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? 

 

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