Ellen Ruppel Shell’s CHEAP — Part Three

(This is the third of a five-part roundtable discussion of Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Other installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Four, and Part Five.)

Jackson West writes:

cheaprt3Sadly, like Kathleen, I wasn’t particularly surprised by many of the examples used in Cheap.  However, unlike Kathleen, I’m a bit of a bargain hunting hobbyist — mostly in the realm of clothes, food and media.  Because, as many of you know, writing isn’t exactly the quickest way to riches these days (if it ever was).  Maybe if I wrote something to shake the moral and ethical foundations of your typical NPR-listening, Prius-driving IKEA and Whole Foods shopper I’d have more money lying around to spend on handmade furniture, bespoke suits, grass-fed beef and sustainably grown potatoes.

I’d certainly like to consider Cheap in the context of other well-meaning, non-fiction journalism. It’s likely to find itself sharing “Customers who bought this book also purchased” space on Amazon with a number of books.  Barbara Ehrenreich comes to mind, as does Michael Pollan, whom I’ve been devouring of late.  What all of them do is essentially describe the symptoms of the illness called “industrial capitalism,” but none of them seem willing to take their critiques quite that far.  And, unfortunately, the suggested reforms do seem backward looking.

Contrast that approach with the pro-capitalist arguments put forward in Chris Anderson’s Free and Virgina Postrel’s The Substance of Style.  Anderson naturally celebrates the creative destruction Ruppel Shell laments, even though I’d love to see his face when his publisher decides that, if free is good enough for everyone else, it should be good enough for Anderson. Therefore, no checks will be forthcoming.

targetchairPostrel argues that the despicably produced furniture from the likes of Target is valuable, because of the aesthetic thought that went into the plastic mold.  She goes on to write that a world of disposable plastic luxury in bright colors and pleasing curves is a beautiful and dynamic one; that the clever packaging and marketing that surrounds a fast-food hamburger and the medical technology developed to cure the heart attacks or the diabetes it gives you are both boons. To suggest otherwise makes you hopelessly backward.

That’s what frustrated me so much about Cheap‘s ending.  While it wasn’t a Pangloss like Anderson or Postrel, Ruppel Shell had a chance to draw a conclusion that indicted the philosophy of industrial capitalism, but instead quoted Adam Smith — and in so doing, seemed a tad the naive Candide.  Because the essential problem with all the cheap crap which these markets bring us and the depredations that it took to get them here formed an ecology in which we, the working (or, these days, maybe working) class, are trapped.

Which belies any of Ruppel Shell’s advice to make the personal choice of “opting out” of the system by changing my shopping habits.  Because I must “buy in” to have any purchasing power at all.  Now that capitalism is truly global, there is nowhere to escape — except, of course, into wealth.  And the only way to get there is by wholly embracing the ideology that got us here in the first place.  Namely, to put private profit and property above all, and damn the torpedoes.

Now Ruppel Shell is right in that Smith’s self-interest was supposed to be an “enlightened” one — not necessarily strictly rational, as he is usually misquoted, or the more naked self-interest which it has devolved into with practice.  But Smith lived in a time and a place wholly different from our own. And as Ruppell Shell rightly points out, ours is a time in which we’ve made our ignorance of the true costs of our goods willful. We’ve hidden these costs behind trans-continental shipping and propaganda quite literally engineered through mind mapping, helping to fool our senses and reason.

Present Smith with the blinding fluorescent and neon light come-ons, and I bet he too would fail to perceive the dark age that lurks behind what lies just outside his field of vision.

What I’ve gathered from the likes of Cheap is yet another indication that, until there is a way to account for such externalizations like environmental degradation and human suffering, there’s no end in sight.  Capitalism by its very nature seeks to commodify through efficiencies of scale, quantify through market pricing, and exact measurement and monopolize by granting private ownership of anything and everything — from DNA to the very air we breathe.  So I find it ironic that a book that revels in the revelations of excess and hubris would return to the words of the system’s moral benefactor and apologist.

Apologies to Peggy, but I’m going to have to disagree that all revolutions end poorly — after all, as we were all so loudly reminded yesterday, July 4th, ours was a nation born of fire and steel and “Death to Tyrants.”  Though, naturally, that revolution ended with us right here debating this. So maybe you’re right after all.

frenchrevolutionBut at least revolutions happen at the time and choosing of the revolutionaries.  What worries me about the current spate of liberal hand-wringing in books like Cheap is that in not calling for a wholesale rethought of our political and economic organization, in only urging personal responsibility and institutional reform, we’re simply not going to act fast enough to avoid a catastrophic reckoning.  Because I have a bad feeling that all the “hidden costs” we’ve been charging to the bank of the future are being added up on some terrible ledger, and we will all have to pay for them eventually.

Call me a pessimist, but I just don’t see the kinder, gentler postindustrial capitalism Ruppel Shell calls for ever materializing.  At least not until the oil runs out and the climate changes and we’re all totally fucked, regardless.

Colleen Mondor writes:

You know, when I signed up for this round table I never thought the discussion would totally suck the life out of me. And yet it is. I just don’t agree that the situation is that bad – or that it is has crossed a line to prevent positive change. At least we are all now talking about cheap products and fast food and agribusiness, etc. Twenty years ago these topics were not part of the national conversation. When I grew up in the ’70s, TV dinners were good. So were plastic bags and Styrofoam. Twenty years before that, spraying DDT on crops was good. Heck, in the ’60s, my husband went to an elementary school with asbestos in the walls. But we learn. We discuss. Books are published. Studies are completed. And change does come. Does Cheap go far enough for everyone? Probably not. But it does go far for the general reader. Hopefully, just as we all embraced Fast Food Nation and other titles (Pollan included), we will find something of value in Ruppell Shell’s work as well.

It’s easy to say that things will never change. I give the author credit for pointing out reasons why she thinks change should happen and for writing a book that does not intimidate readers from asking themselves questions about why they think it should. Getting general readers curious about the economy is no simple task and while many members of this roundtable might already know what Cheap is about, I’m sure there will be a lot of readers who find something new in her discussion.

Sarah Weinman writes:

Let’s keep this in mind: One person’s “I’ve heard it all before” is another person’s mind being blown when hearing such ideas for the very first time. One person’s bitter pessimism is another person’s stubborn optimism. And maybe, just maybe, we’re talking more about class division in terms of how we’re approaching Ruppel Shell’s approach? But I admit, those are fighting words. Just as Jackson’s tipoff to the “moral and ethical foundations of your typical NPR-listening, Prius-driving IKEA and Whole Foods shopper” might be as well.

But let me backtrack a bit, since I haven’t really delved into my thoughts on Cheap more readily. Unfortunately, I don’t have the book in front of me. So I’m going to have to rely on memory. My take falls a lot closer to the mind-blown newbie than the jaded repeat listener, largely because, to misquote the Passover Seder in gross fashion, “in every generation you must act as if you personally had been brought out of Egypt.” Point being, Ruppel Shell’s examples aren’t new. Certainly not to me. But isn’t there some power in her having gone to Sweden to visit IKEA headquarters, or personally experiencing Vegas outlet mall shopping, and so on and so forth? Examples are just a means of finding the right way to frame an idea, a thesis, or an investigation. And while I had some of the same problems about Ruppel Shell’s conclusions, because the end of Cheap felt more than a bit rushed and frantic compared to the cool-as-cucumber research and investigation of earlier chapters, I was more than convinced by her own discoveries, her own personal approach to supposedly common problems, and, most of all, the questions that formed in my mind, independently, in agreement or disagreement — as a result of what she wrote.

corvairAs Colleen said, we’re talking about issues now that wouldn’t have registered in the slightest during the advertising boom of the ’60s, the gas guzzling years of the ’70s (crisis notwithstanding), the Me Generation ’80s, and even the ’90s, which sure look like a happy boom period from 2009. Maybe Cheap isn’t Silent Spring or Unsafe at Any Speed or even Fast Food Nation, but so what? For me, it passed many smell tests: There was (a) well-thought out, sourced, journalism of originality, (b) a clear, distinct voice, and (c) at least some attempt at problem-solving. And ultimately, there is absolutely no harm in repeating ideas you “know” about from a different angle or a new slant. Because maybe, just maybe, it will register and resonate and hit home. Need I bring up the adage about how many times we have to see an ad before it registers? Or other market research stats on the branding and corporate mentality propping up the lowest-price-is-best mantra? I know I’ve read any number of articles on any number of subjects and all it takes is one read at one time in one place for something to “click” in place, to get me thinking at a deeper level. Such are the goals of a book like Cheap and, as a result, it succeeded for me.

But I want to talk about the book itself and specifically, a topic that wasn’t addressed but which I thought about constantly as I read it: digital books and how to price them. I too wish Amazon had been given larger shrift, but figured Ruppel Shell didn’t have the space or felt she had to restrict herself to a given number of examples for narrative purposes. But since she didn’t, I could fill in my own blanks. $9.99 is just as mythical a set point as any number of cheaper or expensive prices are for goods, and when someone is willing to pay much more for an iPhone or a Kindle or the device that you’d read a digital book on, but the book itself is too “costly” when it’s more than $10 (consider the Amazon message board petition to boycott eBooks priced higher! I wish I had the link handy but others have found it) and we run into dangerous territory. I think eBooks should be cheaper than hardcovers for sure, just like mass market paperbacks should be cheaper. But what of the cost of producing a book, the advance/author payment, the editorial and production work? Should that always be a money-losing venture? And if eBooks are cheap and there is no physical value and they disappear because of DRM issues, then what? Is there value? Is it an object or a work of art or commercial pap or all of the above? I want my books to have value, but maybe the folks who sold to the pulps wanted them to as well, but had to settle for being paid at a penny a word or for signing away the rights for a few thousand bucks to lose control over everything but the words on the typewritten page, if that.

Cheap, to me, is a jumping off point, not the last word. I sure hope it’s not the last word, because then Ruppel Shell would have failed in her mission, but judging by the word count of this roundtable so far, I’d say it’s anything but.

Whet Moser writes:

Apologies for taking so long to write. I was on the road for the 4th, which is never as unstressful as it’s intended to be.

furniturebuildI remember the first time that I went to IKEA, thinking, “My family would kill me if they knew.” My dad used to work in the southern furniture industry (which is getting killed by imports), before getting laid off. His father had a part-time business making custom furniture, which took months or years to make and cost tens of thousands of dollars, as well as another part-time business making custom wood powerboats. His father ran a furniture business that specialized in expensive, handmade, archetypal southern furniture.

So the book hit me in a personal way, and made me question whether I’m part of the problem. But I had to weigh that against the realities of my life, as compared to the generations that preceding my own. Virtually no one in my family moved out of the state they were born in. Not only did I move to a big city for college, but I’ve lived in four different apartments since I graduated six years ago. Most of my family, if they went to college, went to state schools. I went to an expensive private school in another state, and will be paying for it well into middle age, in order to make an entry-level salary with less purchasing power than my family had back in the day. IKEA, for better or worse, has been a godsend in some ways, as it was to Levi Asher above.

I’d love to be able to support the sort of craft that Ruppell Shell describes, but it’s a slow process: Between declining purchasing power, an increased debt load, a longer workday, and my locally peripatetic lifestyle, the “cheap” products that Ruppel Shell describes are appealing for reasons beyond price, which is something to factor in (and she does a fine job of it in the IKEA chapter).

Along those lines, here are responses to discussion points that I thought were interesting:

“What worries me about the current spate of liberal hand-wringing in books like Cheap is that in not calling for a wholesale rethought of our political and economic organization, in only urging personal responsibility and institutional reform, we’re simply not going to act fast enough to avoid a catastrophic reckoning.” (Jackson West)

As an editor/blogger/etc., I’m really only good at thinking about these concerns in terms of how they’re discussed within that realm. So I can’t offer much help on wholesale rethought. But one area where I do think progress is being made is in food, as evidenced not only by Pollan/Food Inc./etc., but also just in terms of local food. Here in Chicago, it’s a big thing, as you’re probably aware. And it’s a shame that other forms of craft aren’t discussed in the same terms, e.g., people freaking out over a local furniture maker in the way they do over Moto or a new restaurant from the people behind Lula (if you’re in Chicago on a Monday, Lula’s farm dinner is the best thing in town).

People in my not-particularly-impressive financial demographic are willing to pay a premium for craft in terms of food – but not a lot of other things. I don’t have an explanation. I think it’s just one of those things. But I think it’s a good model.

Here’s one honorable example in a related field: Lifehacker may be my favorite blog. Give it a shot, if you haven’t. It’s mostly computer-oriented, but the bloggers also touch on food, time management, etc. It’s about how to do things efficiently and wisely, particularly getting the most out of expensive electronic gadgets. There isn’t a lot pertaining to the subject at hand, but I’d like to see Lifehacker’s philosophy get picked up by other bloggers and newspapers.

“How do we get from our current system, in which the hidden costs are catching up and twisting us into a vicious downward spiral in all areas, to a more equitable system, in which price reflects real cost, and local/sustainable is the more economical option? In other words, how do we get to Utopia?” (Peggy Nelson)

This is one hell of a hard question that the book doesn’t really ask or answer. Short of making the production process part of your advertising campaign (after reading Cheap, I bought some $14 American Apparel undies — they are quite comfortable), it’s difficult to tell whether a high price is a brand premium, the actual cost of something made honorably, or just an insane profit margin.

Part of me thinks consumers need better informational resources. But the local papers seem more interested in whatever scheme McDonalds has cooked up (they are Oak Brook based, but c’mon). Again, I turn to Lifehacker: If you want more wisdom about consuming and using what you consume. I know a lot of stuff. But if I need new shoes, I have no idea where to begin if I want to take some care in surveying their origins.

My biggest beef with the book: She picks up and drops Nick Kristof’s argument about how you should buy sweatshop-produced goods because it represents an improvement for the laborers over the alternative. Unfortunately I haven’t read Kristof’s own argument. So I don’t know how glib his argument or Shell’s description of it is.

But I think it’s a question that deserves some serious thinking. As a Virginian well-versed in Appalachian history, I’m painfully aware that the guaranteed “living wage” that Americans were promised isn’t that far removed from the economic exploitation that made things cheap back in the day. Demands for non-exploitative labor, at least in the U.S., are a comparatively new thing. We had to go through a long, bloody labor history to even get where we are now.

Here’s a related book that’s awesome: Free Lunch by the great David Cay Johnston. It really fleshes out the governmental advantages that “cheap” big box stores receive. It’s not just that they have structural advantages. They also lobby like hell.

Miracle Jones writes:

Whet, I brought up some of IKEA’s sins over dinner with my roommate over the weekend, and she put her fork down and glared at me.

“Without IKEA, it would be impossible for a single woman to move without help.  They make disposable furniture for disposable living arrangements.”

I shrugged and mentioned something about trees, but she knows I don’t give a shit about trees.  So maybe you are right.


Sarah, I don’t know if this book will be eye-opening at all.  It feels like the kind of soothing head massage that actually shuts eyes.  Much of this book instead felt like a letter from a fretful, middle-class parent to their affable, cloistered child just entering adult life, a letter about the real value of things.  The sort of letter you would hear read aloud in a Wegmans commercial. 


by Miracle Jones

1.  Admit you are poor.  It’s easiest to admit this to another poor person.  Chances are they live next door to you.  Maybe this is a good time to meet your neighbors.

2.  Get cool with being poor.  Realize that what you are is actually “normal.” Go outside.  Let a pit bull lick your hand, take a deep breath, and say:  “I make under a thousand dollars every month just like most human beings on this planet, if not America.  The true human condition is to make under a thousand dollars a month and still live, fuck, breed, laugh, create, eat, dance, bleed, and die.  There is nothing noble about this and nothing wrong with it either.  How can it be anything other than baseline?”
beardedhomeless3.  Most of the money you make every month will go to rent.  This is a necessity. If you are homeless, you will get fired from your “job” or you will get jumped so often that you will become a paranoid wreck.  Try to get more roommates, if you can’t hack rent.  Learn to live with couples.  Don’t listen to bearded weirdos who tell you homelessness is the true freedom.  Being homeless feels “free” for exactly three days, and then you start to hate all of humanity, including yourself, which is more stressful than a full-time job.

4.  Get a job for at least six months working in the kitchen of a restaurant where you like the food.  Learn how to cook cheap shit using cheap ingredients.  Learn how to run your own household with the same tightwad attention to inventory management as a short-order line cook.  Treat yourself as both tyrannical boss and a tyrannical customer when you start cooking for yourself at home.  Hopefully your roommates are also experimenting with this form of culinary school and you can pool knowledge to make endless, fascinating feasts.  NOTE: It is much easier to get laid by cooking for somebody than taking them to a restaurant.  You are already in a private place with a bed. 

5.  Get a job for at least six months in the service industry where you have to sell something to people, preferably something that you like but that you don’t really need.  Get the job for the discount and stock up!  Sell the item using every sleazy sales trick you can think of.  Become immune to these tricks.  Make friends with other people in service industry jobs in order to learn the true value of the products you sell.  Step sideways from the consumer mentality by taking the Devil into you and learning how the Devil gets souls.  HINT: It’s not by lies, it’s by false correlation.

6.  Steal things if you know you will not get caught.  Go ahead.  You have my permission (this will not hold up in court).  “Get hold of portable property!”  Property acquires possessions, not people.  Steal from where you work.  Steal a lot from where you work.  It’s called “shrinkage.” It’s all insured.  Don’t get caught.  Learn how not to get caught, even if you have morals that preclude actual crime.  Give free shit to your friends and roommates when they come visit you.  Visit them where they work.  Get free shit from them.  

killtv7.  Get rid of your television.  Forever.  Watching rich people whine is no kind of entertainment for a normal person such as yourself.

8.  Sex, conversation, art, and games are what actually make people happy.  All advertising points back to these free phenomena and tries to tap into their power.  If you are thoroughly modern and you start to see items as information instead of as special physical curios, you will start to get bored by everything you can’t steal easily or produce yourself.  Handmade goods are only meaningful when the hands that make those goods are your own.  The internet has recipes for everything, from delicious marijuana cookies to beautiful homemade books.  Learn to value things by the amount of time it would take you to make them yourself at home.  Egg McMuffins =  EXPENSIVE.  Crepes and blueberries = CHEAP. 

Become cheap.  Don’t fight it.  Go so deep into cheap that you become competition for these eeeeeevil discounters.  Become so cheap that you are affordable to everybody in all your favorite activities (sex, conversation, games, art), both rich and poor alike.  You will have a good life. 

Eat gross-ass blood shrimp, but only have a handful as you scrape someone else’s plate in the back of a restaurant and then wash it.  That is truly “affordable luxury.”

Chris Anderson, Plagiarist?

freeThe Virginia Quarterly Review‘s Waldo Jaquith has uncovered several instances of apparent plagiarism within Chris Anderson’s forthcoming book, Free. Unfortunately, I have learned that the VQR‘s investigations only begin to scratch the surface. A cursory plunge into the book’s contents reveals that Anderson has not only cribbed material from Wikipedia and websites (sometimes without accreditation), but that he has a troubling habit of mentioning a book or an author and using this as an excuse to reproduce the content with very few changes — in some cases, nearly verbatim.

As the examples below will demonstrate, Anderson’s failure to paraphrase properly is plagiarism, according to the Indiana University Bloomington Writing Tutorial Services’s very helpful website. It is simply not enough for Anderson to cite the source. An honest and ethical author cannot, in good conscience, swipe whole sentences and paragraphs, change a few words, and call it his. Plagiarism is not an either-or proposition, although we leave the readers to decide whether the cat inside the box is dead or alive.

It appears that Chris Anderson, who boasts in the acknowledgments about spending a year and a half writing this book, has spent most of these eighteen months repurposing content from other sources. Anderson has explained to the VQR that he had “an inability to find a good citation format for web sources.” But this “explanation” hardly accounts for the wholesale theft of language documented here and at the VQR.

And I must point out that, like Mr. Jaquith, I have hardly committed an exhaustive search.


The section on the beginning of Jell-O on Pages 7-10 has lifted almost all of its information from the Jell-O Museum Website, only slightly rephrasing sentences. Here is one example:

Anderson, P. 9: “First, they crafted a three-inch ad to run in Ladies’ Home Journal, at a cost of $336.”

Jell-O Museum Site: “A three-inch ad costing $336 in the Ladies Home Journal launched the printed portion of the campaign….”


In a subsection called “The Three Prices,” Anderson writes about Derek Sivers’s “reversible business models,” but entire paragraphs from Sivers’s “Reversible Business Models” August 2008 blog post have been recycled with very few modifications.

Anderson, P. 32: “In China, some doctors are paid monthly when their patients are healthy. If you are sick, it’s their fault, so you don’t have to pay that month. It’s their goal to get you healthy and keep you healthy so they can get paid.”

Sivers: “In China, some doctors are paid monthly when you are healthy. If you are sick, it’s their fault, so you don’t have to pay that month. It’s their goal to get you healthy and keep you healthy so they can get paid. ”

Anderson, P. 31: “In one instance, he told his class at MIT’s Sloan School of Business that he would be doing a reading of poetry (Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass) but didn’t know what it should cost. He handed out a questionnaire to all the students, half of who were asked if they’d be willing to pay $10 to hear him read, and the other half of whom were asked if they’d be willing to hear him read if he paid them $10. Then he gave them all the same question: What should the price be to hear him read short, medium, and long versions of the poem?

Sivers: “Professor Dan Ariely told his class that he would be doing a reading of poetry, but didn’t know what it should cost. He handed out a price survey to all students, but secretly half of the surveys asked if they’d be willing to pay $10 to hear him read, and the other half asked if they’d be willing to hear him read if he paid them $10!

“Those who got the question about paying him were willing to pay. They offered to pay, on average, $1, $2, $3 for short, medium, long readings.”


When opening Chapter 3 (“The History of Free”), Anderson uses very close phrasing from Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (which Anderson credits). Anderson’s sentences skirt the line between acceptable paraphrasing and plagiarism, but this is certainly a bit too close for comfort.

Anderson, P. 34-35: “Instead, they used just two marks: a wedge that represented 1 and a double wedge that represented 10.”

Seife, P. 13-14: “Also, the Babylonians used only two marks to represent their numbers: a wedge that represented 1 and a double wedge that represented 10.”

Anderson, p. 35: “Greek math was epitomized by Pythagoras and his Pythagorean cult, which made such profound discoveries as the musical scale and the golden ratio (but not, ironically, the Pythagorean Theorem — the formula for calculating the hypotenuse of a right triangle had actually been known for many years before Pythagoras).”

Seife, p. 28-29: “In modern schools, children learn of Pythagoras for his famed theorem: the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. However, this was in fact ancient news. It was known more than 1,000 years before Pythagoras’s time.”


Chris Anderson’s habit of citing a book, without acceptable paraphrase, is also evident in a section on the transistor cadged from Chapter 4 of Kevin Kelly’s New Rules for the New Economy (cited but not acceptably modified).

Anderson, P. 79: “For instance, in the early 1960s, Fairchild Semiconductor was selling an early transistor, called the 1211, to the military. Each transistor cost $100 to make. Fairchild wanted to sell the transistor to RCA for use in their new UHF television tuner. At the time RCA was using traditional vacuum tubes, which cost only $1.05 each.

“Fairchild’s founders, the legendary Robert Noyce and Jerry Sanders, knew that as their production volume increased, the cost of the transistor would quickly go down. But to make their first commercial sale they needed to get the price down immediately, before they had any volume at all. So they rounded down. Way down They cut the price of the 1211 to $1.05, right from the start, before they even knew how to make it so cheaply. “We were going to make the chips in a factory we hadn’t built, using a process we hadn’t yet developed, but the bottom line was: We were out there the next week quoting $1.05,” Sanders later recalled. “We were selling into the future.”

“It worked. By getting way ahead of the price decline curve, they made their goal of $1.05 and took 90 percent of the UHF tuner market share. Two years later they were able to cut the price of the 1211 to 50 cents, and still make a profit.”

Kelly: “In the early 1960s Robert Noyce and his partner Jerry Sanders—founders of Fairchild Semiconductor—were selling an early transistor, called the 1211, to the military. Each transistor cost Noyce $100 to make. Fairchild wanted to sell the transistor to RCA for use in their UHF tuner. At the time RCA was using fancy vacuum tubes, which cost only $1.05 each. Noyce and Sanders put their faith in the inverted pricing of the learning curve. They knew that as the volume of production increased, the cost of the transistor would go down, even a hundredfold. But to make their first commercial sale they need to get the price down immediately, with zero volume. So they boldly anticipated the cheap by cutting the price of the 1211 to $1.05, right from the start, before they knew how to do it. “We were going to make the chips in a factory we hadn’t built, using a process we hadn’t yet developed, but the bottom line: We were out there the next week quoting $1.05,” Sanders later recalled. “We were selling into the future.” And they succeeded. By anticipating the cheap, they made their goal of $1.05, took 90% of the UHF market share, and then within two years cut the price of the 1211 to 50 cents, and still made a profit.”


The opening of Chapter 11, which involves French mathematician Antoine Cournot, features text pulled and only slightly modified from Cournot’s Wikipedia entry

Anderson, p. 171: “The members of the French Liberal School, who dominated the economics profession in France at the time, were uninterested, leaving Cournot dispirited and bitter.”

Wikipedia: “The denizens of the French Liberal School, who dominated the economics profession in France at the time, took no notice of it, leaving Cournot crushed and bitter.”

Anderson, p. 172: “Bertrand argued that Cournot had reached the wrong conclusion on practically everything. Indeed, Bertrand thought that Cournot’s use of production volume as the key unit of competition was so arbitrary that he, half-jokingly, reworked Cournot’s model with prices, not output, as the key variable.”

Wikipedia: “Bertrand argued that Cournot had reached the wrong conclusion on practically everything, and reworked Cournot’s duopoly model with prices, rather than quantities, as the strategic variables — and obtained the competitive solution immediately.”

UPDATE: In the course of my investigations, I accidentally stumbled upon what was apparently Chris Anderson’s hard drive. The only thing I did was peek at the files related to the book. I certainly didn’t scour through emails or add files, as Anderson suggests. (Indeed, I didn’t even know that this represented a public hard drive.) But Anderson, instead of addressing any of my findings here or at the VQR, has instead accused me of adding files to his hard drive, a charge that is patently false. Because I neither possessed the knowledge nor the desire to mess with Anderson’s hard drive. Anderson has since made his hard drive private, demonstrating just how committed he is to open source.

UPDATE 2: Anderson’s spin control continues. Chris Anderson has told the Guardian that the errors were “a lot less” than the VQR suggests.

UPDATE 3: Chris Anderson issues a response on his blog, but refuses to address the verbatim excerpts cited above, despite additional requests in the VQR thread.

UPDATE 4: To offer a point of comparison, as it so happens, Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap — a book that will be discussed on these pages in a forthcoming roundtable — has also paraphrased the Ariely poetry experiment on p. 68. And the specific ways in which Shell has paraphrased and Anderson has paraphrased demonstrate a substantial difference:

As example, Ariely described an experiment in which he offered to recite Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to a classroom of students. Half the students were asked whether they would pay $2 for the pleasure of hearing him read the poem, while the other half were asked if they were willing to listen if they were paid $2. Then both sets of numbers were asked whether they would attend the recitation if it were free.

Only 8 percent of the students who were offered money to listen to the recitation were willing to attend the performance without pay, compared with the 35 percent of the students who were originally asked to pay to hear it. Clearly, the “framing” of the event — the context from which the proposal emerged — influenced its perceived value, a perception that trumped whatever inherent value it might have held for the students (unlikely to be much). (68)

One can see a major difference between Anderson’s practice of cutting and pasting text from websites and Shell’s actual journalism. Shell actually went out to talk with Ariely. Shell then summarized Ariely’s example and explained to her readers why it’s important within the context of her point — in this case, the framing and the perception of pricing — and developed an independent explanation. Anderson, by contrast, merely used the Ariely example that was also used by Derek Sivers, and even closely parroted Sivers’s phrasing of the Ariely example.

UPDATE 5: Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin offers propaganda in favor of Chris Anderson. Jardin is a frequent contributor to Wired, but she’s failed to disclose this pivotal conflict of interest in her post. Additionally, former Wired regular Mark Frauenfelder can also be found defending his beloved employer. Don’t you just love journalistic integrity?

UPDATE 6: It pains me to report that the Los Angeles Times‘s Carolyn Kellogg has written an ostensible “story” on Anderson. Unfortunately, Kellogg has failed to contact anybody other than Anderson and Mark Frauenfelder, who has professional connections with Anderson at Wired (which are not disclosed by Kellogg). With quotes like “My attribution failures aside, this is an important book,” the piece reads like it come from a press release issued by Anderson’s publicist. If Kellogg practiced objective journalism, she would have spoken with Anderson, Waldo Jaquith (who broke the story), and a plagiarism expert — thereby giving the reader an objective account with which to make a decision.