Friday, July 30, 2010

Cheap Is Not Cheap

It has been said before and needs to be said again, with the same persistence as the mysterious slogan "Freedom isn't Free." Cheap isn't cheap.

I pay too much for housing, movie tickets, and prescription medications. But paying too little for an umbrella that falls apart after one windy outing doesn't mitigate that. It only adds up to a hundred dollar a year umbrella habit. (Oh, and doesn't the store that sells them just know it?)

So writes Mary Elizabeth Williams in a brief and humorous piece for Salon today. She does not go very deep in her analysis, but she has a clue:

Our collective mania for low, low prices has been frothing for years now, fueled by morally dubious manufacturing practices, aggressive marketing and a crap economy. But as Stephanie Zacharek pointed out last year regarding Ellen Ruppel's "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture," those bargains come at a cost – to workers here and abroad, to the environment, and to our own increasingly superficial relationship with our possessions. As your mom used to day, this is why can't we have nice things.

I recommend the 2009 Zacharek article linked in that quote, by the way.

How things are produced. Who produces them. What they are made of. How they are delivered to us. These things matter, and not only because they factor into the price we pay. Our involvement in the lives of other human beings, the health of our own home and community, and the ecological system that sustains human life, is far deeper than a swipe of a plastic card at a cashier counter.

In a 2009 post on this blog, I quoted from a Wendell Berry essay on husbandry to demonstrate the point that when we consume food, we are also consuming the way it was produced. This notion of husbandry could also be extended into other spheres of our economy.

Elsewhere, Berry wrote, "We’ve lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We’ve been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. That requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery. We will never clearly understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of the creation and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it."

As it says in the Buddhist equivalent of saying grace before a meal, innumerable labors brought us our food, we should know how it comes to us.

It is the same with a $2 camisole, or the oil we run through our car's engine, or the sidewalk you might walk on during this day. The mail that is brought to you. The internet service that allows you to read this blog (thank you, by the way, for reading).

Cheap is not really cheap. Low prices disguise things that matter.


Pam said...

Valid points, all. However, at this time low prices are what guide me in making sure I've got food on the table and clothes on the boys.

I know you dislike Walmart, but it's my one-stop shopping place for most everything these days.

Algernon said...

I buy stuff at Wal-Mart sometimes. Don't miss the broader issue.

I understand you have your own reasons for going along. It is less comfortable to do otherwise. That's the point. That's how it works. It ain't an accident.

Your choices and my choices are corralled, so to speak, by design.

Adam said...

Freedom isn't free
It costs folks like you and me
And if we don't all chip in
We'll never pay that bill
Freedom isn't free
Now there's a hefty in' fee
And if you don't throw in your buck 'o five
Who will?

You don't throw in your buck 'o five. Who will?
Oooh buck 'o five
Freedom costs a buck 'o five

On a more serious note, one habit I've picked up to feed my "cheap" desire is to shop for used at thrift stores. It is a tiny chink in the armor that our system runs on, but a chink none the less.

Nathan said...


I get it. I work with people who have little to nothing, and end up at places like Wal-Mart as well. I don't have a lot myself, and shop that smaller equivalent Target sometimes. So, that in and of itself isn't much better.

But what I also hear in your statement is a sense that you have no interest in really considering how you might shift your life some to have a bit less impact on the world. Forgive the bluntness, but I find these days that a lot of people are simply good at talking about things like "green living," but won't make any real changes in their life if it causes discomfort.

Here's the thing. You buy a pair of crappy shoes at Wal-mart for 25 dollar. They fall apart in six months. You go get another pair. The same thing happens. You've spent 50 for two crappy pairs of shoes that were made by sweatshop laborers in Bangladesh, and you have nothing left after a year. You also have four shoes into the garbage. I know this because I have done it myself.

I could have saved up and bought a pair of quality shoes that might last two or three years, and weren't made by sweatshop laborers whose lives are slowly being destroyed by 16 hour work days. But I didn't.

And in the end, not only have I not supported the local shoe companies that employ people at decent wages and make good shoes, but I have also thrown away the same amount of money or sometimes more to purchase what amounts to junk with a short lifespan. Even if those more locally made shoes cost 75 dollars and last two years, I can easily blow that on the three pair of crappy shoes.

In my view, part of the problem is that even though items are "cheaper" at places like Wal-Mart, it can be a phony discount if you consider it in the long term.

This shopping behavior is really only one piece in the puzzle, and certainly people can have impacts in different ways while still shopping at places like Wal Mart sometimes. But what I find is that many people just want comfort - they want to drive everywhere, use shitty products that don't cost much, and want things to be uber easy overall.

I'm not saying you are part of this group Pam, but the quick dismissal in your comments makes it challenging for me to think otherwise. (That's my bias, I fully acknowledge.)

Adam said...

Worlds... colliding...must...restrain...self.

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a friend of mine from the WELL!