Synopses & Reviews
An Atlantic correspondent uncovers the true cost-in economic, political, and psychic terms-of our penchant for making and buying things as cheaply as possible
From the shuttered factories of the rust belt to the look-alike strip malls of the sun belt-and almost everywhere in between-America has been transformed by its relentless fixation on low price. This pervasive yet little examined obsession is arguably the most powerful and devastating market force of our time-the engine of globalization, outsourcing, planned obsolescence, and economic instability in an increasingly unsettled world.
Low price is so alluring that we may have forgotten how thoroughly we once distrusted it. 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. In this myth-shattering, closely reasoned, and exhaustively reported investigation, Shell exposes the astronomically high cost of cheap.
"Atlantic correspondent Shell (The Hungry Gene) tackles more than just 'discount culture' in this wide-ranging book that argues that the American drive toward bargain-hunting and low-price goods has a hidden cost in lower wages for workers and reduced quality of goods for consumers. After a dry examination of the history of the American retail industry, the author examines the current industrial and political forces shaping how and what we buy. In the book's most involving passages, Shell deftly analyzes the psychology of pricing and demonstrates how retailers manipulate subconscious bargain triggers that affect even the most knowing consumers. The author urges shoppers to consider spending more and buying locally, but acknowledges the inevitability of globalization and the continuation of trends toward efficient, cost-effective production. The optimistic call to action that concludes the book feels hollow, given the evidence that precedes it. If Shell illuminates with sharp intelligence and a colloquial style the downside of buying Chinese garlic or farm-raised shrimp, nothing demonstrates how consumers, on a mass scale, could seek out an alternative or why they would choose to do so. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The book is an engaging exploration of the ways cheapness is making our lives worse. What's more, it conveys how difficult it would be for Americans to abandon their focus on low prices. Reading this book, however, might be a good first step."
"....a first-rate job of reporting and analysis. Pay full price for this book, if you can stand to. It's worth it."
-Laura Shapiro, The Sunday New York Times Book Review
"That cycle of consumption seems harmless enough, particularly since we live in a country where there are plenty of cheap goods to go around. But in her lively and terrifying book "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture," Ellen Ruppel Shell pulls back the shimmery, seductive curtain of low-priced goods to reveal their insidious hidden costs. Those all-you-can-eat Red Lobster shrimps may very well have come from massive shrimp-farming spreads in Thailand, where they've been plumped up with antibiotics and possibly tended by maltreated migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam. The made-in-China toy train you bought your kid a few Christmases ago may have been sprayed with lead paint -- and the spraying itself may have been done by a child laborer, without the benefit of a protective mask.
"Cheap" is hardly a finger-waggling book. This isn't a screed designed to make us feel guilty for unknowingly benefiting from the hardships of workers in other parts of the world. And Shell -- who writes regularly for the Atlantic -- isn't talking about the shallowness of consumerism here; she makes it clear that she, like most of us, enjoys the hunt for a good deal. "Cheap" really is about us, meaning not just Americans, but citizens of the world, and about what we stand to lose in a global economic environment that threatens the very nature of meaningful work, work we can take pride in and build a career on -- or even at which we can just make a living.
-Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com
"This highly intelligent and disturbing book provides invaluable insight into our consumer culture and should be mandatory reading for anyone trying to figure out our current financial mess. As Shell proves, the hunt for cheap products has hurt us all. Highly recommended for smart readers." -Library Journal
"Diligent, useful cultural criticism, akin to Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic."
"I just finished Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell and I am now both disgusted and totally freaked out. Ed is hosting a round table discussion on this one in the coming weeks which I am a part of so I won't go into too much detail here but really, Shell has done an outstanding job of bringing together all the facets of our need to buy cheap: food, clothing, furniture, etc. She doesn't just talk Wal-mart (in fact she doesn't talk much about Wal-mart at all) but she does talk IKEA and Red Lobster and China and the history of discount shopping in our country (Woolworths, etc.) which is truly fascinating. Beyond all the info though, Shell's writing style is utterly and completely top notch. This is popular history/culture at its finest and after you read it, you will approach every single purchase you make with a high level of suspicion.
We have been roundly manipulated folks, for our entire lives. And while we all kinda know it, you have to read Cheap to really appreciate it. Staggering stuff."
-Colleen Mondor, reviewer for Booklist, Bookslut, Eclectica Magazine and the Voices of New Orleans
"Talk about timely!-in the midst of our economic confusion, Ellen Ruppel Shell talks good sense about cost, price, value-about what constitutes a bargain, and about what makes for a (literal) steal."
-Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy
"Americans have always loved a good deal. But, as this courageous book argues, that love has evolved into a destructive obsession. Shell shows through in-depth reporting that our never- ending hunt for discounts has fed a plethora of social ills. And by moving our production to the world's lowest-cost labor markets, we have scarified such basic values as handcraftsmanship and product integrity. As Cheap ably proves, you get what you pay for."
- Dana Thomas, author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster
"There is no free lunch. Ellen Ruppel Shell powerfully argues that we have paid a high price for buying cheap goods. Hers is compelling story that will hopefully convince Americans that making different choices as consumers can fundamentally change our society-and the world."
- Lizabeth Cohen, author of A Consumers' Republic
"Around the world, people are being forced to reconsider the very idea of prosperity, and to ask what kind of wealth matters most and can be sustained. Cheap appears at just the right moment to enrich this discussion. This history of discounting and bargain-mania will change the way shoppers think about their next trip to the mall. As an examination of the global effects of the quest for rock-bottom prices, Cheap an important addition to arguments about America's economic future. This is a valuable book for a troubled time."
-James Fallows, author of Postcards from Tomorrow Square
"More stuff for less!-the American recipe for material well-being. Now Ellen Ruppel Shell takes a hard look at this apparently simple notion and finds it isn't so simple after all. Cheap pulls apart the old economic verities and subjects the glib new promises of Wall Street and globalization to scrutiny. How did we find ourselves in our current mess? Shell finds part of the answer in our confused ideas about what, exactly, is a bargain price."
- Charles C. Mann, author of 1491
An "Atlantic Monthly" correspondent uncovers the true cost--in economic, political, and psychological terms--of the West's penchant for making and buying things as cheaply as possible.
A myth-shattering investigation of the true cost of America's passion for finding a better bargain
From the shuttered factories of the Rust Belt to the strip malls of the Sun Belt-and almost everywhere in between-America has been transformed by its relentless fixation on low price. This pervasive yet little- examined obsession with bargains is arguably the most powerful and devastating market force of our time, having fueled an excess of consumerism that blights our landscapes, escalates personal debt, lowers our standard of living, and even skews of our concept of time.
Spotlighting the peculiar forces that drove Americans away from quality, durability, and craftsmanship and towards quantity, quantity, and more quantity, Ellen Ruppel Shell traces the rise of the bargain through our current big-box profusion to expose the astronomically high cost of cheap.
About the Author
Ellen Ruppel Shell is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, National Geographic, Time, Discover, Seed, and dozens of other national publications. She is the author, most recently, of The Hungry Gene, which was published in six languages, and is Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Knight Center for Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University.