Cheap Thrills

I recently threw out a pair of versatile black ballet flats that I have worn exactly eight times. They only cost $12, so the price-per wear was less than I pay for coffee each morning. I'm not angry that they fell apart so quickly; in fact, I can pick up another identical pair from Target. I've known a lot of ballet slippers in my life, but none have cared to stick around too long. It's easier on my budget to buy four or six or even eight pairs a year rather than purchase one nice pair that might last longer but is destined for the same trash heap. Buying more is the way to economize: Clearly, this is not my grandmother's downturn.

Cheap is having a moment. Each day since the financial collapse brings a new story about the countercyclical discount sector. Dollar stores, Wal-Mart, McDonald's -- all are going great guns. But it's not just acceptable to pinch a few pennies these days, it's downright fashionable. Magazines like Vogue, tone-deaf to cost in the prelapsarian recent past, have creakily bent their editorial stance to include new features on low(er)-priced clothing. The too-cute-by-half buzzword "recessionista" has entered the common lexicon (alongside the William Safire-approved "frugalista"). Google the very word "cheap" and (at the time of this writing) the fourth hit is a guide to the new low-rent lifestyle by New York magazine, a publication previously distinguished by its slick, housing bubblicious commodity fetishization.

This new moderation might be bad news for the broader American economy, but it is perversely good news for Ellen Ruppel Shell, an Atlantic reporter who's just released Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, an exploration of the ways we've been seduced by low prices into forgetting our best interests. The book treads some familiar ground for anyone acquainted with the anti--Wal-Mart movement, which criticizes the mass retailer as the apotheosis of exploitative labor practices and inferior goods. But Ruppel Shell's aim is to synthesize those invectives into a larger argument, one that eventually builds to blame the economic meltdown on our "fixation on all things cheap."

It seems like a long leap from the Dollar Menu to mortgage-backed securities, but it's also, in a way, an obvious connection. We are naturally susceptible to the thrill of a bargain. Ruppel Shell draws heavily on the work of behavioral economist Dan Ariely to show the many ways that we allow ourselves to be exploited by marketing and conditioned to crave that feeling of getting more for less -- like, say, more house for less money down. You know how that story ends.

But I didn't buy a house, much less one I couldn't afford. So what does my habit of buying $12 shoes have to do with the financial mess we've found ourselves in? Because the only way to make something that cheaply, of course, is to underpay workers, who themselves become squeezed and have no choice but to buy low-end goods. This locks in the discount market still more solidly and widens the chasm between what's truly affordable and what's presented as necessity. (It's not just low pay that's stretching these workers, nor is it merely the oft-blamed American spending addiction: Ruppel Shell cites the amazing statistics that in 2003 we spent 32 percent less on clothes and 18 percent less on food than our parents did in the early 1970s but 76 percent more on mortgages and 74 percent more on health insurance.)

By now, though, Wal-Mart goods with a Made in China label are low-hanging fruit. It's more intriguing to consider the companies blue-staters tend to give an ethical free pass to because we love them so. Ruppel Shell excoriates "masstique" brands (boutique labels for the masses) like Coach, which hike up prices without a proportional rise in quality. And she similarly hates on the $7.99-per-pound salad bar at Whole Foods for dressing up (and pricing up) cheap food in cannily snobby clothing. These are the villains who have confused our concept of value, so we don't really understand what anything's worth any longer.

But Ikea, that darling of temporarily impoverished urbanites the world over, gets the longest dressing-down. The furniture behemoth has built a whole culture around its modern, Scandinavian aesthetic offering meatballs to shoppers who schlep by ferry or bus or borrowed car to their outlets. We don't buy an Ikea futon with the intention of passing it on to our children; we buy it because it looks vaguely hip, and it's cheap enough that we won't feel wasteful dumping it before we move to our next apartment. And since Ikea is very public about its efforts to make its furniture biodegradable, embracing the very dumpability of its own product, our enviro-guilt is assuaged.

It's easy to blame the spending habits of the poor for the rise of cheap culture. But the newly minted "creative class" is just as complicit, even as we quote cheap-food critic Michael Pollan and separate paper from plastic. Young professionals don't want to "waste" the time it would take to get an appliance fixed, so they buy a new one; they purchase wash-and-wear clothing with a short shelf life to avoid dry-cleaning bills. They also need -- or rather, choose -- cheap goods to enable the much-lauded surge in mobility of recent years. Childless, unmarried urbanites no longer necessarily want to put down roots and invest in buying and maintaining a house. And the market for solidly constructed new housing has dwindled. Ruppel Shell quotes an architect who says we don't demand craftsmanship in the homes we buy, not because of cost, but because "most of us don't think we deserve it."

Houses won't last and clothes won't be handed down because we no longer ask that they be built for the long run. That's Ruppel Shell's key distinction: We might be cheap, but we're no longer thrifty. In fact, even if we recover that instinct in the future, we'll have left ourselves with gaping holes in the reusable-products ecosystem. There will be drastically fewer clothes, appliances, and furniture worth reselling or giving away -- a sock in the gut for vintage and thrift stores. That means, of course, that there would be even fewer ways to practice thrift, cutting off another escape route from cheap culture. It's self-reinforcing bad behavior.

***

Back to my ballet flats. I proudly tell anyone they're from Target, just as I preen and gush out its origin when complimented on a $20 dress from Forever 21. I don't have to be ashamed of my cheap shopping habits, because the wheels of fashion and industry have turned to a point where attractive design is not the exclusive domain of high-end retailers. To Ruppel Shell, design is the opiate of the masses, and we're mistakenly willing to substitute a pretty exterior for quality and durability.

But one of the puzzling contradictions of the cheap era is that craftsmanship is having a bit of a renaissance. Etsy, a sort of virtual craft fair/flea market, was started in 2005 and did more than $100 million in business last year. An entire community -- 97 percent female -- has grown around the site. Buyers can see pictures of the person who painted that owl-covered teacup or sewed that wool skirt they're ogling and read the often quirky, first-person description of how and where that one-of-a-kind item was made.

Do-it-yourself culture is renascent offline as well: Fashionable craft fairs like Washington's Crafty Bastards or Brooklyn's Renegade Craft Fair have popped up in many large cities. Niche magazines like ReadyMade function as a sort of Ladies' Home Journal for tattooed knitting enthusiasts. It's all part of a burgeoning subculture chronicled in last year's Handmade Nation, a book (and, more recently, a movie) that documents how the latest spate of craftiness, for all its punk posturing, hipster aesthetic, and progressive philosophy, recycles old-fashioned techniques.

The problem with Etsy and its ilk is that the production model isn't really scalable -- but the aesthetic is. Consumers of handmade goods are often just as interested in the look as the philosophy, and craft culture has had a noticeable influence on the design of mass-produced objects found on the shelves of your local Target. Most people aren't going to spend hours combing through minimally organized digital photos to find the perfect hand-enameled belt buckle. But they will buy one at Urban Outfitters, fresh off the assembly line, that looks from a distance like it could be homemade.

In the big scheme of things, do these alternatives to cheap culture really boil down to spitting in the wind, a way for sanctimonious elites to feel that they can't be held personally responsible for the problem? Ruppel Shell cites farmers' markets as an example of the anti-cheap platonic ideal. Like craft culture, the locavore movement is burgeoning, but similar problems exist with access and scale: Not everyone lives in a place where there's a market nearby, and not everyone has an entire morning to spare for marketing. But Ruppel Shell, to her credit, doesn't imply that farmers' markets will inherit the earth; she offers up mass retailers like Costco and Wegman's. With their attention to treating their work force well, such companies are presented as a more pragmatic and moral way to feed the beast, a partial solution that seems like a good first step toward fixing the problem.

But here's the rub: I amen-ed my way through Ruppel Shell's book. Of course we shouldn't rely on sweatshop labor. Of course the disposable nature of the goods we buy wreaks havoc on the environment. Of course I have been blinded by marketing. Of course it's a moral ill that I discard things so blithely. But that doesn't change the fact that, like a lot of people these days, I don't have much money to spend. Since finishing Ruppel Shell's book, I have nearly bought a replacement pair of $12 Target ballet flats several times but couldn't stomach the guilt. I need new clothes for this summer, but when I strolled down to my local H&M, the the seams on the sundresses looked closer to unraveling than I'd ever noticed before.

Yet most of my habits haven't changed. I've bought disposable plastic organizers from a big-box store and partaken of the overpriced Whole Foods salad bar. I've chosen the cheapest brand of eggs and cereal at the grocery store. And while I've tried on lovely, pricy alternatives to H&M for my summer wardrobe, I've stopped just before purchasing out of sheer short-term economic preservation. When it's convenient, I've reverted to cheap. If you can't even get the converted to testify, where does that put your movement?

Ruppel Shell claims that as we are forced to restructure our financial system, we'll also be forced to rethink the "shaky foundation" of cheap deals upon which we've built it and recommit to quality. "In a true global village," she writes, "we can love a bargain without compromising our standards and values." But it doesn't change the fact that the companies turning the most massive profits during this recession are the ones peddling the cheap deals on the backs of cheap labor. They'll emerge into a market upturn stronger than ever. Intellectually, we might not want cheap any longer, but we're voting for it with our $12-shoe-clad feet.

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