I have been reading Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture,* by Ellen Ruppel Shell, for a hundred years.
Okay, not really. But it was starting to feel like it. Make no mistake: that's not because it was a bad book. It's because it was a really good book. It was everything nonfiction should be: interesting, detailed, well-researched, and thorough. It was also as depressing as hell.
Shell describes the American (and to some extent, world) love affair with "cheap," and how our identification with consumer culture, rather than working class or production culture, is leading to a breakdown in many of our social and business systems. She does so systematically, discussing the history of discount stores and pricing in America (starting way before Wal-Mart), and she does so convincingly, examining all aspects of the "cheap" worldview such as pricing strategies and global trade imbalances. She covers a variety of retailers and products, from IKEA to our food supply. Really, it's an incredible book.
She's also upfront about how much we all enjoy bargains,** and how that might have to change if we really want to improve working conditions and wages and lifestyles worldwide. Honestly? There's so many and interesting and sad things to quote in this book, I wouldn't even know where to start. Oh, wait, I did stick in a couple of bookmarks; heres one paragraph I found interesting, from a labor scholar Shell interviewed:
"'Corporate giants have become our heroes,' he continued. 'We are so focused on the dream of wealth that we identify with billionaires, with whom we have nothing in common. Where fifty years ago we had labor identity that pit workers against management, today we have a system that pits worker against worker. And that includes workers in the United States against workers in the developing world.'" (p. 203.)
The book's also jam-packed with scary statistics about how much the overall price of food has dropped since 1970--and what that says about what we're eating--as well as numbers showing how real wages for the majority of Americans have mostly gone down, especially in the face of out-of-control health care costs.
It's a sobering book. Make some time to read it, and then read it. I think it will make you wonder just a bit about where bargain prices come from and how much they actually cost us.
*Please do click on this link, and read the review of this book listed there from The Washington Post. Now THAT is a review--and is right on. Although I liked this book, it did have its shortcomings. Reading that review highlights how my little blurbs here are not really "reviews" but are instead light "opinion pieces."
**I recognize this. The other day I was excited to find pork chops on sale for 2 for $2. I love pork chops, so I snapped some up, but when I think about it...how is that even possible? And this coming from a person who will not shop at Wal-Mart and mostly tries to avoid shopping at all. So the desire for cheap really is in all of us.