Yesterday’s New York Times book review of Ellen Ruppel Shell‘s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture was, I thought, wonderful and terrifying at the same time. [If you cannot see a video about the book below, click HERE.]

The author’s well-researched hypothesis is that we are either ignorant of or – in many cases – simply choose to ignore the profoundly negative, corrosive effects of needing to have everything cheap, cheap, cheap.  The article’s primary example from the book is shrimp, which went from an expensive treat to something you can get at any cheesy seafood chain restaurant nearly any night of the week on the “all you can eat” menu: a phenom fueled by so much greed and artificial chemicals that what they should serve at our tables is the resulting “pollution and toxic waste,” with a side of the “ruinous debt, environmental degradation, horrifying human rights abuses and violence that left millions destitute” in Thailand and other countries.

Yummm.  Pass the garlic bread.

But do Americans care?  Lower food prices at Wal-Mart are impressive because, even if you never set foot in one of its stores, its mere presence drives down food prices in the surrounding area.  Hurray!  Forget about the fact Wal-Mart’s brand-name food items aren’t all that much cheaper, in fact, and how do you know that that chicken isn’t cheaper because it’s of lower quality?  What we do know is, well, all the things we know about how Wal-Mart has historically kept its prices down. 

These practices are why I do not shop at Wal-Mart.  But I’m in the minority.

And has this obsession American’s have with inexpensive goods damaged us in macro ways that are now coming home to roost?  When prices are too low, innovation is nearly impossible, reports a Harvard economist. 

Paging General Motors. Oh, and this moribund company is already “out of bankruptcy?!” Paging the U.S. government…

The only true major American innovation outside of Apple that’s gotten any real attention… has occurred on Wall Street.  And we all know how well that’s going for millions of people.

So I’m worried.  There are a lot of executives who have generated a lot of shareholder value by sticking the low-price needle into our arms… and consumers like it.  Now we’re in a recession, which is likely to compound the effect: many now have no alternative but to shop for the least expensive goods – and others use it as a sadly understandable reason to reverse course and cut back.  People are worried, and conserving:  I’ve seen several studies where people say they’re cutting back on “values” purchases, such as “green” and organic goods for example.

Where does it end?  What do we care about the most?  The U.S. is consistently on the wrong side of global lists of developed countries ranked for homelessnessobesity, high school graduation, health care quality… and we’re the biggest polluter in the world.   

There’s a lot of chest-beating on television about the national debt.  “We’re saddling our grandchildren with crippling debt! Gahhh!”  What about what we’re doing right now – what we care about today? 

Have you heard of a fellow named Tommy Habeeb? Mr. Habeeb has created a new product called the BabySport Water Bottle Nipple Adaptor, a little plastic nipple gizmo that screws on to the top of a regular water bottle so that a baby can drink it. It’s summer, it’s hot, these things are selling like hotcakes and everyone’s happy.

I thought of this guy when I saw MSNBC’s report this week on Starbucks’ plans to develop products specifically intended for the kids who frequent the company’s stores. My only thought was, “Genius, as usual.” But MSNBC’s spin would have made a viewer think that the evil Starbucks intended to use Habeeb’s invention to nurse infants with 670-calorie coffee drinks* – and more than once a day. Actually, the kid in this picture does seem to be struggling with the adult lid a bit… I’m kidding, I’m kidding!

stephanie_fierman_kid-at-starbucks.jpg

MSNBC leveraged Starbucks’ announcement to write the company into the fast-food child obesity epidemic trend story that has garnered so much attention in the last couple years. I think that’s over the top. Granted, this is not an altruistic move by Starbucks, but then again no one’s ever claimed that Starbucks is a not-for-profit. While active in many social areas, the company sees a new opportunity and it’s going to pursue it. Likewise, these corporate baristas are savvy enough to assume that perhaps it was just a matter of time before the food police would turn their attention to after-school frappuccinos with whipped cream, so the company proactively moved to position itself in a more positive light. They make more money, we think of them as offering healthy (healthier?) choices, everybody wins.

*Yawn*

It’s far more compelling to package this non-event as Motley Fool has, sounding the alarm by warning that “heavy-handed marketing to kids can open up an ugly can of worms” with the example of what happened to Reynolds Tobacco when it got caught promoting Camel cigarettes to children. Comparing Starbucks (with hot chocolate, juices, waters, etc. already available) to cigarettes? For Starbucks’ marketers and product folks, talk about “no good deed goes unpunished…”

I’ll end with some of MSNBC’s own viewers’ representative comments on the network’s website. They are hilarious and spot-on (I’ve edited for length and grammar):
mel-wags22: My boys will often get up early on a Saturday morning and we’ll go, get drinks and spend an hour just sitting in the store talking about our week. It’s good family time. If some moron wants to feed their 4 year old, double shot lattes, that’s their problem! 3Under3: As an occasional part of the late-morning stay-at-home-mom rush, I don’t have a problem with the basic kids’ drink menu of steamed milk, hot chocolate or steamed cider, and the bottled drinks, like the organic milk are good… A child who is getting a good diet at home, should be able to handle a treat sometimes without risking obesity. sweetshoppelover: This has become another non-issue perpetrated by the food police. Who are these people? My age group remembers going to the neighborhood candy store, by ourselves, to get malted milks or ice cream sodas. As for over-caffeinated teens – as I remember, that was one of the safer dumb things to do as a teenager!GreginTexas: We all know that the next step, if we allow children to overrun Starbucks, is kids in strip clubs and kids at adult book stores and kids buying alcoholic beverages at 7-11 for their kindergarten class pre-nap breaks. WHEN does this insanity end?
Agree, disagree? How much responsibility does a marketer like Starbucks – who certainly began by selling an adult drink to adult customers – have for protecting kids, beyond what they are doing today? Let me know what you think.

* Note: A vente-sized, double chocolate chip blended crème frappuccino with whipped cream contains 670 calories, including 200 fat calories and 12g of saturated fat. I picked it for effect as the wackiest gut-buster on Starbucks’ website I could find.