The book “Cheap: High Cost of a Discount Culture” by Ellen Ruppel Shell argues that cheap stuff leads to many negative consequences. The book discusses the history of retail and the practices stores use to entice consumers into spending. The author concludes that lower prices do not necessarily translate into bargains in the chain store, or along the food chain.
The book highlights how cheap things resist involvement and encourage disposable behavior, which leads to waste. It also discusses how the age of cheap has raised cognitive dissonance to a societal norm.
The book argues that mass-market consumption offers the facade of social equality without forcing society to go through the hard work of redistributing wealth. Low prices lead consumers to think they can get what they want without necessarily getting what they need.
Useful takeaways from the book are:
- Cheap things encourage disposable behavior, which leads to waste.
- Low prices lead consumers to think they can get what they want without necessarily getting what they need.
- Mass-market consumption offers the facade of social equality without forcing society to go through the hard work of redistributing wealth.
- The economics of cheap cramps innovation and contributes to the decline of once flourishing industries.
- The ennoblement of cheap marks a radical departure in American culture and a titanic shift in our national priorities.
What I Liked
Well, for one thing, today I am cleaning up a flooded floor from my 7 year old washing machine. And why is that?
Well, it turns out that for all the fancy features built into my washing machine – the digital display, the custom water temperature, the custom song instead of an “ARRRRRGGGH” at the end of the cycle – they decided to use a plastic and glue instead of rubber and steel for the drain hose.
So guess what has happened after only 7 years? The glue is brittle and the plastic is weak…hence a flooded washroom.
Now I’m “paying” in the form of lost Sunday and Monday afternoons fixing our washer and running fans to prevent mold.
I would have gladly paid extra for a rubber and steel drain hose at purchase…but they do not make them like that any more. Premium options = more features…not better quality.
That whole story is a microcosm of what this book is about. We all love cheap stuff…but we’re all a little worse off somehow.
What I Did Not Like
I think the book leans into their premise a bit too much. There’s obviously a massive counter-argument for competition and cost savings. The author simply dismisses that argument almost out of hand. Parts of the book read more like a rant than a solid argument.
A lot of things have gotten better and cheaper over time due to actual improvements in production techniques and raw materials. I think the book could have done a better job “steelmanning” the book.