walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Cheap_, Ellen Ruppel Shell

Subtitled: The High Cost of Discount Culture

I read, and remembered enjoying, Shell's (or Ruppel Shell's, as the case may be; I don't know) _The Hungry Gene_ a while ago. Like other books I've been reading lately, this is a combination of the kind of non-fiction I like (hmm, I'm curious about X. I'll track down the experts and ask them and then tell you the story of the process) and the kind of non-fiction I'll less enthusiastic about (I'll relay to you my summary and analysis of several books about X).

It's nice that Shell includes how nasty Henry Ford could be about policing the personal lives of his employees, rather than just repeating how he paid them enough to be a market for his cars. It's a little less fortunate that she keeps portraying a shining past world in which a high school education got you a job at a factory and that was enough to raise a family on. For one thing, that was a pretty brief period, and for another thing, even when it was true, that job had come from somewhere else that was now suffering from elevated unemployment. You might be able to find an exception. You might.

She takes on the long history of discounting in America, which is better than portraying Wal-Mart as some newcomer on the scene that destroyed perfect world of better retailing. The beginning of Wanamaker's, J.C. Penney's, Woolworth's and others added up (at least in my head) to a strong sense that just about everywhere I've ever shopped at least used to be a discounter, back in the day. Obviously, that's not true, but everywhere else I've shopped seems to be overpriced according to Shell, especially places like Whole Foods.

Shell's analysis of the impact of globalization puts too little weight, in my opinion, on the relative strength of currencies (mercantilism 101). While she recognizes we're going to ultimately need real regulation around the world (it's bad enough that the poor exploited masses don't get paid enough. It's worse when they aren't paid anything at all), she is quite pessimistic about whether or when that will ever happen. In the end, she doesn't have much advice at all for how to fix this predicament we are all in: she thinks tariffs won't do much good (I actually disagree with her on this one), and winds it all up with a fairly lame call to not focus so tightly on price.

Part of my problem is Shell's use of the term de-skilling, a term that reliably infuriates me. The people who programmed front panels were deskilled by punch card operators. Assembler deskilled machine language programmers. Computer languages and their programmers deskilled the folk who could code assembler. In any universe I can imagine, I don't want to go back to a world which highly rewards people who can make sense of a PDP anything -- even if it meant programmers in the US could quit worrying about cut rate competition in India.

I'm reasonably certain that no one wants to go back to a world in which young women with appealing voices were guaranteed a decent wage connecting telephone calls manually on a switchboard. Or a world in which a young man with clear handwriting could always get work copying manuscripts. You see my problem. I'm very unimpressed -- other than as a museum artifact -- with guns that were essentially sculptures that did frightening and noisy things. By contrast, the artifacts that resulted from interchangeable parts and "de-skilling" watchmaking -- and gunmaking -- are very impressive.

I've commented recently that I'm reflexively pro-union, which I fight, just as I fight my attraction to libertarianism. And right now, I'm finding that while I despise the rhetoric around de-skilling, I agree with the goal: jobs that don't require permanent indebtedness for education in order to get access to, jobs that pay enough to be able to shelter, feed, clothe, and educate and get health care for oneself and enough extra to be able to afford to reproduce. Jobs that allow a life outside of work. Jobs that don't off-load all the risk, whether economic, physical or other onto the worker. We need to figure out a way to make all that happen. But I don't think that whining about de-skilling is the way to go.

Shell touches upon the work of Kahneman and Tversky, behavioral economics, which of course I Love. Some of what she describes is familiar to me; some of it was new to me. It's a decent summary of the field, just as other sections of the book are a decent explanation of the shift in manufacturing, the squeeze on the middle class, exploitation of workers in other countries, etc.

I'm not sure what I wanted this book to be or to do that it did not. Asking Shell to solve all these problems is ridiculous on the face of it (I do have a few suggestions, which are almost universally unpopular to the point of being unimplementable). I guess Shell hit a little too close to some of the same buttons that the author of _Green Metropolis_ hit. Shell, at least as the authorial voice, whether genuine to herself or a pose to connect with the reader, dearly loves a Deal. And if you read this book all by itself, you'd have No Idea that ideas like Voluntary Simplicity had ever occurred to anyone, much less that a whole lot of us were happy to pay "more" for "less", because we actually had a clear sense of what we really wanted, and would rather go without than bring home another trunkload of cruft from the dollar store. That's all, technically, outside the scope of the book. Except I can't help feeling that it's not. Also, I feel like the author is really trying very hard to convince me (and herself) to do something she can't imagine ever enjoying doing.
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