Cheap – A Liberal Arts Challenge

Ellen Ruppel Shell, Boston University journalism professor and author, is a smart and informed writer. In her latest book, Cheap: the high cost of discount culture, Shell looks at the rise of discount culture – discount shops, outlet malls, and the proliferation of the cheap.  Cheap, she takes pains to point out, is not the same as inexpensive. Drawing from economics, psychology, business history, sociology and marketing, she explains how discounting has reshaped American life. It is a well-written, well-reviewed and provocative book. And like so many other provocative, difficult to pigeonhole books, Cheap challenges the academy.

The underlying message in cheap is that bargains still have costs – and that we should be aware of them and the entire chain of events that brings us cheap shrimp, flat pack furniture, and DVD players.

Stepping quickly through a history of shopping, department stores, and malls, Shell establishes fundamental rules about the way prices are set and understood. People understand prices through anchoring: via brands, alternatives, and context. When purchases were made person to person, trust was an important part of the equation. When purchases began to be made in large stores without the presence of a helpful clerk, trust flew out the window. Big box stores changed the relationship between seller and consumer. Increased productivity and lower costs offered more goods to more people, especially those that had less money. One of the most interesting facts of the last decade is that even though real income for most Americans have remained flat or decreased, consumption has remained solid – or increased.

Having outlined the landscape, Shell then explains how it works – competitive pricing, priming (the ways that we make decisions is influenced by non-essential factors), our hard-wired aversion to loss, and the very human irrationality that clouds economic behavior. We are not objective creatures. And retailers and their support systems are aware of this.

Perhaps one of the most salient illustrations of how irrational human consumption can be manipulated is through the rise of the outlet malls. Advertised under the heading of “bargains” the outlet malls provided a way for brands to splinter their products and unload large numbers of goods. Shoppers who drive to outlet malls are primed to find bargains and are by default committed to buying. That is one of the important reasons that the malls are inconveniently located. As for the prices of the goods, all are heavily discounted from an original price whose reliability is unknown.

Shell’s chapter on Ikea affirms the same themes of cheap and disposable goods with a twist. She notes the opposition of design, as practiced by Ikea, and quality. Ikea design, its flat pack assemblies, render craftsmanship as irrelevant. But is it really worth it? Shell wryly comments on the value of a cheap, particle board bookcase that does not last with a used, wooden bookcase whose reliability will be for decades. The answer, clearly, is that Ikea is no bargain – particularly when considering all the attendant costs.

Bringing this all together, Shell makes some trenchant observations on the disappearance of jobs in the United States while we are awash in cheap crap. Cheap is a powerful book that gives one pause. In fact, it is exactly the sort of work that you might think is being debated by enthusiastic, idealistic and engaged college students.  They might be – but it will not because it was assigned. Through multiple web searches I have so far found Cheap mentioned in nine college course syllabi. There may be more and there should be more. The book was first favorably reviewed in late 2009.  The slow adoption of Cheap has little to do with the value of the arguments in the book or the arguments made by Shell. The absence of Cheap in course syllabi is a reflection of how higher education operates.

All institutions of higher education ground their students in general education requirements, which are just about always a nod to the liberal arts. The liberal arts, as almost everyone in higher education claims, provide the best foundation for a college education and sharpen students’ ability to make the critical connections and arguments that are a hallmark of a college-educated mind. Liberal arts courses are grounded in the humanities, social sciences and sciences. Within each of these broad categories, disciplines rule. In the humanities, English, the arts, philosophy and languages are preeminent. Anthropology, Economics, History (which can be in the humanities), Psychology, and Sociology dominate. For the sciences, it is often mathematics, biology, chemistry and physics. All of this is familiar – and none of these categories can claim Cheap as one of their own. When it comes to interdisciplinarity, or multidisciplinarity, college curricula often seem to assume that it is best introduced after some attention to these traditional disciplines.

For the faculty who teach within general education, finding a course in which Cheap might be a good fit would be difficulty. Similarly, in upper level courses, the push would be for the major – and again, few majors would necessarily see Cheap as a good fit. For the book to be adopted, an institution would have to have a place in its curriculum for upper level interdisciplinary courses that pulled students who had familiarity with a wide range of social sciences as well as history and business. That is not especially common. The book simply does not fit within most college curricula, even though it makes connections and raises questions that are at the center of the liberal arts and sciences.

Many institutions require all entering students to read one common book. Ironically enough, Cheap stands a better chance of reaching colleges through that route than the classroom. I hope that some colleges try it. Shell has authored a book that can make its readers re-think their consumption and their world.

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