Ellen Ruppel Shell, Cheap

It's a valuable book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Ellen Ruppel Shell is a science journalist by training and inclination, so this book illustrates her background effectively. She includes numerous interviews with professors of one kind or another, for example, and the book is stuffed full of useful and interesting background information. I will say, though, that some of the book's value has to be found in spite of Shell's accomplishments here, because she falls short of living up to the quality of the material she brings together.

For one thing, Cheap opens and closes with Shell's comments that she'll always be a bargain shopper. At book's opening, it makes sense that Shell would want to ingratiate herself with her audience, which she can safely assume would be at least a little resistant to the idea of deliberately spending more for everything while buying much less in total. At book's end, the motivation behind this remark is less clear, unless Shell more clearly understands than I do the depth to which a uniquely American devotion to low prices runs in the collective, national unconscious. (Just to be clear: of course she understands it more clearly. I just don't know if that's enough of a reason, because it isn't to my eyes.)

For another, I can't fathom how she can bring together all this data and history, and all these ideas, and not find herself calling specifically for revolution, with targeted actions and with high-profile villains richly deserving comeuppance. (Wal-Mart, I'm looking at you, and especially at former CEO Lee Scott.) Sure, she concludes Cheap by describing the "bloodless" consumer revolution to come (p.231), but a revolution without bullets or bullhorns? It'd be an oddly Canadian revolution, taking advantage of the nuclear option otherwise known as the cold shoulder, or possibly the disapproving sniff, and I don't see how her data leads her to think that the inescapably mild behaviour of the goodhearted consumer has a chance against media and retail behemoths.

Hey Americans: individual responsibility gets trumped by determined collective coercion, about every time. Discount culture will not be overthrown by my buying clothes only at recycle stores or at bespoke tailors.

But like I said, it's an enormously valuable book, and I'd strongly encourage everyone to read it so you understand what you're up against every time you suggest maybe it'd be nice if we respected each other a little more. Ellen Ruppel Shell has done a wonderful job of bringing together the tools you'll need to defend this mild position -- and its much more radical consequences.


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