September 28, 2011

In Cheap We Trust

The book shouts from the cover the word in big letters: CHEAP.

But that's only half the story. If I remember correctly, she states somewhere that the real thesis of the book is not about cheapness, but about thriftiness and frugality. The problem is, would you pick up a book that shouted from the cover in big letters: FRUGALITY?

I probably wouldn't, but that is why we have marketers. When I have to think of the central word, I think not of a consumer too hard to part from their money; I instead think of a bargain that doesn't last, the dime-store clown shoes whose vinyl cracks on the first wear. Only in passing do I think of a tightwad.

What this book is is a history of that characteristic that we have so many words for; the dead opposite of a fool and his money. What Weber reviews is the history of the popularity of thriftiness, and not surprisingly it follows the business and political cycles. One day everyone is eating sawdust and the next people are lighting cigars with currency, as long as it isn't German. What she does very well is dispel the notion that Thrift is some bedrock American value that we are forever getting away from. (It is part of "Kids these days" syndrome, where everything was better back then). It is a fashion that cycles with the times.

She transitions from the history and looks at the current state of thriftiness. The most interesting for me is her extended look at people that consider themselves Freegans or are honest with themselves and call themselves dumpster divers. This is a group of people who have tried to remove themselves as far as possible from the consumptive society. While these people are interesting, I was missing one thing. The biggest critique of such a movement to me, is that they are parasitical in a way I don't mean to be derogatory. They opt out of buying things, but their lifestyle depends on others buying and discarding the consumer goods and foods that they then can appropriate. It works as a fringe movement, but it doesn't scale up.

For me, that seems to reflect my ultimate issue with Cheapness as a movement, even the 'Ethical Cheapness" Weber calls for. It feels like a first world issue that we can wear at our choosing and still splurge. It hides the real effects of poverty and the degradation of the planet that capitalism imposes to all of the riders. As long as cheapness and thrift are choices we can look at them as idiosyncrasies. The problem is that thrift is a necessity for billions, but that we can ignore in the first world. I enjoyed the book, and I kept wanting more, I just wish that issue would have been looked at more in depth, especially as she moved from history and into personalizing the experience later in the book.