Book Review: Cheap

Title: Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture
Author: Ellen Ruppel Shell
Penguin, 2009

This book begins in the same place as a surprisingly large number of books of this type: with the author’s (seemingly sudden) realization that something she takes for granted might be a problem. In this case, it is the purchase of a pair of boots. Having to choose between expensive and cheap, she chooses the cheap ones. Unsurprisingly, they turn out to be uncomfortable, and are tossed on the ‘regrets’ pile after a single wearing. This leads her to question this state of affairs: what has happened to the middle ground? Well-crafted, durable, affordable objects that can be maintained, she argues, are missing from our culture, and we have driven them out by our relentless pursuit of the cheap.

She takes us on a compelling and readable trip, touching on economics, psychology, history, sociology, marketing… the list is long, as is the Bibliography. If you have been paying attention to the last 20 years of globalization research and rhetoric, there is little surprising here, although her inter-disciplinary approach gives us a well-argued story of where we are, what compromises and decisions got us here, and why it is difficult to extricate ourselves.

I was, however, disappointed in this book, not because it doesn’t propose solutions (although it doesn’t really), but because the author is nearly glib when she encounters the seeming intractibility of the problems. She emphasizes that we can’t simply allow the price of healthy food and other essentials to continue rise beyond the reach of the American working class. She documents environmental and social devastation in one location after another and how American trade policies continue to contribute. She devotes a chapter to how we are seduced by pricing and marketing to purchase more than we intend to. Yet she seems to be optimistic that the myriad issues can be overcome… somehow. In the end she comes back to the purchasing power of the consumer, despite having spent 200 pages explaining the limitations of that position. She hints at, but never quite explicitly states, a need for moral and ethical development, polictical engagement, and strengthened public institutions. Other books in the category have done a better job with the wrap-up. This book might work well in conjunction with a library on ‘what to do next’, but as a stand-alone, I find it ultimately unfulfilling.

I give it three stars and a sad-face emoticon for failing to live up to my expectations. *** 🙁