Ellen Ruppel Shell is most recently the author of Cheap. The book was also featured in an in-depth five-part discussion with several thoughtful people, which you can investigate here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Bargain hunting for alcohol.
Subjects Discussed: Pinpointing the phenomenon of discount culture, Edward Bernays, bargain hunting, game theory, Gresham’s law, fixed pricing vs. elastic pricing, John Wanamaker and the price tag, haggling, thought experiments concerning the powerless buyer, mattresses and reference prices, discount pain medication and less effective treatment, the placebo effect, Jason Furman, Jerry Hausman, and the underestimated price benefits on Walmart, not accounting for quality when considering working-class Walmart benefits, iPhone pricing, dishwashing liquid and the pennies price trap, manipulating public opinion, Whole Foods and the decline in demand for luxury goods during 2008, Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption,” outlet malls, buying one more thing because of a shopping cart, shrimp’s move from a delicacy to a cheap and ubiquitous food, IKEA’s illegal wood-cutting, “out of sight, out of mind” business practices, the Chinese “luxury” of human rights, Henry Ford’s virtue of a worker owning his own car, the rise of disposable employees in the 1990s, at will employment, the lost social contract between the company and the employee, labor aristocracy, workers monitored by the corporations, deficient pencils, T-shirts that work, thought experiments about minimal manufacturing standards, the collapse of the Second Bank of the United States, Andrew Jackson, and the financial panic of 1837, globalism, Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, and Douglas Rushkoff’s Life, Inc..
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You bring up Gresham’s law a few times in the book. That principle in which bad money drives out the good. Your example involves watered down milk over purer milk. But as you point out both in the book, with the idea of Americans having less spending money for T-shirts and lettuce, and in this particular idea that you just said in your last answer about looking for the ultimate bargain, if we have indeed become accustomed to our watered down milk, why then would we start accustomizing ourselves to purer milk? Or this higher aspect of craftsmanship? If there is no economic incentive for us to do so, then surely are we trapped in this cycle of bad money driving out the good?
Ruppel Shell: Well, that’s a really good question. And Gresham’s law is a very important concept — I think — for us to keep in mind. Gresham’s law — the so-called bad money driving out good — was illustrated, as you mention, with this milk example. And that is, if there are merchants or retailers selling watered down milk at 80 cents a gallon. And this is just theory. We know we don’t pay 80 cents a gallon anymore for milk. But if they’re selling watered milk for 80 cents a gallon and full milk for $1.20 a gallon, and they write down the label, “This is watered down milk. This is pure milk,” people who want a bargain or who want to pay less buy the watered down milk. And there’s no problem there. They know what they’re getting. But if it becomes the case that watered down milk gets sold as milk — just milk, okay — both cartons were sold as milk and were charged 90 cents, it seems that we’re getting a bargain when we buy this watered milk. Because we just assume it’s milk, okay? And those who try and sell full milk at $1.20 a gallon will go out of business because of this low price. We’re driven by price, not quality, right? We’re looking at the price. And they will go out of business. So pretty soon, everyone is selling watered down milk at 90 cents, and we all think we’re getting a bargain. And this is the metaphor I use for American retail culture today. Many of us are buying what I consider to be — including myself; I include myself in this — watered down milk and paying a low price for it, and thinking we’re getting a bargain. But we’re not getting a bargain. We’re getting watered down milk at a somewhat higher price than we might be paying if all the actors were transparent. If we really knew what we were getting.
And another thing I say in the book is that knowledge in the marketplace is probably the most valuable thing. Actually knowing what you’re getting. But in global retail culture, it’s very, very difficult to know what you’re getting. It’s very difficult. The Internet hasn’t helped us all that much. There’s all sorts of tricks that retailers use to hide the product’s background and the manufacturing techniques that go into building up products. It’s very, very difficult to know. And I go into the many tricks in the book. And I won’t bore you to death today with all the tricks. But so many of us go into retail stores not knowing what we’re getting. So what we are is price-driven. Since it’s the only thing, the only so-called objective factor is price and that’s how we make our comparisons. And one of the things I point out in the book is, in fact, pricing is not objective. It’s probably one of the most subjective factors in purchasing. But we think it’s objective and so we use it as a marker.
Correspondent: Well, there’s also the innovation of the price tag, and the fact that you no longer have a scenario in which the buyer can in fact haggle with the seller. That relationship has completely changed in the last 120 years. And I’m wondering if you feel that, if we were to restore that particular impulse, we might perhaps drive out this additional impulse. This present impulse. I mean, we go to Kayak to get the best flight deal. We go to Google Shopping to find out who’s selling that iPhone, that iPod, or what not at the lowest possible price. And yet at the same time, price is elastic, as you point out in the book. The common example used is: when the iPhone initially came out, it was marked $200 more than what it was two months later. And a lot of people were upset by this. So if the buyer has no control over the price, then I’m wondering if offering some kind of return to haggling in some sense might be part of the solution here. Or is our relationship with, for example, Third World Labor so interdependent upon cheap labor and cheap goods that it’s impossible now?
Ruppel Shell: I think haggling over price has become quite difficult for the very reasons I cited before. We have real difficulty knowing what things are worth. And you talk about the price tag, that’s true. The price tag is a more recent innovation than I think people realize. It’s about a 120 year old invention, as you say, invented by a retailer named Wanamaker, who was actually among one of the first people to buy the notion of sales. He was actually a really good guy. His idea was that his own employees should be able to afford the things that he had. He devised the wholesale model. The low-cost model. He kind of popularized that model. And after that, the model was kind of perverted by a colleague of his — Frank Woolworth, who many of us have probably heard about historically — who believed that the way to keep prices low was to pay his clerks as little as possible and to deskill the position of clerk. That means that they had very little knowledge. Very little authority. And he would pay them $2-3 a week, which forced them to live at home with their parents and allowed them very little latitude. So the Woolworth model is a more typical model in some of the discount empires today — the most famous being Walmart, in which employees are paid quite poorly on average and there’s a very, very high turnover. So that’s the model. The Walmart model was actually a very old model that was started by Frank Woolworth.
But to respond to your question about whether I think unfixing the prices, freeing the prices, allowing them to haggle over price would be helpful, it’s an interesting idea. And I could imagine it happening. I think certainly when we buy a used car, for example, we apply that method still. There are still things we do haggle over. When we go to a flea market, we can haggle. But in general, I don’t think we’re going to lose the price tag. I don’t think we’re going to go back. What I’m suggesting that consumers do is think a lot about the object and less about the price.
(This is the fifth 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 Three, and Part Four.)
(A podcast interview with author Ellen Ruppel Shell will follow this afternoon. Thanks to all the roundtable participants for their input, Penguin Press for providing us with the books, and for Ms. Ruppel Shell for her time and generosity.)
I thought one of the most stunning aspects of our conversation was how emotional many of us became over a fairly straightforward work of nonfiction. It just goes to prove what I’ve always believed: money is a character in each of our lives. It has a point of view. It reacts to how you treat it. Just like pets and their owners so often look alike, a person’s money is imbued with their persona. When anyone starts talking about how we spend it or how we should spend it, we take it personally.
Now for a few musings:
The tighter you hold your money, the more you poison it.
To a man waist deep in quarters, fifty cents means nothing. To a thirsty man standing in front of a vending machine, it means everything.
Each one of us participated in this exercise freely and without compensation. We didn’t even have to shell out $25.95 for the book, which Penguin sent to us for free.
Think of a dollar bill. In your pocket. Slipped under a coffee cup on a diner counter. Floating in a filthy puddle. What does it mean to a Chinese laborer working to produce little plastic pink flamingo key chains or a shrimp farmer in Vietnam?
Now imagine that bill was a one hundred dollar bill. In God We Trust.
If there were a followup work of fiction for all this, my recommendation would be Frank Norris’s McTeague.
To close, I offer an image. Behold the looooong underwear rack at the Unique Thrift Store on Lorain Avenue in Cleveland. Although I did not purchase any of the used underwear, I dare say I felt at once obliged and uncomfortable taking a picture of it. For more on this subject, see the following blog post.
I believe that at the heart of this back ‘n forth is a shadowy sense of economic justice and environmental rationality. We have heard much about or are quite aware of the beast we are up against. Remember even in the mid-19th century, while he was way off about communism, Marx’s analysis of capitalism was pretty acute.
The recent spate of microeconomic analysis books promulgate strategies and tactics employed to advance the moneyed class’s interest(s) — which is the increase/accumulation of capital. So if most of us are exploited and alienated along the way, well, we have, uh, freedom. I’d place more value on these books if I could tease out a viable call to action — which I haven’t to date.
It occurred to me, since there was some discussion of bookshelves — meaning most of, if not all of us, are book “consumers” — that there was no mention of one of the most valuable community resources found in most Western communities — the library. Why do we saddle our selves with these bulky weighty objects that have little monetary value? Particularly in a mobile society. Books are a burden when we exercise that mobility.
It occurs to me that we have the material here to create a great mind-map from all the points brought up in this discussion, from the abstract overall theories that contextualize the analyses to great practical suggestions for how to actually do it (live cheap(ly), that is) at the ground level. Mind-maps, while not the solution to everything, can be a great tool for thinking about and remembering wide-ranging discussions.
This whole discussion got me pretty wound up thinking about crappy bookshelves, the price of eBooks, well-crafted objects, and the future of publishing. How do you make books worth the price (keeping writers fed) while still accepting the inevitable, that books are now completely free to copy and distribute?
I may be way too late to get in on the conversation, but I have finally finished the book, and in the process learned just how much longer it takes me to read non-fiction!
For me personally, the book was quite eye opening. While I could certainly recognize some ridiculous consumer behavior in my life, and there have been times when I’ve had to talk myself out of poor choices because they seem like a good deal when they really aren’t, I’m not sure I ever put it all together as a national sickness with such a long history!
So all of the psychological elements about fairness and getting a good deal and the detailed history of discount stores was helpful in giving me an overall picture of the situation. I think there are probably a lot of people like me, who have some vague ideas that all of this isn’t good, but don’t nkow the complete story or rather, enough of the story to begin to understand why it isn’t good and how it’s affecting our nation and our personal lives.
In regards to what can be done, this is perhaps the most difficult aspect. So now I’ve read this book, and I can understand how the products I buy aren’t necessarily good quality or a good deal and the food I eat has serious issues. But what can I do? Maybe for a while, I’ll be hyper-aware of everything. But can I really pull out of this seeming addiction? After all, a good portion of the book seems devoted to explaining just how it is an addiction. I think it would require a series of ongoing hard choices and the surrender of choice in fact.
Finally, about books, I have often considered how Amazon (the devil to many of you!) made book ownership possible. I never bought brand new books before I bought them on Amazon. Feeling like I wasn’t paying full price certainly led me to buy more. So it always confused me when people railed against Amazon on behalf of independent bookstores. Amazon didn’t steal my business. They just created some for itself. And yet truthfully, here I sit with so many books surrounding me, many of them unread, and realize that owning books, especially the number that I do, isn’t something that I need. Maybe this is something that is actually bad…for the environment, for the economy, and for publishing. Giving up book ownership is not something I want to do. It would be a “hard choice” and it’s honestly not one I’m willing to make at the moment.
I do think it’s interesting in relation to digital books, how high the demand for “cheap” and “now” is! Especially considering the response to Sourcebooks’s decision to delay the eBook edition of a popular forthcoming title due to the low price of Amazon’s eBooks. There definitely seemed to be a mentality: “We deserve this the way we want it and at the price we want it when we want it.” After reading Cheap, I do have to wonder what the real future of books will be.
And hey, thanks for letting me share a few thoughts so late in the game.
I am humbled and honored to have such a thoughtful panel with which to discuss Cheap‘s vagaries. Thanks to Ed for inviting me. I’ll do my best to keep up with you all.
Allow me to open by clarifying a few points, beginning with Ed’s Boar’s Head meat sandwich example. Ed lives in a sort of village, where he regularly patronizes merchants whose merchandize he knows and values. So when the new deli in town undercuts competitors by a quarter, Ed can make an honest decision—and all things being equal, he is perfectly within his rights to decide on the less expensive lunch. However, were Ed to find out that one merchant was using not Boar’s Head but advertising Boar’s Head and using some inferior no-name brand, or that said merchant was abusing his employees or pouring toxic chemicals into the street each morning, there’s a good chance Ed would be willing to pay—would indeed want to pay—the extra 25 cents to avoid patronizing that merchant. My point of course is that in the era of Cheap, we are not really in our home neighborhood. Rather, we are tourists in a strange land—often we don’t know where our purchases are made or who made them or with what. So price becomes the one “objective” determinant of value—and low price trumps almost every time. But as I hope that I make clear, price is not objective. It is highly subjective, and prompts a strong emotional response. (Speaking of Amazon, which many of you do speak of, recall how pissed off customers became when they learned that Amazon was charging some of us more than others for the same book! Huge emotions were raised by this—mostly anger– yet far less anger is evoked when we pay a discount price for very bad books.)
Another point — I went to great lengths to avoid the inevitable charge of elitism. It is for this reason that I went to IKEA (which, by the way, took me a full year to get into-it is a very private company.) As you all note, I also take on Whole Foods. I hope I’ve built to an argument that the 100+ year old concept of Frugalism is a reasonable antidote to Cheap — when I quote near the end from the 1907 work of Simon Nelson Pattern of the Wharton School of Business:
The typical capitalists are lovers of power rather than sensual indulgence, but they have the same tendency to crush and to take tribute that the cruder types of sensualism possess. The discipline of the capitalist is the same as that of the frugalist. He differs from the latter in that he has no regard for the objects through which productive power is acquired. HE does not hesitate to exploit natural resources, lands, dumb animals and even his fellowman. Capital to such a man is an abstract fund, made up of perishable elements which are quickly replaced… The frugalist…stands in marked contrast to the attitude of the capitalist. The frugalist takes a vital interest in his tools, in his land, and in the goods he produces. He has a definite attachment to each. He dislikes to see an old coat wear out, an old wagon break down, or an old horse go lame. He always thinks of concrete things, wants them and nothing else. He desires not land, but a given farm, not horses or cattle and machines, but particular breeds and implements; not shelter, but a home…. He rejects as unworthy what is below standard and despises as luxurious what is above or outside of it. Dominated by activities, he thinks of capital as a means to an end.
This is very far from elitist. I’m trying to show through gradual, level headed, heavily researched and cited evidence that “cheap” undermines us by lulling us into believing that our world and our lives are better thanks to cheap goods—when reality shows that the spiraling down of prices has led to a new norm in which the “China Price” becomes the price to beat. We cannot beat the China price, we cannot even approach it and survive as a democratic nation with a functional middle class. I support this view with evidence from history, psychology, economics — and lighten it a bit with personal experience that led me to ask and seek answers for questions raised by my own self defeating behavior as a bargain maven.
As for Janet Maslin’s review — it is everything that my book is not. Maslin begins by suggesting that I am not to be trusted because I describe the same experiment differently than did another author, Chris Anderson. But had Maslin done her homework — or had she truly read my book — she would have known that the experiment I describe is not the one described by Anderson. These are two completely different experiments. (You, dear readers, should have been tipped off by her Dan/Daniel beef — are you friggin’ kidding me?) Also, I’m afraid that at least one of you seemed to have read Maslin’s review more carefully than you read my book. I have never in my life stepped foot in a Red Lobster. The scene that Maslin scares up and bungles was a birthday dinner I enjoyed with friends at a funky little place that I do not name. During that dinner, I asked the wait person where the restaurant sourced their shrimp, and she smirked — telling me that, like most restaurants, the shrimp there was imported from Thailand. I had just learned where and how Thai shrimp is “farmed” — and could not stomach the idea of eating it. But as I say, my friends ordered it — and loved it — and I’m trying to show how difficult it is to know — to truly know — what goes into what we buy. I was attempting a bit of irony here…but perhaps it fell flat?
Finally, I’m sorry, but the charges of “We already know this” ring hollow to me. Yes, you may have had some strong ideas that cheap goods were problematic — but did you know how the invention of the shipping container, the bar code, and the price tag made “cheap” possible? Did you know the history of the shopping cart? Or how and why it snuck into discount stores? Or that its very presence makes us buy on average, one more thing per trip to Target? Did you know how very little we spend on consumer goods, and how the percentage of income we spend on fixed costs has skyrocketed in recent years — making said cheap goods all the more seductive? Did you know that low price per se had become a lens through which so many of us make our buying decisions? Or understand the high/low problem of cheap goods making quality goods so much more expensive? Did you know Gresham’s Law of bad money pushing out good — of Americans no longer being able to determine the quality of what we buy — and therefore spending too much on low cost goods, thinking we’re getting a “good deal?” Did you know that we spend 80 percent more in outlet malls than in regional malls, that IKEA designs to price and does whatever it takes to get to that price, and that the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai lobbied against workers rights in China? Did you really know how low price works to trigger the hedonic response in the brain? Did you know, for example, what agricultural economist Michael Morris said in the book — that no matter how the “slow food” movement romanticizes the abstract notion of “the good peasant,” the planet cannot survive without agribusiness? Yet at the same time, we need more small farms. We need both small farms and huge farms to survive. On a planet that is on its way to 9 billion souls, the idea that we can all sing campfire songs and survive on locally farmed food is a pipe dream. On page 171, I make a very clear argument about how low food prices in the West led to the food crises of 2007 and 2008 that starved millions around the world. Can you honestly say you all knew that?
Come on, we all knew that fast food wasn’t good for us, and we’d read of the horrors of the slaughter houses before. But Fast Food Nation galvanized millions around the world — especially the young. We know that local food is better food, and we have heard for decades about the dangers of agribusiness (see Mark Kramer’s excellent Three Farms, for example, published many years ago). But Michael Pollan’s message nonetheless resonates — and is no less important than it would have been had it been entirely new. The goal of this type of book is to illuminate what’s right in front of our face — to get into the guts of the thing, to analyze it and explicate it.
Like most journalists worth their nickel (and I do mean nickel), I believe that knowledge is power. If it weren’t power, vested interests wouldn’t work so hard to keep it from us and wouldn’t strive to hide the provenance of their products, for example, or work so hard to make it difficult for us to determine how they arrive at their prices. I wrote Cheap to empower consumers — which is to say everyone — with deep understanding of the history, politics, economics and psychology of low price — and what it means to us as individuals and to society at large. I offer an alternative strategy — the frugalist concept backed up with a few examples — and stand by it. I urge readers to vote both in the voting booth, and with their pocketbooks — and give some idea how these ideas have changed my life for the better.
I’m going to attempt to address as many of these interesting points as I can, even as we await Levi’s answer with book before him and take up Miracle Jones’s sensible advice on how to live cheap.
Early into the discussion, Peggy mentioned that she thought Ruppel Shell hadn’t entirely considered the idea of community-based commerce. I’d like to go further and suggest that the fault doesn’t entirely lie with Ruppel Shell, but with Nicholas Kristof’s blunt sentiment (quoted in the book) that “anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops.” For anyone who’s curious, and to partially answer Whet’s question, Kristof’s entire piece can be read here.
In her endnote, Ruppel Shell points out that Kristof’s been pro-sweatshops since the late 1990s, co-authoring articles titled “Two Cheers for Sweatshops: They’re dirty and dangerous. They’re also a major reason Asia is back on track.” (Rather interesting, this attention-seeking and extremely callous subhead appears to have been expunged from the New York Times’s archive. But it’s also worth observing that Ruppel Shell is careful to call Kristof “a generally insightful and sensitive reporter.”)
The workers who toil for long and dangerous hours in such hidden economies are very much on my mind, for I am presently doing my best to work my way through William T. Vollmann’s massive Imperial. It isn’t just a matter of time always being reframed as a monetary value. It’s the way in which we defend our lifestyles, whether it’s assuming that a book attempting to plunge deeper into an important issue is “telling us what we already know.” And it’s evident in the way Kristof writes such pat summations as:
This is not to praise sweatshops. Some managers are brutal in the way they house workers in firetraps, expose children to dangerous chemicals, deny bathroom breaks, demand sexual favors, force people to work double shifts or dismiss anyone who tries to organize a union. Agitation for improved safety conditions can be helpful, just as it was in 19th-century Europe. But Asian workers would be aghast at the idea of American consumers boycotting certain toys or clothing in protest. The simplest way to help the poorest Asians would be to buy more from sweatshops, not less.
Our enviable lifestyles would appear to trump any and all inquiry into those who toil to sustain it. We think that, if we mention a sweatshop, we can purport to comprehend what it is like to toil and suffer in that sweatshop. But how are we any better than Kristof in our assumptions? To what degree does contributing to the labyrinthine network of cheap cut-rate goods produced in exploitative situations actually help the Third World? Should we be concerned with our Faustian bargain? And did Ruppel Shell, as Peggy has suggested, not adequately represent these many labor categories by degree? No, the Walmart worker can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods. But then the sweatshop worker can’t afford to shop at Walmart. Does consumer confidence help the worker who is below us? Or is this all part of the same Shell game?
Which brings us to the issue of necessity, both real and fabricated, initially raised by Colleen and expanded upon by several others. Like Miracle Jones, I too admire Ruppel Shell’s personal honesty. And I think that understanding and vocalizing the ways in which we spend money are just as important in understanding the bigger economic picture. If such an approach amounts to “telling us what we already know,” then I would say this: If I asked each of you to publicly report the annual income that you entered into your 1040, then chances are you wouldn’t do it. That would be an invasion of your privacy. If I asked each of you to tell me precisely how you spent your money over the last week, complete with an itemization of costs and expenses for each day, chances are that you probably haven’t kept track. And yet, thanks to those dependable Gruen transfers, we’re happy to cling to a remarkably shifting sense of the deep discount deals we’re getting. To the point where Amazon consumers have been tagging eBooks with $9.99 tags because that’s the price they now want to pay. Never mind that, as Publishers Weekly reported back in May, Amazon actually loses money at that price point. Does Amazon get a fair pass, as Miracle Jones suggests? Yes and no, I think. One could make a similar case for Starbucks. On one hand, I wish that Ruppel Shell had delved into Amazon’s parasitic stranglehold on the industry. But at the possible risk of comparative oversimplification, I think it could be argued that IKEA’s ubiquity falls into more or less the same rub. As documented by Ruppel Shell, like Amazon, IKEA spends a tremendous amount of time framing the message, whether in the form of a twee Spike Jonze commercial or a slick and colorful catalog. More questions to the group: Should we look at discount culture on a case-by-case basis? Or is this all monolithic? (Yes, Amazon is online and caters to convenience. IKEA, on the other hand, is a big box store. Should it matter whether we physically or virtually participate in these Gruen transfers? The labor is still unseen, whether it’s Amazon workers being exploited, as the London Times reported back in December, or IKEA’s illegal cutting.)
To address Erin’s track suit dilemma, after thinking about this a bit, I’m inclined to agree — particularly in light of Our Man in Boston’s provocative remarks about elites and elitism. But I’m wondering if Ruppel Shell’s stereotypical descriptions are somewhat defensible, because outlet stores, discount stores, and shopping malls are, by way of their respective designs, spaces that prey upon our cognitive abilities to process numerous aesthetics. I don’t want to let Ruppel Shell off the hook on this point — and certainly Janet Maslin didn’t by suggesting that Ruppel Shell needed to “bring a professor of marketing to a Nevada outlet mall to tell her that bargains are phony,” although I think this anti-intellectual assessment isn’t entirely fair to what Ruppel Shell dug up. Much as casinos are specifically designed to keep us gambling (no clocks, no windows, lots of lights, free drinks), I’m wondering if outlet stores might be working in a similar way. Consider this 1998 article from Retail Traffic, which outlines very specific design decisions to convince the customer that she’s getting a good deal. It’s quite possible that this may be just as vital, if not more so, as brand name manipulation. And so I ask some of the pessimists in the peanut gallery this: If the book “tells us what we already know,” then just how aware are you of a store’s aesthetics when you go shopping? Bargain hunting may very well be a harmless American pastime for some, but if we’re more concerned with price and acquisition (instead of say the human souls who work at the store or the way the store is designed), then it would seem to suggest that we don’t know as much as we think.
Good Christ, I’ve been a wordy bastard. And I’ve only just begun to address all the interesting thoughts on the table. So I think I’ll stop for now, see what others have to say about all this, and return later, possibly after Levi has offered his informed answer to Colleen’s question (which I certainly look forward to hearing!).
I did want to point out one thing about bargain hunting. A lot of people bargain hunt at garage sales and thrift stores (I have seen some amazing things scored this way), which is another deal altogether and not at all related to bargain hunting at IKEA or Walmart. There can, in fact, be different types of bargain hunters and I don’t think they should all be grouped together in one large mass.
There’s one other interesting idea to think about as we consider poor in this country: how you live poor depends on where you live. Miracle’s rules would certainly not work in Alaska where poor folks eat King Crab and catch wild salmon, shrimp etc. — food that would be considered beyond the reach of the poor and/or middle class in the Lower 48.
And many middle class and rich folks love their pit bulls too. I’m just saying.
The relentless (some might use the banal modifier “24/7”) chimes of commerce create such a shitstream of noise that whatever we think we know is disabled in the face of the symphonic chord (think Mahler’s 10th): BUY THIS, BUY NOW.
Some of you all sound like you think you are immune. Good for you. I’m not. Not that I am siting on a pile of junk. But I am sitting on a pile. Did I mention the hoodies, the socks, and the caps?
The only antidote I have found effective is exhibited here:
Also, for those of you unaware of John Crowley, his new opus Four Freedoms should, if there is a modicum of reward for good works in this disinterested universe, gain him a proper audience.
(1) “Sex, conversation, art, and games are what actually make people happy.”
“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.”
Miracle, I see that you are a genius like me. Remind me to send you my zucchini soup recipe. And as a side note: DO NOT purchase inexpensive marital aids. Just trust me on this one. Contact me off-list for more specific information.
A related Erinism: Buy your plates for $0.50 a piece at a garage sale. You’ll never have a matching set, but, once in a while, you may be able to afford to plop lobsters on them.
(2) Ed, regarding casinos, the poker chips are a trick as well. Your money has been subtly taken from you from the get go and you’re left with piles of inane plastic disks that go up and down with each spin of the wheel. To me, credit cards are a not-too-distant relative: a thin piece of plastic that magically gets you stuff, stuff stuff!
(3) Her Amazon comments aside, Ruppell Shell didn’t poke very hard at the implication of the Internet price comparison and the way it’s changed price shopping forever.
(4) On bookshelves:
So I’m on one of my endless walks and I pass some guy’s garbage pile. There’s two bookshelves in it.
“Shit,” I say, because they’re pretty good books shelves.
I keep walking, hoping that the bookshelves will be there after I’ve walked the 2.5 miles back home and returned with my Mini Cooper in order to heist the cast-off loot. As luck would have it, a buddy of mine is drives by and pulls up next to me to say hello. He’s in his pickup.
So, yeah, I have cheap bookshelves.
IKEA? I’ve never been to IKEA. Why would I drive all the way to Pittsburgh to go to someplace called IKEA?
I’ve now carefully reread the IKEA chapter, and I’m ready to respond to Colleen’s question from last week.
First, I think Janet Maslin scooped my answer when she wrote this in her mostly negative review of Cheap:
At the end of a chapter largely devoted to the horrors of Asian shrimp farming, she describes being in a Red Lobster restaurant with friends and being enlightened enough to eschew cheap shrimp in favor of chicken. Yet cheap chicken-farming isn’t any less ghastly. It just doesn’t happen to be addressed by this book.
I consider myself a very socially aware person. And I definitely think it’s important for me to make personal choices that are not harmful to others, or to the planet’s ecosystems. Of course, this is easier said than done. We each have our own ways of dealing with this uncomfortable truth. My own brand of social awareness places heavy emphasis on issues of global politics, war, and genocide. These are probably my own “pet topics,” and I think it’s interesting that the last time Colleen and I disagreed about a book, we were discussing Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. I felt Baker’s book presented a very powerful argument that the Roosevelt-Churchill strategy in World War II led to far greater death, destruction, and genocide than was required to defeat Hitler, while Colleen (I hope that I am remembering correctly) did not feel the book presented a solid argument.
I also vividly remember one of the biggest disagreements I’ve ever had with Ed Champion. I thought Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine presented a solid and important argument about the insidious underlying purpose of the American misadventure in Iraq, whereas Ed had nothing but criticism for Klein’s work. So it’s funny that now Ed and Colleen seem to be bowled over by the arguments in Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap, while I stand here saying, “What?”.
I don’t think Cheap is a bad book, and I like Ruppel Shell’s basic mission in making us aware of the choices we make when we shop. But her case against IKEA, like many of the cases presented here, feels underdeveloped. She writes of declining forests and environmental sustainability problems, but this is a problem for all woodworking industries. She ends the chapter by swooning over a heavy (non-IKEA) oak bookshelf, but this bookshelf was also made by cutting down a tree. And even though it will last longer, Ruppel Shell knows there are not enough antique bookshelves around to furnish the world. Sure, if IKEA is committing environmental offenses, then these ought to be addressed and stopped. But Ruppel Shell only hints (and never establishes) that these offenses take place more at IKEA than at any smaller furniture provider. She also shows us that IKEA does try to be environmentally conscious, that they “use every part of the tree”, monitor their suppliers, etc. I see innuendo weaved into these sentences. But I find no clear case, no smoking gun. And Cheap is not a book about the environment or about the problems of an overpopulated world. So the environmental points especially come off as half-baked and incomplete to me.
What I was trying to point out in my earlier post here is that IKEA has an appeal beyond dumb cheapness. It is a positive lifestyle choice for people like me — mobile adults who like to travel light. If IKEA has problems — environmental problems, labor problems, quality problems — than these problems should be addressed and solved. But nothing I read here seems to add up to a call for a wholesale rejection of everything IKEA represents. I could take Robert Birnbaum’s suggestion and build bookshelves out of spare planks and bricks — but, Robert, have you ever seen photographs from the Chinese and South Indian infernos where bricks are produced? It’s not a pretty picture.
Finally, I have to complain about some shoddy work on Ruppel Shell’s part in this IKEA chapter. On pages 126 and 127 she goes on at some length about the Spike Jonze commercial that reminds consumers that furniture has no feelings, and then points to the irony that IKEA tries to create an emotional attraction to furniture by giving its pieces pet names. Then, on page 140, she repeats the exact same point, as if we’d never heard it before. “Doesn’t a name connote intimacy? Of course it does, and IKEA knows well the power of intimacy to move us.” It’s hardly such a powerful point that she needs to fully develop it twice in two separate parts of the book.
Often, when I read Cheap I felt as if I was being filibustered. Going on about the trivial issue of IKEA giving cute names to its objects, Ruppel Shell specifically mocks the store for “naming a wok after a girl”. But, reading the notes for the chapter, I discover that the wok in question is called “Pyra”. Clearly, this wok is named after the Greek term for fire, as every consumer who sees a wok named “Pyra” will understand. Ruppel Shell couldn’t find a better example than this? I don’t understand why she didn’t at least pick a better example (say, a bookshelf named “Billy”). It’s ironic that a polemic against “cheap” should have such problems with quality control.
I also feel personally put off after reading and rereading Ruppel Shell’s lush paean to the sturdy oak bookshelf “groaning with books” that her friend bought after rejecting the IKEA lifestyle. My cheap bookshelves “groan with books” too. Ruppel Shell’s poor friend will spend the rest of her life lugging that heavy piece of furniture around. This book absolutely fails to inspire me to want to follow her example.
In response to Robert’s point about immunity to the chimes of commerce. It’s impossible to be immune; even if you’re a conscious shopper, sensitive, responsible, the siren song (or “shitstream of noise”) penetrates.
A quick example (and I’m on the side of folks who appreciated Ruppel Shell’s personal anecdotes): There was a Whole Foods located less than a 10 minute walk from my house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I passed by the store on my walk home from work. It was where I bought my food. I knew it was more expensive, but it was a matter of convenience. Time and money. It was worth it to me to spend the extra bucks to save myself some out-of-the-way trip to a cheaper spot. About three months ago, I moved to Somerville, and the closest supermarket is an expansive, always-crowded Market Basket. It’s got all the same brands as Whole Foods. My first time inside the store, buying the same combo of foods, and more or less the same brands that I would at Whole Foods, I was staggered at how much less it cost. What would’ve been $18 at Whole Foods was a little over $7 at Market Basket. Unbelievable. There is definitely a delight in that. And yet, somewhere in the back of my head, there’s been a gnawing sense that the veggies are saturated with pesticides, that the yogurt is rife with hormones, and that it’s cheaper at Market Basket because the food is poisoned (obviously a little overstated, but you get the idea). And I’ve been sort of wowed about this, in the sense that, holy shit, Whole Foods has done a pretty powerful job marketing themselves. It also speaks to the the complications of price and worth and quality and value that Ruppel Snell explores. Would I rather pay $3.49 for a pint of cherry tomatoes at Whole Foods? Or $2.10 for the same pint at Market Basket? I’d rather pay less, but it does put a doubt — a completely irrational doubt — in my head. Am I getting something that isn’t as good (or, in the case of food, something that isn’t as safe)? Is this doubt borne from the power of Whole Foods’ marketing (and my action buying into it) or the mysteries of price and quality? Or a combo that is hard to know? Whatever it is, it’s certainly interesting to consider.
(1) Maslin actually got that detail wrong. She was never in a Red Lobster restaurant with friends. I’m surprised that not a single fact checker at the supposed Paper of Record got off his ass to grab the book, flip to the “Red Lobster” entry in the index, and confirm that Maslin was indeed quite wrong. (Damn those bloggers sitting in basements in Terre Haute!)
(2) My problems with Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine had more to do with her assumptive approach to the subject — specifically, tying nearly every one of her investigations to the “shock doctrine” brand name after the fact. As Richard Flanagan suggested in his novel, The Unknown Terrorist, journalism is not a sudoku puzzle. It was not unlike Gladwell’s “tipping point” or Anderson’s “long tail.” Ruppel Shell’s book, on the other hand, demonstrates substantive journalism, as can be gleaned from the solid and often detailed endnotes. (I mentioned, for example, the fairness she gave to Kristof.) I do have problems, as others have pointed out, with some of Ruppel Shell’s quasi-elitist descriptions. But if we look to the facts, the findings, the quotes, and the data, I believe that there’s much here in this book to consider, whether you think you know where you stand or not. And as Birnbaum said a few messages back, some of you think you are immune. (I’m sure as hell not.)
(3) The many problems with IKEA, and it is all thoroughly documented in the “Death of a Craftsman” chapter (and I would suggest consulting the endnotes), is that it represents one of greatest manifestations of discount culture. IKEA’s founder is Ingvar Kamprad. He is the seventh richest man in the world, but he still haggles with vegetable vendors and he still flies coach. IKEA has single-handedly altered Western ideas of interior design, perhaps to the same degree of Postrelian plaudits rightly derided by Jackson. Let me tell you a story. When I moved from San Francisco to Brooklyn, I had to leave behind all of my bookcases. These bookcases were hand-built by a team of craftsmen in the Castro. A place I highly recommend, if you’re ever in the market for bookcases in San Francisco, called Books and Bookshelves. The guy would custom-design them for you. And these shelves were built like houses. They wouldn’t wobble or fall apart like the IKEA bookcases. I was able to store a considerable amount of books, while ensuring that I had some wall space in my apartment that wasn’tt occupied by books. When I moved cross-country, I was forced to get rid of these shelves. I initially put up a Craig’s List ad for $50 a pop, which was a little less than one-third of the price that I paid for them. Very few people wanted them. And some people emailed me thinking they were IKEA bookcases. They literally hadn’t experienced bookcases built out of real durable wood. When I couldn’t get any buyers for the last few, I gave them away on the street. And again, people came up to me — in a seemingly civilized city like San Francisco, no less — asking where I had obtained these bookcases. They pounded the sturdy wooden sides. And I told people that they could store their DVDs in there if they wanted to.
The upshot is this. These people were mystified by real oak bookcases. Yes, the bookcase was made by cutting down a tree. But the difference is this. These bookcases last decades. An IKEA bookcase, by contrast, falls apart within a few years (at best) and the amount of wood is wasted. Furthermore, the discount culture keeps IKEA running around the world and engaging in illegal and decidedly non-eco friendly cutting practices. You tell me how that’s a positive lifestyle. Would you rather spend $200 on a sturdy bookcase that will hold thick Vollmann books and last a lifetime? Or $90 on a Billy bookcase that will fall apart because its not made to hold anything other than thin mass-market paperbacks (at best)? If your main complaint, Levi, is that Ruppel Shell’s poor friend is going to be lugging around a heavy piece of furniture every couple of years, well, that’s a specious position to take, given all the interim years of sturdy quality. But if you’re happy with your paper-thin particle boards, Levi, by all means, sing a song to IKEA. At the end of the day, we’re all singing hymns to the corporate empire.
A quick question: Are the IKEA shelves actually made of wood or particle board?
By the way, in between Eddie’s elitist custom book shelves (suitable also for CDs) and the IKEA items, are the inexpensive unfinished pine shelves that I’m sure are available in every city in the mainland USA. You can even paint them colorfully so as to distinguish your self as artsy. Or is it craftsy?
“But her case against IKEA, like many of the cases presented here, feels underdeveloped.”
And when you consider that some event references in Cheap happened just a few months ago, it’s obvious that book was turned around at lighting speed. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it as I read it, but Cheap felt dense and rushed at the same time, perhaps because Ruppel Shell is very smart and Penguin wanted her to write very fast. I suspect Penguin didn’t want to wait around too long only to see the recession cool its heels, along with the sales of this book.
I will have to strongly disagree with the voices who argue that books like this are hypocritical luxury items, preaching to the converted readers who have enough disposable income that they can indulge themselves in a little passive system-bashing before bed. I disagree. The work of demystification is lengthy, heterogeneous, and necessary. And it has taken, and will take, many books, many websites, and a significant amount of talking so that we can see clearly what we are dealing with. This work does not take the place of social/economic activism, but doesn’t delay it or prevent it. Demystification runs parallel to activism, and is just as necessary. Empowering people without a clear analysis of exactly where they are in the system only paves the way for greater misery, and perhaps does more harm than good as people become discouraged, decides that the culprit is greater awareness itself.
I have been trying to stay abreast of the economy and our respective places in it, ever since I was a labor activist in the late ’80s. But there are still things I do not know — for example, the historical trajectory of retail commerce, its philosophy, and its pervasiveness — that I learn from books like this one. Cheap doesn’t go as far as some other books, either in reportage (like Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed) or in systemic analysis (like Rushkoff’s Life, Inc.), but it does occupy its role well. My only qualm was the book jacket. That fast-food yellow is repellent. I know it’s about cheap, but does having it look cheap further its aims?
In terms of Kristof’s pro-sweatshop arguments, we heard a lot of those arguments in my union days too. “Well, they’re better off than they were.” Or words to that effect. This was not made to justify a $12 hoodie purchase, but as part of a global labor discussion. Should we be reaching across national borders to organize? (Yes.) And did we? (No.) (I was with the UAW organizing clericals during that time.)
I think that this is a difficult argument to combat within the framework of a growth economy. Companies need to get bigger. Companies need not only profit, but profit that’s greater than the last quarter, and a profit rate that’s continually increasing. Buy more, spend more, acquire more, consolidate more, grow more, more, more. This philosophy of “More” (maybe that’s the next catchy title in this series!) does not align itself well, if at all, with other values — like preserving and maintaining limited resources on the planet — and accommodating, perhaps even promoting, other types of values, such as community, creativity, being loved, and playfulness (with kids or just generally).
I credit the environmental movement with giving this analysis greater scope by demystifying systems on Planet Earth, including global and regional and micro, and showing not only the interconnectedness of natural systems, but the interconnectedness of natural, economic and cultural systems. Without a general framework of sustainability (instead of “More”), I think the way out is not possible. But within sustainability, I think discussions like this can be actively fruitful. Levi, you are right in pointing out that, despite following the IKEA supply chain back to China and Romania, Ruppel Shell does not fully explore or incorporate the environmental angle here, and that she needs to. I think that’s part of her not addressing the larger overarching points, as I’ve mentioned before. Even smaller, more spotlight-style books like Cheap need to set themselves up correctly in relation to the larger themes, indicating where they fall within a larger spectrum of analysis and action.
(Re: my personal experiences with IKEA. I too move around a lot and don’t want some giant antique monster as a bookshelf. But I also dont’ want to support clear-cutting even in places I can’t see. I’m going to have to do some investigating of my own when it comes time to get my stuff out of storage again.)
Ed, you’re correct that Janet Maslin slipped up in describing Ruppel Shell in a Red Lobster when she decided to solve the problems of the world by ordering chicken instead of shrimp. It was a seafood restaurant, not a Red Lobster. BUT … the spirit of Janet Maslin’s point remains completely valid. The only reason Rupell Shell was able to feel comfortable ordering chicken instead of shrimp is because she had been studying the problems with shrimp instead of studying the problems with chicken.
And, Ed, that’s nice that you like heavy furniture so much. I also know that you like heavy hardcover books, and that you don’t mind lugging around heavy video equipment book conferences. Milan Kundera wrote eloquently of the choices we make between “heavy” and “light” lifestyles. I am decidedly a “light” person, and I will indeed continue to sing songs of love to IKEA. We haven’t even talked about the great Swedish meatballs and lingonberry jam yet.
Well, apologies for my strident tone. Ed has a way of managing to time these roundtables to my mood and frame of mind rather ruthlessly. Last time, with the Human Smoke roundtable, I was literally in the process of losing my last family link to the era described in the book with the death of my grandmother. This time, I’m essentially living with my parents off in the hinterlands after finally drowning under the cost of living in San Francisco and figuring I needed to get out of the pool long enough to let some invoiced checks arrive for a breath of fresh financial air. (Good news. It seems I’ll be selling microwaves for General Electric soon, if a tad indirectly. But I digress.)
I think what I was trying to get across is that in a book like this, which attempts to elucidate a history to explain contemporary reality, a teleology is implied. In this case, the implied argument is this: In a society where everything is easily commodified and competition becomes one of quantity over quality, invariably there will be a race to the bottom in terms of both pricing and marginal profits. Environmental and social degradation hijinks ensue.
This is, in Ruppel Shell’s estimation (and many of our estimations), a bad thing. Of course, there was a guy way back in the industrial revolution, a student of capitalism if you will, who also noted the trend. What was his name again? Something German. Got a lot of people worked up. Led to some bloodshed (though, of course, not nearly as efficiently as that wrought by capitalism). Now he’s pretty much persona non grata in the wake of a bunch of nationalist revolutions that ended in autocracy, but cloaked their intent in his ideology.
Hence, like the Kristof example above, there are those who would defend the depredations of a sweatshop because they believe, “Hey, at least it ain’t feudalism!” (And of course, they’re not the ones sweating.) This is a sentiment which, oddly enough, the likes of Lenin, Friedman, Trotsky, and Rand would agree. It’s like the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers getting together on the issue of gun control. Counterintuitive, but true.
The problem is, when an industrial capitalist society bent on growth at all costs essentially runs out of room to grow — as it has now that it is truly global — then what’s next? Well, for starters, it seems that wages stagnate even as productivity grows. Because “sweatshops for all!” really means just that — an equilibrium in which which the working class works for crappy wages to produce cheap shit to sell to the rest of the working class, with the difference accruing to the owners of the means of production.
But in America we still have the luxury of sitting on the fat side of the trade balance, meaning our working class can maintain the delusion that they’re actually middle class because just look at this sweet bedroom set I just bought on my credit card even though I’m underemployed and lack health insurance. A delusion that we’re only too happy to perpetuate, to misquote Dick Cheney as Malcolm X, by any means necessary. Again, Ruppel Shell lays this all out (and succinctly so). I’m just paraphrasing.
In all this aspirational class alienation, however, a petit bourgeois strain of thought persists. And I felt that this impulse formed the crux of Ruppel Shell’s concluding arguments. Namely, that if we return to the somewhat sentimental capitalism of our forefathers (and they were all fathers), we can turn back to a Jeffersonian ideal of libertarian utopia. The argument goes something like this: “Capitalism isn’t bad, per se. Just industrial capitalism. And if it weren’t for the state colluding with certain corporations to corrupt the market, we wouldn’t be in this unsustainable clusterfuck that we’ve now found ourselves in.” Also: Sex slaves.
The funny thing is that my homelessness brought me to the family cabin as very much the prodigal son. I’ve actually found myself in what I imagine to be something near the image of postindustrial capitalist utopia that Ruppel Shell and her peers seem to be pining for — a small scale organic paradise with broadband Internet. A sort of info-agrarian mash-up of self reliance, sustainability, and all the free porn you can stand. For those who’d like to stay in the cities, well, you’ll be making the porn (natch) and selling the advertising in order to pay for the delicious goats and tomatoes that rural types bring to market.
To go back one last time to my original entry, the question that’s bedeviling me (and, to Ruppel Shell’s credit, it would probably not be so damn devilish if I hadn’t read her book and instead was rubbing myself sore with the porn and such) is whether there are enough cabins to go around, or whether this enlightened and entrepreneurial information age that our best and brightest are so eagerly striving for will simply be crushed under the weight of peak oil and slums and drought and war and all the sins of the industrial age which we (and I mean we, us here, and presumably Ruppel Shell’s intended audience) love to hate.
But I think trying to answer that is my book to write, in which case I may milk the middle class for my piece of the pie and buy a garden of my own to tend. And maybe a shotgun to keep the hungry hordes off my garden. The freeloading Commie bastards.
Sadly, 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.
Postrel 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.
But 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.
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.
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.
As 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.
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.
I 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.
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.
HOW TO LIVE CHEAP 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?”
3. 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.
7. 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.”
(This is the first of a five-part roundtable discussion of Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Other installments: Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.)
Since present economic developments have caused nearly all of us to reconsider just how we spend our money, I selected Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap for our latest roundtable discussion. For those readers who aren’t familiar with the roundtable discussions, this website will be devoting the entire week to discussing Ruppel Shell’s book, and we’ll be serializing the conversation in five chunky installments from Monday through Friday. The discussion, as you’ll soon see, got quite spirited at times. But the hidden costs of “cheap,” as it turned out, proved to be quite complicated. Be on the lookout for cameo appearances, some unexpected revelations, and a lengthy podcast interview with the author. And feel free to leave any additional thoughts or personal experiences in the comments. Your communications will help many of us to understand and rethink a very important topic.
“Remember, time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad or sits idle one half of that day, though he spends but six pence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.” — Benjamin Franklin
There’s a bodega that opened up in my neighborhood with a bright and muti-hued awning reading GOURMET DELI. But I’ve examined the goods. The owners are using the same Boar’s Head meat found at nearly every place packing hero sandwiches in the five boroughs. But what this deli has done is undercut the competition. Another deli, situated just one block south, sells a turkey hero for $4.50. About three months ago, this deli had raised its price by a quarter. The regulars still grumble. After all, everything’s going up. Metrocards, milk, beer. But they slide over their four paper George Washingtons and their two copper-nickel George Washingtons. The hero remains a “good deal.”
But the new “gourmet deli” now offers the same sandwich for $4.25. The old price. The cheaper price.
And after reading Ellen Ruppel Shell’s fascinating book, I now find myself acutely curious about whether this “gourmet deli” is making the proprietors any money. I find myself morally compromised when purchasing a hero sandwich. And I’m wondering how many of you have experienced similar feelings. I want to know if every ingredient has been obtained through equitable labor. But unless I spend a good deal of my time asking about wholesalers and suppliers in the neighborhood, I’m probably not going to get even half of the answer.
The great irony with the Ben Franklin quote (which is dredged up in the book when Ruppel Shell mentions Ben & Jerry’s Free Ice Cream Day, which I’ll get to in a minute) is that we’ve become so dependent upon getting the best bang for our buck that all other time-based considerations fall by the wayside. Ruppel Shell brings up the telltale consumer who is willing to drive 75 miles out of their way to an outlet store to buy inferior goods for a cheaper price. She even describes a personal example: a man who drove up 75 miles to check out her car (on sale), noticed a few scratches, and then drove right back home. This is a curious trade-off, running contrary to Franklin’s wisdom. (Then again, we also live in a nation in which our thrifty founding father appears on one of our most expensive dollar bills.)
While Ruppel Shell presents a number of convincing developments that partially explicate this mentality (to name just three, the fixed price introduced with John Wanamaker’s price tags, Victor Gruen’s use of social space to develop the “shopping towns” that are now ubiquitous and that keep shoppers hanging around, and the “affordable luxury” seen with Coach discount leather), I’m wondering if you folks feel that Ruppell Shell is being too hard on the consumer. I mean, we can’t all be mindless sheep, can we? Is it not possible that our trips to outlet malls or our determination to spend endless amounts of time searching for the best deal may not be entirely tied into discount culture? There is such a thing as window shopping. And maybe we want to waste our time finding odd or unusual things. (I will confess that one reason I like to check out some of these dollar stores is to marvel at the shoddy merchandise. I mean, how often do you see bubble gum from 1972 that’s still on the market? Very rarely do I buy anything.)
Before we plunge into Ruppel Shell’s IKEA Billy Bookcase example, which to my mind (and sadly my personal experience), truly reflects a pernicious reliance upon discount culture over quality, I want to first establish whether Ruppel Shell may be inadvertently suggesting that “bargain hunting” might be the new way of wasting time. Does discount culture and consumerism maintain such a hold on American culture that this is now how we spend most of our leisure hours? Should we pin the blame on corporations such as Wal-Mart for injecting capital into small towns and suburbs and establishing a town center? Preexisting local economies may not have been able to do this. Then again, how much of this is illusory? (Ruppel Shell cites a fascinating study from Emek Basker. Basker investigates the so-called “Wal-Mart effect” of prices lowering throughout community stores whenever a Wal-Mart moves into a community. His findings suggest that not all prices fall. Are there other “effects” beyond pricing that create such conditions? And should we blame Wal-Mart or the people who want a Wal-Mart?)
Citing Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage is always a good idea to explore in a book of this type – seeing as how free market advocates often dust off this 200-year-old idea and cling to its possibilities like an AIG executive braying for another government bailout. But I’m wondering if comparative advantage is a viable application when we’re talking about consumers who want more than what a local economy might be able to give to them.
I’m also wondering if it’s fair to chide customers for standing in line for Ben & Jerry’s Free Ice Cream Day. Sure, the flavor options are limited. But it’s not as if you’re lining up for melted vanilla ice milk. And, yes, you can always go to another Ben & Jerry’s, slap down three bucks, and get an ice cream immediately. But are people lining up because bargain hunting and consumerism have replaced less conspicuous ways of frittering away our time? Is it the consumer or the corporation who is guilty of letting discount culture and bargain hunting dominate our culture like this? Have we lost the ability to let time simply be time? Why most every action have a monetary value? (That last question may involve bringing up Chris Anderson’s book, which I’ll let the others bring up, for obvious reasons.)
That may be a lot to throw into the fray, but I think I’ll close this opening sally by returning back to my neighborhood. In the past nine months, my neighborhood has seen numerous mom-and-pop stores close their doors due to the economic downturn and the unsustainable rents. In fact, last summer, a bodega was forced to close its doors. It seemed highly successful. It was the place where everybody went, largely because it had more space than the other bodegas and the prices were cheaper. But as it turned out, the owner couldn’t pay the rent on the place for three months and was forcibly evicted. What does it say about our reliance on discount culture when a man will enter into default because the customer is always right, even when he insists on an unsustainable price in an unsustainable economy?
The recent spate of social science books doting on and then purporting to explain our irrationality in all manner of behaviors (especially consuming) is somewhat interesting and amusing (Gladwell excepted). The examples and case studies range from compelling anecdotes to something less. But if the intention was to blind us with science — well, no dice.
This will no doubt be viewed as simplistic. But given the preexisting gap between various regions of our cognitive faculties, the incessant message droning in the back and foregrounds of our lives to consume, to acquire, to converse about our acquisitions, write about them, devote publications and books to them and, to top it off, to be told in the midst of a national crisis that it was patriotic to shop, this very much guarantees senseless consumption behavior.
As far as I have read, I suppose the history of retailing does provides revelations but the conclusion I am heading toward is that, when retailing moved to large and then gigantic organizations, shopping became an adversarial contest in which consumers were bound to lose.
Some initial thoughts, building on what Ed and Robert have begun.
I think Ruppel Shell is trying to get at more than wasting time. I think she’s posing the stronger argument that bargain hunting blinds us to the hidden costs of bargains because of the psychological thrill (at the individual level) of getting more than what you paid for — in some sense. She’s making a two-pronged attack on the structure of discount economy and culture — that the consumers have their part of the bargain to uphold (or dismantle) as much as the corporations and the government have their part to be forced into acknowledging and changing — at the behest of the consumers, qua citizens.
I just finished Douglas Rushkoff’s Life Inc., which speaks to many of these points as well. “Big” has a market advantage in our economy; it’s not a level playing field. Big corporations have easier access to money. The corporations can get bigger loans, at lower rates, than the little guys. They can also afford big-time lobbyists, and there are any number of instances where lobbyists go back and forth between their lobbying jobs and the industries they were lobbying for. Government is, in many crucial ways, out of our hands at this point. But what remains very much in our hands is our own buying habits.
I am normally not a fan of the “pick up your own litter” school of thought. It’s not that I think that picking up your own litter is bad. I think it deflects attention and analysis from the larger and more systemic causes of trash. But in this case, I think Ruppel Shell does a good job tallying the problems on both sides of this tricky equation. There is something that the individual needs to do here.
I know that, if you make very little money as a cashier at Wal-Mart, you’re not going to be able to shop at Whole Foods. But that’s exactly part of the problem too and part of the hidden costs Ruppel Shell brings to light: discount pay scales, on both the supplier and the retail ends, are a huge cost that is not reflected in the item’s price. It’s all connected. Decent-paying, somewhat-meaningful labor, with local, community-based commerce, is more affordable than the behemoth we have now.
I think Ruppel Shell’s a little weak on this final point. She does mention it, but I think it needed a little more ink. My main qualm with this book was its overreliance on very similar studies by all these B school profs. They are not the B-all and end-all! Had she not felt the need to underline every claim with a study as a sort of preemptive strike, Ruppel Shell would have had more pages to draw out the final links in the chain a little more strongly.
Also, Ed, I think you’re making a really important point about time, and how it need not/should not always be reduced to money. There is a tendency to focus on homo economics when talking about the economy, that comes from both the right and left, that we need to guard against. You’re right to point out that we’re more than just consumers, that our habits, even in the marketplace, are about more than the bottom line. We’re more than the money!
The one thing I thought Ruppel Shell conveyed quite effectively is that “bargain” no longer equates to quality in our culture. She used the IKEA example well here when she noted that we buy the cheap shelves, knowing that these shelves won’t last more than a few years. But because these shelves are cheap, we think that’s fine. So it’s as if we’ve forgotten (in a cultural sense) what the word “bargain” truly means. It’s not just about the price; it’s about getting a good deal, if you spend money on something that won’t do the job for long. But are you really getting a good deal?
Personally, I grew up on cheap culture out of necessity. My parents just didn’t have much money and we lived paycheck to paycheck. We couldn’t see the big picture because we couldn’t afford it. Period. But what’s interesting is that, as my parents grew older and could afford to invest in things that would last, neither was able to change their thinking. My mother still struggles to spend more than $15 on a shirt even when she knows that it will likely stretch, fade, etc. She just has certain price points in her head and she just can’t let them go.
Overall, I thought Cheap was fascinating. The book provides readers with much food for thought.
Here are some preliminary preoccupations I had while reading this book:
1. The startling and unironic revelation that Ruppel Shell would rather eat horses than go without meat (taken from the “Note to Readers”). I admire her honesty, and it’s a brave assertion to make, considering the potential market for this book.
2. The startling free pass that Amazon receives from Ruppel Shell, despite Amazon being a corporation currently profiting from the economic collapse like no other and raking in ludicrous profits that look a good deal like blood to me. She mentions Amazon once when she talks about unfair pricing models, and, once again later, when she refers back to that passage. Evidently, Amazon got caught charging the old customers more than the new ones. Jjust like a drug dealer. Why wasn’t there any further analysis of this pricing impact? Ruppel Shell knows for a fact that her audience consumes the commodity of books. Doesn’t Penguin have some “most favored nation” status with Amazon? Questions abound.
3. “A similar scenario is played out by urban street vendors today who claim that the Rolex and Cartier watches lining their jackets are not counterfeits but somehow ‘fell off a truck’ on their way to Neiman Marcus.” I have not seen this “scenario” since cartoons from the 1950s. Lining their jackets? Are they also wearing Hamburglar masks?
4. I wanted to read an entire chapter about what Daniel Ariely discovered when he had male college kids masturbate and then asked them sexually charged questions to determine the exact point when their “reason” disappeared and they could no longer be convinced to wear a condom. What questions did he ask? Were the college students paid after they came? Can I do this experiment? Or do I need a degree?
5. “A psychological state known as the ‘Gruen transfer’ has come to signify when a ‘destination buyer’ shopping for a specific purchase loses focus and starts wandering in a sort of daze, aimless and vulnerable to the siren call of come-ons of every sort.” I suspect that most of America lives in a perpetual “Gruen transfer.”
6. “Two feedlots outside Greeley, Colorado, together produce more excrement than the cities of Atlanta, Boston, Denver, and St. Louis combined. Trucking the stuff off is impractical. One alternative popular among big companies is to spray liquefied manure into the air and let it fall where it may, coating trees and anything else that happens to be in its path.” What?!?
I agree with much of what Miracle said. There are no less than 21 pages in my copy of Cheap that I’ve flagged.
If anything, I thought Ruppel Shell was too soft on the consumer. The book is a dense brew of numbers and statistics, but it mostly served to prove what I already knew: that the American dream has rotted to its core. I suppose this could be globally extrapolated, but I’ll keep my comments in my own backyard.
The idea that parents worked hard because they wanted better for their children maxed out years ago, perhaps in the ’70s. Somewhere along the way, the definition of high quality life became “More More More.” We have so much stuff that our stuff has stuff. We can’t get to the stuff we need because the stuff we don’t need is in the way. We rack our brains trying to think of gifts for our loved ones because they already have everything they want or need.
People who amass the most junk are the ones filling emotional and intellectual voids. That’s always been the case. The happier and more balanced people are, the less likely they are to rely on mountains of things. And if the American Dream is reduced to “More More More” stuff, the less money you have, the harder you’ll try to get as much of the stuff as you can for it (read: The Dollar Store). And as far as the junkiness of the junk is concerned, the cliché “you get what you pay for” got old and tired for a reason.
Sure, everybody wants to do right by their dollars. But how do you really tell if someone’s cheap? Watch how they tip the waiter.
I wanted more on cheap culture’s implications from this book, more on how a two-by-four has shrunken over the years and how drywall has become thinner and thinner. Not surprisingly, the most successful parts of Cheap for me were the ones that detailed the true cost of “cheap,” wherein we visit the shrimp farms and consider the implications of China’s labor practices.
This book represents a stunning amount of work, but I must say that I thought the “slot jockeys in track suits and sneakers” on page 88 was just plain mean. Why does Ruppel Shell include this description? This sort of commentary is particularly off-putting when just a few pages later, Ruppel Shell fawns over Prof. Naylor in her “Diane Van Furstenberg-style wrap dress accented with a stunning Plino Visona handbag.” That was the sort of thing that elicited flags from me. Unfortunately, it also eroded the book’s credibility.
The other day, I saw a woman with four small children foraging through a Goodwill drop box. She was pulling out clothes and putting them on the kids, who soon all had on multiple shirts and sweaters in the summer heat. Welcome to the cheapest shopping spree of them all. But I got the distinct feeling that this woman was no bargain hunter. This was a woman doing what she had to do. Although I understand and appreciate all the studies and arguments in Cheap, I wonder how much that woman would care about any of them. Who would tell her not to shop at The Dollar Store in order to delight those kids with a silly little toy?
There are lots and lots of people on this earth. Whether they’re clothed in “track suits,” Goodwill cast-offs, or they’re toting Plino Visona handbags, they all want food and shelter, which presents us with immense and complex problems. We won’t find the answers within the inviting aisles of a Wegmans.
“She even describes a personal example: a man who drove up 75 miles to check out her car (on sale), noticed a few scratches, and then drove right back home.”
That was from one of Ed’s comments.
I found Ruppel Shell’s anecdotes weak, such as that story about selling her used car. How extensively did she interview this fellow? Is there any guarantee that he didn’t have additional business in that area? A man comes and looks at her used car. Maybe he was lying about why he declined to purchase it. None of it really matters. But when I see a writer putting forth a serious nonfiction effort, and including this type of chatty personal anecdote, it’s dodgy to say the least. At worst, it can make a reader feel manipulated. All that story told us was what one guy had to say about one used Honda. To extrapolate it as commentary on how and why people spend their money is a fool’s game.
Here is another detail I flagged: On page 133, Ruppel Shell describes an IKEA table. “It looked just the right size to host a child’s tea party.” Why didn’t she go online and find the exact dimensions and let me judge the size of the table for myself? I’m a big girl. I can decide if a piece of furniture is appropriately sized or not. I realize this is a tiny quibble, but the text is inundated with these types of brush strokes. Every one risks making me feel manipulated, which in turn dulls the sharper points in the book.
As far as your hero sandwich is concerned, Ed, I did feel morally dirty about the frozen shrimp in my freezer after reading Ruppel Shell’s description of the shrimp farms, which is why I found that section so successful. But even here, Ruppel Shell recalls a time when shrimp was a wild and expensive delicacy. There’ a bit of wistful nostalgia in her description. But as she says herself, the good old days weren’t always so good and now wild fish populations are in grave danger al over the globe. Here’s one story to that end by Johann Hari for the Independent:
The harder society cracks down on irresponsible farming, the greater the pressure on wild oceanic populations. Once again, there’s no easy answer.
Throughout all of this, I feel privileged to discuss and read about these issues. People who are cold and hungry couldn’t care less about whether or not a warm plate of food was ethically produced. If all you have is one dollar and a loaf of bread is $1.73 at the discount grocer, it ceases to be cheap. That’s the most mandatory and difficult part of this entire topic, the subjectivity of it.
I have much to say on Cheap and will do so soon. But I wanted to counter Erin’s point about the potential for manipulation when personal anecdotes are included in serious nonfiction. Part of that is publisher-driven; they want the serious medicine washed down with some degree of contextual personalization, if not entertainment. It’s not enough to be treated to the facts, backed up scrupulously (and Ruppel Shell impressed the hell out of me with her endnotes, in large part because this type of research is too often left on the cutting room floor — I’m thinking of the unclear endnotes in David Michaelis’s Schulz and Peanuts, which was a very good biography that could have been stellar with clear and comprehensible references!); the serious nonfiction writer has to have a great voice and answer the pivotal question of “Why should the reader be reading your book?” Too much of the author is a problem, but just a little bit seasons it just right.
Which is to say, I didn’t have a problem with that personal example. It passed my believability test and brought home the point that people will add needless costs in order to find the lowest price, thus negating the price reduction in the first place.
I’d like to look at the book’s great unasked question, which is the reason she was compelled to write it (and to have us read it): What to do about hidden costs? Ruppel Shell spends significant time tracing and exposing the hidden costs of “cheap”: personal, social, environmental, systemic. What if these hidden costs were incorporated into the price? “Cheap” would suddenly become prohibitively expensive.
But then what? Okay, so this plastic toothbrush from China is $47.50. Or maybe even $899.99! Well, I’m not buying it, and neither is my neighbor who doesn’t have the financial luxury of buying a nice local sustainable wooden one at Whole Foods for $26.95. But suppose there are no local small manufacturers around, no weekly farmer’s market that could serve the entire community, and no place that doesn’t depend on the vast oil-based chains of import/export.
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? What are the practical or general steps? Do we need The Revolution? Because we all know how well that’s worked out each time.
I find myself less excited by this book than the others so far, and less convinced about its arguments. I do admire Ruppel Shell’s mission. I like the type of psychological investigative journalism this book represents. I have a feeling I’d relate to her first book (about modern eating habits) more than I did to this one.
I can’t relate to Cheap because, while Ruppel Shell writes as if every single modern American is caught up in the Kmart Syndrome, I think I’m immune to it in the first place. I don’t feel any emotional attraction to consumer goods and I wouldn’t cross a street to get a bargain. I do like stores like Kmart and Target for their practical simplicity, and I don’t think I ought to be considered part of a brainwashed bargain-hunting horde because of this.
Ruppel Shell is especially on thin ice with me when it comes to IKEA. I have tended to move every few years in my life, and IKEA furniture is exactly what I need. Long term value? Who cares! I don’t need to carry around a cherished antique. I want to pay $70 for a bunch of pressed wood with screws and pre-drilled holes and a funny Swedish name that I can put up in an hour and throw away when it comes time to move again. Maybe I’m crazy, but I always considered IKEA furniture to be an example of Zen perfection in home furnishing. Ellen Ruppel Shell’s book does not make me want to change my ways.
I’ve written in the past about why I think it’s essential for the publishing industry to give up its sick addiction to expensive hardcover publishing and begin releasing new titles in affordable paperback. Here again, my philosophy seems to head-butt directly against Ruppel Shell’s, though really it’s not the hardcover prices that I despise so much as the size. Even as I read some of Ruppel Shell’s better and more intriguing passages in this book — and there are many of these — I wonder how to reconcile Ruppel Shell’s arguments against “cheap” with my own impassioned past arguments against “expensive.” I’m simply at a loss.
What I like best about this book is its psychological contradictions — the fact that people will spend money to get a bargain and then consider that they “won”, the fact that a homeowner will cherish the memory of a couch bought on a “good deal” decades earlier, as if this really mattered at all. This is pointed stuff and I enjoyed reading it.
But it occurs to me that this kind of bargain-hunting, for those who engage in it, must be simply a sport, a hobby. Would Ruppel Shell deny people a hobby they enjoy? Sure, people can spend a ridiculous amount of time hunting pointlessly for bargains. But they can also spend a ridiculous amount of time collecting stamps, or studying baseball statistics, or posting to blogs. Maybe it’s just fun.
I remember once having an argument with a friend at an outdoor rock concert on a summer day. I was about to pay $8 for a bottle of Poland Spring water from an amateur price-gouger, and my friend said I was crazy and the price-gouger was unethical. I didn’t see the problem or the ethical violation. The price-gouger had done the work to truck a Styrofoam container of ice and water bottles into our stadium, and that effort certainly seemed to me to be worth an $8 reward.
The fact that I didn’t mind paying $8 for this water bottle probably means I’m not the target audience for this book. Or should I say the “Target audience”, if you’ll pardon the pun …