How did Americans become the most voracious consumers in the world? This exposé unmasks the transformation of a frugal nation into one made up of the world's most notorious spendthrifts. Shell offers a historical perspective that spans the various steps of this transition at all levels of the economy - from department stores to supermarkets. Lorna Raver is an apt narrator for this title because her voice has the mature quality of one who may have seen some of the events she recounts. Her dry tone conveys the sardonic subtext that runs throughout the narrative as it switches between objective and subjective accounts in equal parts. She explains with gusto the growth of the discount market in the U.S.
Ellen Ruppel Shell traces the birth of the bargain as we know it from the Industrial Revolution to the assembly line and beyond, homing in on a number of colorful characters, such as Gene Verkauf (his name is Yiddish for "to sell"), founder of E. J. Korvette, the discount chain that helped wean customers off traditional notions of value. The rise of the chain store in post-Depression America led to the extolling of convenience over quality, and big-box retailers completed the reeducation of the American consumer by making them prize low price in the way they once prized durability and craftsmanship. The effects of this insidious perceptual shift are vast: a blighted landscape, escalating debt (both personal and national), stagnating incomes, fraying communities, and a host of other socioeconomic ills. That's a long list of charges, and it runs counter to orthodox economics, which argues that low price powers productivity by stimulating a brisk free market. But Shell marshals evidence from a wide range of fields---history, sociology, marketing, psychology, even economics itself---to upend the conventional wisdom.
Cheap also unveils the fascinating and unsettling illogic that underpins our bargain-hunting reflex and explains how our deep-rooted need for bargains colors every aspect of our psyches and social lives.
©2009 Ellen Ruppel Shell; (P)2009 Tantor
"Highly intelligent and disturbing.... Highly recommended." (Library Journal, Starred Review)
Ellen Shell in "Cheap" sets out to make sense of the discount culture that characterizes our economy. She accomplishes this with hardly a mention of WalMart! She relates how the discount economy has allowed us to eat shrimp in abundance (Red Lobster) and to purchase poorly built furniture from IKEA. She argues that we are trading low price for quality and that those low prices are not without "costs" to the environment and poor workers elsewhere. Her history of discount shopping is most informative and brings back names such as Woolworths and others long gone.
Some of the material will be familiar to those who follow economics and business. However, there are surprises at every turn and disturbing issues that she raises. She hits the reader early and often with the understanding that we are quickly replacing quality goods with shoddy merchandise and our lives are less for the trade.
I would suggest that this book be preceded or followed by Chris Anderson's "Free" which deals with technology driving the costs of some services to zero. Both Free and Cheap are well written and read. They are both disturbing and informative.
mostly nonfiction listener
Cheap is the perfect companion to Free. Or maybe the antidote to Free. Where Anderson sees a bright future for free, Ruppel Shell reminds us of the high cost of cheap. These costs range from the loss of decent paying jobs for producers to the environmental damage that allows cheap furniture, food, and manufacturing goods to come to market. We probably didn't need one more book on the dangers of the cheap industrial food complex, but Ruppel Shell puts trends in food in the larger context of the migration away from quality across the consumer basket. The chapter on Ikea alone is worth the price of admission.
My only quibble is that perhaps the author over-sold her case.
We have realized some benefits from the cost of some things dropping, from computers to bandwidth (see Anderson), her case would have been strengthened by an exploration of cheap done right. Still, this Free and Cheap should be read together, the first book getting us drunk on the limitless future and the second book sobering us up on the high costs that we are all paying.
The subject of craftsmanship, and the loss of value in modern society is something of a candy stick for me, and so I did finish this book, and I did find it very interesting. If you liked Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soulcraft” and any of Richard Sennett’s work, you will like this book despite it’s glaring flaws of factual accuracy.
Unfortunately however, from the beginning the author displays a subtly disingenuous nature by letting the reader know that, she too has to deal with a wobbly budget, and thus she buys her underwear at Target. Of course I have no idea as to Ms. Shell’s actual net worth but a professor of journalism, and a regular contributor to the Atlantic Monthly with five book titles to her credit is not juggling the same budget constraints as the average American. That is intellectually dishonest, and in very poor taste to be that condescending.
At first I was making notes of all of the factual inaccuracies, but I gave up after the first few chapters as it was becoming tedious. Her factual inconsistencies go well beyond just being overly opinionated, but she just gets things very wrong. On the Great Depression, on deflation, she got Gresham’s Law so completely wrong I have to give her the benefit of the doubt that she was being honest, but just doesn’t know. Really, the thing is so full of errors I am almost embarrassed for the woman. However, since she thinks buying fake Rolex watches from street vendors somehow makes her one of the common folk, I don’t think it’s likely that she’s in touch enough with reality to feel appropriately chagrined.
Also, the difference between empty consumerism and genuine thrift is too often mixed up by Ms. Shell. What could have been spelled out better is the difference between someone who would gladly pay $150 for an American made floor jack, but has to go with the $80 Chinese version since the next closest thing that isn’t made in China is over $500. The lack of a middle ground in such cases is touched upon, but then she leaves it and rambles on to another opinion based on faulty facts.
I was excited to listen to this book, but I found as it went on that entire chapters were based on research from other, very popular books I've already read over the past years. Then I felt that much of the content was more politicized than I care for in books having to do with research and behavior. In books like this, I'm looking for fresh information, not repetition and politics. At 2/3 of the way through, I'm moving on to something else. If you're inclined to politics and haven't read "Predictably Irrational," you may enjoy it more than I did. Then again, you may enjoy "Predictably Irrational."
I learned more about capitalism, economics, and the environment in this book then I ever learned at school. I just wish more people would read it (or listen to it) and help change the way we live and the world we live in.
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