buy this and that from the back office. The type drawers, of course, are always hot items. Rarely, someone even wants the type that’s still in most of the drawers.

I know these are items that will never again be used. Someone in the future will simply have to throw it all away—after they sell the type drawers on eBay or whatever the eBay of the future turns out to be.

I’ve never sold any of the stuff. I can’t bear to think of disassembling the Observer office piece by piece, so instead it just collects dust. That’s how you can tell what’s used out in back: If there’s a good layer of dust, it just doesn’t get used anymore.

I visited eBay a few minutes ago to check out the Observer’s possibilities. As expected, there are plenty of type drawers. Every wall needs one, apparently, but I don’t even have one hanging in my own house.

We have dozens of old metal printing cuts for advertisements. Bancroft Cleaners, for example. You can’t find one of those on eBay, but then again, who would want the thing, other than John Bancroft, perhaps?

Printers furniture cabinets, slug cutters, chases, quoins, Kluge gripper nuts, Imperial Flux, Linotype lead—I know these are mystery items to all but perhaps two or three readers. These are what remains from former times in the printing industry. Well, mostly former times. We still use a few things and it’s a little disheartening to see how cheaply this worthless stuff is selling.

But I didn’t yet get to the crazy part of eBay.

I need to buy a camera flash, a particular model that can be either new or used. I first went to a mail order store that has given me good service over the years. I was hoping that it cost less than what I saw.

What the heck, let’s see what eBay has to offer. I followed some sales on and off for a few days and what I’ve discovered is that people routinely pay more for a new flash on eBay than if they simply placed an order from a store. They go to the auction expecting a good price and end up paying more. Are we stupid or what?

It must be last-minute stupidity. Frequently the prices are good until the final frantic bidding when the item ends up selling for more than it’s worth. So there’s more than simple stupidity. It’s carelessness, too, but there has to be more to it.

And coincidentally, just today while wiling away the time at a long wrestling tournament, I read an article called “What Was I Thinking? The latest reasoning about our irrational ways.”

The author starts off describing a recent on-line purchase. She was saving $6 on the purchase of a book when an alert popped up on her computer screen: “Add $7.00 to your order to qualify for FREE Super Saver Shipping!”

What a deal, Amazon, FREE shipping for just $7.

Life is full of miscalculations, she wrote, like buying a gallon of mayonnaise at spectacular savings. Consider the billions of dollars Americans spend every year on the interest payments for their credit card debt.

The same errors are made over and over, and we don’t even recognize them as errors. One researcher experimented with kids and candy on Halloween. Trade in one of three Hershey Kisses for a larger candy bar or get one mini-Snickers for free. The word “Free!” does it again, even though the net chocolate gain is lower. Adults made the same mistake.

His conclusion: “We’re all pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend.”

The researcher even admitted to buying a car because of FREE oil changes for three years.

So what I need to do is gather up all the true junk from out in back, load it onto eBay and offer it FREE with a hefty postage charge. Perhaps stupidity can get me something for nothing.

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