The high cost of low prices

Our bizarre obsession with vanity gadgets allows us to feign class equality -- and that's bad for everyone

Published November 12, 2010 12:01PM (EST)

The Best Buy logo is displayed on a store in Miami, Fla. Best Buy says fiscal second-quarter net income rose 60 percent as shoppers bought cell phones, appliances and tablet computers. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)  (J Pat Carter)
The Best Buy logo is displayed on a store in Miami, Fla. Best Buy says fiscal second-quarter net income rose 60 percent as shoppers bought cell phones, appliances and tablet computers. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter) (J Pat Carter)

First, it was the new $200 printer -- within hours of being extracted from its bubble-wrap womb, the contraption started making an awful wheezing sound.

Then it was the $10 stopwatch we bought to time my wife's labor contractions -- the moment it was torn out of its blister package, its digital screen flamed out.

Then it was our 3-year-old $500 television -- the fuzzy lines started during late-night "Seinfeld" reruns and haven't stopped.

And finally, it was the $25 lamp for my e-book reader -- the light looked so useful ... until it started emitting a hideous blue tint.

Welcome to my most recent teeth-clenching weekend spent in return lines at discount electronics stores -- a weekend no doubt typical in what journalist Ellen Ruppel Shell calls the current age of "Cheap." In her new book by that name, she argues that our economy has been reorganized around goods that sacrifice craftsmanship on the altar of low price.

Weekends like mine prove her point -- and they represent a relatively new economic phenomenon. Whereas Great Depression America valued well-made utilitarian products and understood the inherent danger of bargain culture, Great Recession America prioritizes discounts at the expense of everything else.

This shift from heirloom sensibilities to today's throwaway mind-set has brought us a full-fledged ethos of cheap -- one that offers both a self-reinforcing logic and an illusory promise of social status. We can see this most clearly in the ubiquitous realm of electronics.

At the level of logic -- i.e., the level of Best Buy showroom decisions -- cheap seems to make financial sense. The printer may quickly die, but why worry if printer prices keep dropping? New televisions may last only half as long as they once did, but what's the big deal if those televisions now cost a third of what they used to? And why spend more on higher-priced electronics that pledge reliability when cheap is now so pervasive you feel like your extra cash would end up buying a brand logo rather than a genuinely better product?

Then again, many purchases aren't made with such calculated logic. We know this because in tough times, logic would warrant a focus on low-priced necessities. Instead, the Wall Street Journal reports that Americans are now "spending more on electronics like iPads and flat-screen televisions and less on durable goods like furniture, washing machines and lawn mowers."

Cheap, in other words, is operating most powerfully at the subconscious level, where semiotics reign supreme. We can no longer afford to show off with Corvettes and McMansions, so we now show off with less expensive smart phones and home theaters. In that sense, the bizarre obsession with moderately priced vanity gadgets is part of a living-standard masquerade at the twilight of middle-class prosperity. It doesn't matter if the electronic bling works well or lasts long. Its value is not utility -- it is the ability to feign class equality in a country of crushing stratification and rising poverty.

All of this, of course, comes with serious consequences. Some are obvious -- for instance, environmental degradation from excessive waste or larger long-term expenses from repeated replacement purchases. Some are more indirect -- such as low wages from the low-price business model. And still others are nearly invisible -- say, the deleterious psychological effects of a society trying to keep up with the Joneses.

As Shell's book subtitle rightly suggests, there is indeed a "high cost of discount culture" beyond the soul-crushing pain of customer-service purgatory and weekends ruined by big-box stores. It is the high cost of cheap we don't think much about -- a cost that increasingly eliminates any benefits of low price.

By David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at

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Consumerism Economics