In Defense of Banned Books Week: A Call to Expand the Debate

Ruth Graham, the oafish opiner who unsuccessfully tried to nuke the YA genre from orbit last year with splashes of sophism and dollops of dilletantism, has returned to Slate‘s realm of callow clickbait with an equally preposterous proposition that “there is no such thing as a ‘banned book’ in the United States in 2015” and that, as such, Banned Books Week is a well-intended wash. Aside from ignoring the obvious fallout of the “likable character” debate from 2013 or the way in which Scarlett Thomas’s ambitious and risk-taking novel The Seed Collectors has been summarily repressed by nervous publishers that lack the stones to put it out on this side of the Atlantic, Graham’s remarkable failure to consider the recent Charlie Hedbo/PEN controversy, much less the way in which seemingly liberal minds continue to “ban” viewpoints that they despise belies her woeful ignorance of current reactionary developments in United States culture.

Graham cites a recent uproar over Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in Knoxville, Tennessee, whereby a mother objected to “pornographic” descriptions of infidelity and a lump on Lacks’s cervix being taught in a public school. Graham is right to observe that it was more or less a slam dunk to find the right side on this particular debate, but where she goes astray, undoubtedly aided and abetted by the usual gang of reductionist editorial idiots, is her insane suggestion that Banned Books Week somehow used the occasion to reveal itself as a sinister venue specializing in fearmongering. But Graham doesn’t cite a single word that the Banned Books Week group actually wrote. Blogger Maggie Jacoby compared the mother’s recriminations to “a modern day kind of book burning,” but how is this fearmongering? What Jacoby was rightfully suggesting is that the old forms of suppressing books — fearsome censorship laws, burning books, removing them from school reading lists — have been replaced by an equally diabolical practice whereby one imperious individual or group now decides, irrespective of scholarly or literary merit, that a book or a viewpoint should be expunged from the community.

Censorship battles aren’t limited to blinkered crusaders in Tennessee. “Prudish moms” can be found in such sanctimonious types as Francine Prose and Peter Carey, who cannot seem to comprehend a universe in which offensive and disagreeable ideas are meant to be argued against rather than silenced. The literary world has increasingly failed to understand that an awful idea — and Charlie Hedbo’s juvenile and despicably racist caricatures were indeed meretricious, to say the least — needs to be articulated rather than silenced and that accolades such as the James G. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award are vital reminders of our duty to ensure that anyone has the right to say something offensive or provocative, especially if it runs counter to our perspective, without fear of death or censorship.

Books may not have not faced as many overt censorship challenges in recent years, but the need to squelch undesirable or offensive viewpoints is now being practiced in covert and personal ways that are just as unconscionable. The courageous author Alissa Nutting not only faced a relentless wave of indignant emails and threats after her novel, Tampa, was published, but was also subjected to a histrionic op-ed piece in which a mother believed Nutting’s book was so dangerous that she kept it locked away from her daughter. If the morally scolding can’t get reading material banned from classrooms, then they have proven quite effective in removing “offensive” material from the stores, such as the three men’s magazines ejected by Walmart in 2003 because of efforts made by querulous Christians or, most recently, Rhonda Rousey’s memoir pulled because it was “too violent.”

The public square, whether we like it or not, has been replaced by the venal clamor of a marketplace selling comforting reads and the rising din of outrage culture publicly shaming an author like Erica Jong for ignorant remarks. And while some critics have smartly observed that one can critique an author without excluding her from the conversation, perhaps working to change her mind through a dialogue, others valiantly celebrate an author’s shortcomings as “far more important than any one author’s resistance to a changing zeitgeist.”

In her insistence that “books win” in this new age of condemnation, it’s telling that Graham practices the naive first year law school student’s overused argument of clinging to taut definitions of “banned or challenged” even as she overlooks some very obvious developments which demand that these terms be expanded outside of their presently rigid definitions. A fear of “bad language, violence; and, over and over, sexual content” very much applies in the cases I’ve cited above, just as it does when college students increasingly dole out the manipulative dog-ate-my-homework “trigger warning” charge for classic literature because they don’t want to contend with human realities. These plaints are no different in scope from the mother who tried to pull Skloot’s book from a public school and demand that we expand what a “banned book” really means in 2015.

Nobody wins when some easily offended reader expends a great deal of time and energy to guarantee that a book is withdrawn from a vital forum rather than assembling a provocative and possibly unpopular argument against it, especially when the same ninny fails to provide any evidence of having read the book in question. But American culture is increasingly drifting towards an impulsive immaturity where we cannot fathom that a person is more than the sum of a few foolhardy tweets or inopportune soundbytes and we lack the fortitude to speak with our enemies, let alone maintain cordial relationships with friends we disagree with. It is, however, instinctive enough to find other primordial methods to ban books, whether through trigger warnings or thoughtless censorship campaigns, rather than fostering opportunities for spirited and informed debate. Salman Rushdie should not have to suffer “lasting damage” to his friendships because of a disagreement, but American culture is too wrapped up in blocking or banning anything it finds remotely offensive to have adult conversations. And we are cursed with Pollyanna types like Ruth Graham, serving as myopic propagandists, who are just as implicitly prescriptive as the “prudish moms” who avoid uncomfortable truths that require a drastic change in the ways we relate to the written word and other readers.

The Bat Segundo Show: Marjorie Rosen

Marjorie Rosen recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #311.

Marjorie Rosen is most recently the author of Boom Town: How Wal-Mart Transformed an All-American Town Into an International Community.

segundo311

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Kicked out of bed.

Author: Marjorie Rosen

Subjects Discussed: The white and non-Hispanic white majority in Bentonville, Arkansas, numerous houses of worship, multiculturalism, the largest population of Marshall Island immigrants in the United States, work for unskilled laborers, exploitation at Tyson and Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart’s $319 billion annual profit and its failure to offer proper healthcare, sentiments from former Bentonville mayor Terry Black Coberly, whether or not Wal-Mart is good for Bentonville, The Whistler Group, Wal-Mart, Christian-based merchandise, and staying in denial about being a “Christian company,” mandatory Saturday morning meetings, “diversity groups,” the conflict between Saturday morning meetings and shabbat, St. Paul Wal-Mart worker Abdi Abdi fired for praying on work breaks, the difficulties of integrating with a white community, trying to get Wal-Mart middle managers to disclose salaries, relative salaries and Bentonville’s relative economy, Bentonville housing, the abuses of the Bentonville and the Rogers Police Departments, the culture of fear spawned by Section 287(g), Rogers Mayor Steve Womack’s racist sentiments, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and white privilege, and the reasonable unification of culture.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

marjorierosenCorrespondent: Ajaydev Naliur said to you that the most difficult part of integrating into the larger white community was “not being able to socialize with them like we do with the Indian families. The people at work never say, ‘A.J., come to my house for dinner, come to my home.'” Now if Naliur has only a professional relationship with the Americans and he fears bringing Indian food even to the Walmart food day potlucks, then surely there’s a multiculturalism problem here. And I’m curious about why there’s this lack of integration.

Rosen: No, it’s interesting that you choose A.J. I think it was his problem.

Correspondent: Yeah?

Rosen: Yeah. Because he was so timid about everything. About sharing Indian food. You know, there are Mexican restaurants. There are Chinese restaurants. There are all sorts of restaurants in the area now. Not an Indian restaurant yet. But he was so timid about it. And yet there were other Indian families. Like the Kulkarnis, who were not at all. Who said to me, “Many American friends, we invite them to dinner.” And I kept wishing they’d invite me for dinner. You know, because I love Indian food.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Rosen: But when push came to shove, A.J. said that he was hesitant to embrace American values. Mostly because of his daughters. He has two teenage daughters. And he was very, very afraid that they would become too Americanized. And then he would lose control of them, in terms of boyfriends and in terms of setting up arranged marriages. And it’s definitely in the picture for him. And he wants to keep his girls under his wing.

Correspondent: But A.J. likewise wants to hold onto his job. And maybe the timidity comes from the fact that if he brings in the Indian food, by his standpoint, he could risk raising ire and possibly having people make fun of him. Or, I suppose, putting a red flag on the cultural divide. So is it really fair point to A.J. and say, “Hey, it’s your problem.” Because he is, in fact, the guy who is bringing sodas and pretzels and potato chips and the like. Basically conforming to American society.

Rosen: He said it was his problem.

Correspondent: He said it was his problem?

Rosen: He said it was his problem when I spoke to him about it. I said, “Gosh, people love to share.” Especially in terms of food. People are very open to that kind of thing. He said it was his problem and his timidity. It’s funny. His wife, it’s been harder for her because it’s taken her a longer time to learn English. Now that she’s learning English, she works at a day care center. She’s having a great time going to weddings of friends without him. Because she’s much more willing to socialize with Americans somehow. Now that she’s learned English, it’s easier for her.

Correspondent: Well, if she’s the social butterfly, has she brought Americans to her place? Or anything like that?

Rosen: Not yet. She’s still fairly submissive. A fairly submissive wife. On and off for the first two years that I spoke with them, I would visit them when I’d come into town. And I’d ask what he thought about something. And then I’d ask what she thought. And she’d say, with no irony, “I think what he thinks.”

Correspondent: Interesting.

Rosen: But now that she’s learning English, and she’s more comfortable in her own community and basically in her own skin, I really have detected a change in her. It’s really lovely to see that.

Correspondent: By comfortable in her own skin, do you mean as she’s learned English? What do you mean by that?

Rosen: As she’s learned English. She’s been able to take a job and hold a job by herself. And I think that’s given her a little bit of freedom. Not, I would say, a lot. But a little bit of freedom.

Correspondent: Freedom to further integrate with American culture?

Rosen: Yes.

Correspondent: Or…because it seems to me that we’re getting a one way signal here. I mean, shouldn’t multiculturalism work where everybody integrates together? And everybody goes, “Hey, Indian food. Hey, American food,” and that kind of thing?

Rosen: Well, I think it’s nice that she has American friends from the day care center where she works who invite her to their wedding. Which entails a whole day of traveling and celebrating. I mean, to me, that’s a gesture in a community that maybe ten years ago would not have made that gesture. And she would have been too timid to go without him.

BSS #311: Marjorie Rosen (Download MP3)

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Ellen Ruppel Shell’s CHEAP — Part Four

cheaprt4(This is the fourth 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 Five.)

Edward Champion writes:

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.

kirstofIn 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.)

nikeoutletTo 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!).

Colleen Mondor writes:

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.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

Books like Cheap, et al raise the question that subsumes the pretext for the traditional liberal education (i.e., “knowledge is power”). By the way, David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College 2005 oration is worth looking at on this point.

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.

Erin O’Brien writes:

(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.

pokerchips2(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?

Levi Asher writes:

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?”.

cabinI 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.

Nina MacLaughin writes:

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.

pricegougeA 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.

Edward Champion writes:

To respond quickly to Levi:

(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.)

booksandbookshelves(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.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

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?

Erin O’Brien writes:

“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.

Peggy Nelson writes:

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.) 
 
profitmagI 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.)

Levi Asher writes:

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.

Jackson West writes:

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.

Progress!

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.

Perfection!

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.

Ellen Ruppel Shell’s CHEAP — Part Two

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

Kathleen Maher writes:

cheaprt2I am not quite finished reading Cheap, but I have to admit that I’m finding it more interesting than I expected, seeing that I generally don’t read non-fiction and can’t stand shopping — especially for bargains.  

I enjoyed the quick history of American department stores and such trivia as the invention of the price tag.  But it’s hard to imagine this book will capture the popular imagination in the way that other quasi-academic books have (Malcolm Gladwell, et al). The sum of all these anecdotes and quasi-scientific studies seems like a great big “Well, duh. Cheap? You get what you pay for.” 

Miracle Jones hit the nail on the head with his preliminary preoccupations: First, that there is some downright weird stuff in Cheap that weakens Ruppel Shell’s argument, like the masturbation studies and the flying excrement neighborhoods.  And second, as Miracle so aptly put it, I suspect most of America lives in a perpetual “Gruen transfer,” mindlessly wandering in search of the next siren call.  I live in a cheap shopping district in Manhattan and I’m seeing shoppers walk by my window right now.

So I am stuck with a feeling that I know all this already. Ruppel Shell portrays our culture with a certain perspective that most of us may not have appreciated before, but it’s still the same old picture. A culture of mass consumerism in which intelligence, wisdom, quality, and beauty are devalued and degraded.

The depressing fact is that Ruppel Shell is preaching to the choir. We readers, the shrinking “elite” who take the time to actually read, know what she’s talking about. But can we possibly have any effect on the global corporations who are ramming the culture of cheapness down our throat?  I doubt it very much. Global capitalism is brutal, ruthless, and backed by overwhelming military might. Ruppel Shell may be right in her assessment, but Cheap probably won’t make an impact. (Of course, the pertinent question here is: Will it sell?)

Colleen Mondor writes:

Levi: I’m curious. Does reading Ruppel Shell’s sustainability argument about IKEA change the way you perceive your shelving units? Since you are someone who is aware that you are getting a “cheap” product and you’re fine with it because it works best for your purposes, did her discussion of its larger cost come as any surprise? And does it affect how you feel about the product or company?

Edward Champion writes:

I’ll have a lot more to say in response to the many interesting points offered so far. But I wanted to reply very briefly to Levi’s remark on not seeing the problem or the ethical violation of fixing prices. I’m wondering what he (and others) think of the following episode from Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide. The book is a tad too popular science for my tastes, but it does feature a very interesting profile of Herman Palmer, a Bronx financial counselor who helps working-class people manage their debts for a nonprofit organization.  One of Palmer’s chief strategies is to cut up a debtor’s credit card and place the plastic remnants in a large jar containing other shards.  Here’s the excerpt outlining the pernicious pitfall:

When Herman talks about the people who have been helped by his financial advice, his face takes on the glow of a proud parent.  There’s the plumber from Co-op City who lost his job and started paying rent with his credit card.  After a few months, his interest rate was above 30 percent.  Herman helped him consolidate his debt and get his expenses under control.  There’s that single mother who couldn’t afford daycare.  “We helped her find other ways to save money,” he says.  “We cut her expenses by enough so that she didn’t have to charge everything.  The trick is to notice whenever you’re spending money.  All that little stuff?  Guess what: it adds up.”  There’s the schoolteacher who racked up debt on ten different cards and paid hundreds of dollars every month in late fees alone.  It took five years of careful discipline, but now the teacher is debt free.  “I know the client is going to be okay when they start telling me about the sweater or CD they really wanted but they didn’t buy,” Herman says.  “That’s when I know they are starting to make better decisions.”

Most of the people who come to see Herman tell the same basic story.  One day, a person gets a credit card offer in the mail.  (Credit card companies sent out 5.3 billion solicitations in 2007, which means the average American adult got fifteen offers.)  The card seems like such a good deal.  In big bold print it advertises a low introductory rate along with something about getting cash back or frequent-flier miles or free movie tickets.  And so the person signs up.  He fills out the one-page form and then, a few weeks later, gets a new credit card in the mail.  At first, he doesn’t use it much.  Then one day he forgets to get cash, and so he uses the new credit card to pay for food at the supermarket.  Or maybe the refrigerator breaks, and he needs a little help buying a new one.  For the first few months, he always manages to pay off the full bill.  “Almost nobody gets a credit card and says, ‘I’m going to use this to buy the things I can’t afford,'” Herman says.  “But it rarely stays like that for long.”

According to Herman, the big problem with credit cards — the reason he enjoys cutting them up so much — is that they cause people to make stupid financial choices.  They make it harder to resist temptation, so people spend money they don’t have.  “I’ve seen it happen to the most intelligent people,” Herman says.  “I’ll look at their credit card bill and I’ll see a charge for fifty dollars at a department store.  I’ll ask them what they bough.  They’ll say, ‘It was a pair of shoes, Herman, but it was on sale.’  Or they’ll tell me that they bought another pair of jeans but the jeans were fifty percent off.  It was such a good deal that it would have been dumb NOT to buy it. I always laugh when I hear that one.  I then have them add up all the interest they are going to pay on those jeans or that pair of shoes.  For a lot of people, it will be around twenty-five percent a month.  And you know what?  Then it’s not such a good deal anymore.”

These people aren’t in denial.  They know that they have serious debt problems and that they’re paying a lot of interest on their debts.  That’s why they’re visiting a financial adviser.  And yet, they STILL bought the jeans and the pair of shoes on sale.  Herman is all too familiar with the problem: “I always ask people, ‘Would you have bought the item if you had to pay cash?  If you had to go to an ATM and feel the money in your hands and then hand it over?’ Most of the time, they think about it for a minute and then they say no.”

Levi Asher writes:

Colleen, I want to give this a well-thought out answer, but I’m away for a few days without the book in front of me.  I want to reread those sections of the book and then respond in a few days.

Erin O’Brien writes:

We readers, the shrinking “elite” who take the time to actually read, know what she’s talking about. (Kathleen Maher)

I drink shitty beer. Does that affect my newfound “elite” status?

I live in a suburb just south of Cleveland. The Walmart I shop at is about 6 miles away. It’s adjacent to Parmatown Mall, which you can visit vicariously here.

walmartI only go to Walmart when I need to buy Suave shampoo, Saran wrap, Q-tips (I buy the generic ones) and two or three dozen other really irritating things. I usually put said purchases on my credit card, which I pay off monthly in order to earn the one percent rebates.

There used to be another Walmart about 8 miles away. It was built on a landfill. The landfill started leaking noxious gasses that were finding their way into the land of Low Prices. They had to close that Walmart.

In each of the older toilet tanks in our home, you’ll find plastic bottles filled with water and sand that displace some of water therein and lessen the volume of every flush. We put these bottles in right after we moved into this house almost 17 years ago. We conserve everything where we can, but neither my husband nor I would ever leave less than a 20 percent tip. Since we do not want our kid to have to take out a college loan, there is no AC in our house. Vacations are long weekends to places like Mammoth Cave. And if you think my beer is shitty, you should try a cup of my coffee. I drink it with a smile.

Life. Is. Beautiful.

Peggy Nelson writes:

Ed, I’m glad you brought the credit card angle up, which is totally insidious. Ruppel Shell doesn’t get into it much, perhaps because she’s so focused on discount retail.  If anyone has time, I highly recommend the documentary Maxed Out. (You can watch it online via Amazon and also on Instant Play on Netflix.) [EDITOR’S NOTE: With great respect to the lovely Ms. Nelson, I’m afraid I must note the discount culture irony. The film is also available on DVD, but at a higher price. Do the filmmakers get more of a cut through the DVD or the cheaper on-demand option?]

familycreditcardCredit card companies target the poorest, and least credit-savvy, segments of the population to make their money.  They do not make money on you if you use the card responsibly and pay in full every month, or if you hold it in reserve only as an emergency fund.  They do make money off you if you run it up to the limit and then only pay the minimum, or, better yet, miss payments and run up fees and penalties.  

Providian anyone?  Capital One?  MBNA, who is one of the top contributors to the Republican Party?  These predatory lenders have a business model that’s just like the check cashing places out by the strip mall. Once you’re in their system, you will pay and pay and pay.  Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard bankruptcy lawyer interviewed in Ruppel Shell’s book, plays a large role in Maxed Out too, explaining how this works.  It is counterintuitive. How can they make money off the little people who have almost none?  And yet, they do.  Lots of it.

This all plays into something in us that is very difficult to resist. And I’ve been there, as have some of you. Hey, a little extra for free!  Just for now.  This will so help me out, get me over the hump, and I need some stuff.  Yeah, I have to pay it back, but only eventually. And I can do so in little bits.  Meanwhile, the total climbs higher and higher. Until things are worse than at the beginning. And now you don’t need a little help. You need a lot.  And they’ve started calling your family. And your boss.

There is one more insidious thing about credit cards (well probably more than one) — you need one for your social reputation.  I don’t mean that as some abstract thing.  You need one to rent a car, to buy an airline ticket, to stay in a motel, to rent an apartment (in some places), and, in some places, even to get a job.  You need one as a second ID, the “real” ID, that validates your active membership in society.  Without a credit card, you have no reputation (or worse, a bad one).  You cannot do things.  You are suspect.

Kathleen Maher writes:

Erin, so maybe you’re not elite — it’s my problem. The truth is, I’m so elitist that I don’t even like fireworks. Even as a child, they impressed me as bombs bursting in air–more martial than anything else. We’re free to accept or reject superficial labels like “down to earth” vs. “elitist.” I certainly didn’t mean to insult anyone.

I did think, however, that this book — which so carefully describes the lengths that shoppers will go (the outlet malls, for one) to score a designer label or a brand name — was referring to the “elitist” that runs rampant in so many psyches. Or maybe not. I don’t shop at outlet malls. It’s not worth the time and trouble. And here again, I can be called an elitist for not joining the outlet crowd.

To me, elitism is not a soul-sickness. It’s not a vice. It’s more a matter of not being able to get with the big group. Not belonging; not joining. I know there’s the connotation that real elitists think they’re better. I do not think I’m better. I do think I’m different. And admitting that sets me up for criticism, as if by different I mean special. I don’t necessarily mean special. Just different.

Erin O’Brien writes:

suaveadKudos to Peggy’s “great unasked question” and the subsequent points she raises. Life Inc. sounds like a book I need to visit. But I need to bellyache about the government for a bit anyway. As Ruppel Shell copiously notes in her book, many of us are hard-wired to find a good value or a good price. To that end, I shop at a discount grocer and Walmart.  But I also ride pretty far left of center for a reason. I just don’t think that enough people will shop responsibly or self-regulate to make a difference. I try to be conscientious and I try to conserve. Many others do. But it is simply not enough. This is why we need government. I want legislation that supports fair minimum wage. If the best price around is a few cents more in order to pay that wage, I have no problem shelling out $1.25 for my Suave shampoo instead of $0.99. Furthermore, I’m happy to pay taxes that support Medicaid and food assistance. I’d love to see Medicare gradually expanded to relieve the private sector of the choking health care/health insurance behemoth. I’m all for college becoming part of the public school system. I’m for a government that supports effective regulation and inspection of imported food and goods. The list goes on and on. Yes, I know all this means more taxes. I’m okay with that. I am happy to have a little less in order to live in a society that respects and values human dignity. Sorry about the flag-waving, but somewhere along the way, taxation became a dirty word and unfettered capitalism/consumerism became the new golden idol. Call it the bastard child of Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics coupling with eight years of Bush’s crazed deregulation.

I am not naive. I know the lobbyists, the big corporations, and the big money are all staggering entities. There’s also plenty of regular red-blooded Americans who would decry every assertion in my previous paragraph. They usually vote Republican. All I can hope for is that the blue push which we saw in the last two elections starts the juggernaut moving slowly but surely leftward.

A few more notes:

I thought Ruppel Shell’s recounting of discount retailing history was interesting, but that she devoted too much space to it.

Sarah: Point well taken about publishers wanting books such as Cheap to be personalized. Unfortunately for me, Ruppel Shell’s brand of personalization did not necessarily warm this subject matter.  For instance, when she references people “wearing T-shirts emblazoned with slogans” on page 97, the tone felt condescending. That’s purely subjective on my part, but there it is.

Regarding the notes, I did find them valuable, but also distracting. I always knew they were lurking back there. Whenever I came upon something that intrigued me (the liquified manure for instance), I had to decide whether or not to interrupt my read and see if there was more to be had in the back of the book. When there was worthy content, I had to wonder why Ruppel Shell didn’t just incorporate it in the general text.  The notes also struck me as just one more reason that we should be reading ebooks. We all seem to be able to handle embedded links online. Books like Cheap beg for the convenience of a click and a shift of the eyes instead of the intrusive page fumbling begged by the elaborate notes. But all that said, 232 pages of text followed by 63 pages of acknowledgments, notes and bibliography was stunning to me. Of course, had this been an eBook, I wouldn’t have been comparing the thickness of pages devoted to text to the thickness of pages devoted to explaining said text, now would I?

Colleen Mondor writes:

Honestly, while we could pick out certain points we wish were expanded upon or not, I think the purpose of the book was to make the general reader think before they buy. We haven’t talked much about the social history Ruppel Shell presents here on department stores and malls. This was all very interesting — especially how outlet malls in particular are designed to keep people moving and to a certain degree uncomfortable (no covered walkways, etc.). I also thought that her passages on pricing and the example of the mattresses was very well done — we don’t want an inexpensive mattress; we want an expensive mattress that is priced inexpensively (even though the prices are all, to some degree, made up).

One thing I was worried about was that this would be a big Walmart bashing book. But it’s not. I appreciated that Ruppel Shell even framed Whole Foods in a less than flattering light. It’s not as if people need to aspire to go there for the good stuff. Ruppel Shell makes a point that the expensive stores are just as culpable as the dollar stores in manipulating the public.

wholefoodsTo me, that was rather key in the book. It also addresses this “elitism” issue. (That is a word that I think will be a lightning rod for some time due to the election.) Ruppel Shell’s point seems to be that the bargain idea crosses socioeconomic lines. While a bargain for some folks might seem crazy expensive to some (the Whole Foods example), it is still another person’s bargain. But then, as she explains in various ways, the bargains are revealed not to be bargains at all — either in their value to you (they won’t last long or flat out aren’t worth it) or in the true cost to others (or the environment, etc.). Levi is right that, for some items and some people, a cheap price for a short-term purchase may be worthwhile. But as Ruppel Shell shows, there is still the fact that the true price isn’t being exposed to the American consumer. It’s like how some of us are enjoying cheap energy while West Virginia and Kentucky pay with environmental destruction, health problems, etc.

I think Ruppel Shell did a very good job of writing a thinking person’s book that will appeal to anyone who shops — in essence, to pretty much anyone. You could argue that folks who have to buy cheap because they don’t have much money wouldn’t bother reading this book. But I don’t think that’s true. As I stated earlier, that’s the life I was brought up in. And I know that both my parents would be very interested in this book. No one likes to be manipulated. And at its heart, this is what Ruppel Shell is exposing.

I thought the endnotes were excellent also. But as a historian, that’s something I look for in a book like this one.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

Here’s the OED (that’s the Oxford English Dictionary for you non elitists)

elite noun & adjective. Also élite. L18.
[ORIGIN French élite, use as noun of fem. of obsolete pa. pple of élire, †eslire from Proto-Romance var. of Latin eligere elect verb.]

► A noun.
1 The choice part, the best, (of society, a group of people, etc.); a select group or class. L18.

K. M. E. Murray Oxford still catered…for the social elite, who could afford to go to the University as a…luxury. R. Rendell She…spoke of her family and its immediate circle as of an élite.

social elite: see social adjective.

► B attrib. adjective. Of or belonging to an elite; exclusive. M19.

 elitism noun advocacy of or reliance on the leadership or dominance of a select group elitist adjective & noun (a person) practising elitism 

Here’s American Heritage:

e·lite or é·lite 
n. pl. elite or e·lites
A group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status: “In addition to notions of social equality there was much emphasis on the role of elites and of heroes within them” (Times Literary Supplement).
The best or most skilled members of a group: the football team’s elite.

e·lit·ism or é·lit·ism 
n.
The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.
The sense of entitlement enjoyed by such a group or class.
Control, rule, or domination by such a group or class

I am pretty certain that I am an elitist — and people, I think that all of you are too.

This pow wow, as such things are inevitably driven to, has devolved into a cross-hatching of confusions and personal defenses. That’s all understandable, as examining human behavior reveals all manner of anomalies, illogics, and base behavior; none of which we are comfortable admitting are parts of our own persona (in the spirit of [sort-of- ]full disclosure, I own more socks, baseball caps and hoodies than anyone should).

Bad boy Eddie introduced the subject of our behavior around credit (cards). That’s a whole other ball of wax— and whatever irrationalities are manifest you can bet that the shylocks and the money changers have worked out an elaborate rigging of the system so that we (you and me) can’t win. Remember: The House never loses.

Levi talked about the practicality of IKEA. Which makes sense. Except you can, for example, do bookshelves for less (cement blocks and lumber and unfinished pine shelves). May be that’s too much work. Personally I think IKEA and such outlets contribute to a stultifyingly dull sense of habitat.

jimmychoobahTo me, the big unaddressed issue is how we perceive value. Price is not about value. And I don’t think it ever really has been. What determines the price of a Hermes scarf, a Brioni suit, and Jimmy Choo shoes? Workmanship? Quality materials? Or the campaign that convinces some people that $5,000 or $6,000 is okay? Or that $25 or more is the price of a good cigar? (By the way, with workers, farmers at the bottom of the pyramid of production of luxury goods don’t fare better than the those making whatever products end up in Walmart, which, by the way, is no great bargain past a select number of items that are promoted.) And apropos of nothing, Whole Foods is vastly overpriced and oddly managed. (Did you read about the Whole Foods worker who was fired for planning to eat a tuna fish sandwich? Then Whole Foods tried to impede his collection of unemployment comp.) But Whole Foods is apparently well branded. I work part time at a Trader Joe’s and I can declaim on this subject at length if prodded.

Anyway, there will not be a revolution — certainly not by consumers. (By the way, Cheap is part of a long line of books about (us) dumb and benighted consumers going back to Vance Packard’s Nation of Sheep in the early ’60s.) Nope, the correction that will dismantle the mass market will be the slippery downward slope of peak oil and the reconstitution of society circumstantially deprived of energy to sustain the oil-based industries and products. Which is to say that James Howard Kuntsler (The Long Emergency) has me convinced.

For those of you who believe that reading these types of book make us smarter consumers, well, good luck.

P.S. One thing that continues to bother me is the rapid decline in the price of books (clearly an example of the disparity of price and value). Go to Amazon and see what some recently published books are being offered at. And remainders! There’s a surefire way for the book publishers to commit suicide.

Nina MacLaughlin writes:

Janet Maslin has some dismissive things to say about Cheap in the New York Times, where she pairs it with Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price. “Neither author is entirely to be trusted,” Maslin writes. “And neither author has written a book that is as sharp as its one-word catchy title.”

I wonder about Robert’s most recent point about whether these sorts of books can actually be effective tools of change, and whether these books can serve in making us “smarter consumers.” I think I may tilt more towards Robert’s pessimistic take. Being more aware is one thing. We know now that we should care whether our apples were flown all the way from Argentina, and we know that it’s not a good thing to pay $4 for a T-shirt if it means that 11 year-old kids were involved in making it. But being able to care about the backstory of a product — the circumstances it was made, how far it had to travel to arrive on the shop’s shelf, &c — and being able to make choices based on those facts are two completely different things.

But this feels like a pretty obvious point, and so did many of Ruppel Shell’s examples. Some of her examples were mildly illuminating (the shrimp discussion, for example, if only for its gross-out factor). But as Janet Maslin points out in her response to the book, Ruppel Shell boasts that she decides to opt for chicken over shrimp at a Red Lobster dinner. As Maslin writes, “Yet cheap chicken-farming isn’t any less ghastly. It just doesn’t happen to be addressed by this book.” It’s all about picking your battles, I guess.

I have been thinking a lot about what Levi has said about IKEA and disposable shelves. It makes some sense, and, not to overstate the case, perhaps it helps in making us less attached to actual things (even if they do have cute Swedish monikers). For me, though, as someone who loathes shopping to an extreme, I think I’d rather pay a little more for the shelves, if only to avoid having to go back to IKEA to buy replacements.

Kathleen Maher writes:

I’ve finished reading the book, and I enjoyed reading the history of buying and selling stuff in this country and just how we got to the grotesque place we are today. Many of Ruppel Shell’s investigations into cognitive psychology either confirmed my intuitions or struck me as obvious. For example, I am already acutely aware that the “Winner Takes Nothing.” I know about deforestation, the pitiful working conditions, and these policies the world over. I’ve tasted that muddy, medicine-tinged shrimp. And while I may have been naive about that one word, I know full well that nobody around here is a “worker.” They’re associates and representatives with whom I’ve shared three-hour there and three-hour back bus rides. Except they get off the bus at the Woodbury Mall while I continue to the next stop to visit a friend who rents a bungalow outside Monroe, NY during the summer.

In the evening, the same passengers join me on the bus returning to the city. They’re now weighed down with glossy Dolce and Gabba shopping bags, along with (and there’s no real way not to notice) Coach, Tommy Hilfiger, and Versace shopping bags. And aside from whatever name brand clothing and leather goods these people may have bought, they’ll carry those high-end, name brand shopping bags around on the subway until it’s time for their next day trip to the designer outlet mall.

Overall, this book made me as anxious and as unhappy as shopping does. Count me an extreme case of HNFC: If I happen to hit upon a “bargain,” I do not enjoy it. I do not feel richer and frankly it would amaze me if the pleasure paths in my brain lit up. For I am all too aware that my personal bargain means another person’s loss. Yet I’m no happier knowing I’ve lost money in an institutionalized swindle.

When I’m feeling tougher, I don’t have time to figure gains and losses in percentages of pennies. As I’m more apt to see it, I indulge myself in that luxury — without counting pennies. For if I were truly poverty-stricken, I would need to empty trash bins, as people are doing right now outside the Dunkin Donuts across the street. My shopping cart would be the one I’d somehow procured in order to spend my days and nights accumulating recyclable waste and other junk. Scrounging for “bargains” feels like the high-end version of that activity. And as Ruppel Shell says, it’s work.

The extinction of craft and creativity for the sake of “smarts, drive, ambition, and speed” depresses me. A world without appreciation for craft, skill, and patience is not a happy one for me. Give me fiction and I’ll get out of here.

P.S. Nina’s remark about “cheap chicken” awoke a horrifying description I once read about how corporations breed poultry so that their beaks are barely existent. The birds’ throats are then wired open and liquefied feed, antibiotics, and hormones are poured into them, propelling the already genetically engineered birds to grow up faster and fatter in dirtier quarters.