Keep your Hands off my Cheap Junk


Last week the Los Angeles Time published an attack on my new book, Cheap: The HIgh Cost of Discount Culture by wacky blogger Charlotte Allen.  The tongue lashing went something like this:  in these tough times, Shell and similarly misguided elitists (Michael Pollan came in for a particular drubbing) want us all to PAY MORE.   NPR then invited Ms. Allen to broadcast her thoughts on Talk of the Nation.  There she elaborated that while it's certainly true that Chinese factory workers are mistreated and their environment despoiled in the course of making low price goods for us, they were afterall Chinese, not Americans, so why should we care? 

I suppose this makes sense in some universe, but not the one I inhabit.  China is not an island unto itself.  The push for ever lower prices has suppliers of all nationalities struggling to minimize costs, resulting in growing unemployment, less job security, and lost income and lower quality of life for millions of Americans.  Meanwhile, the cost of health care, education, and other necessities continues to climb.  Cheap t-shirts and toys are poor compensation for an unemployed home owner struggling to make his or her mortgage payments.  And the production and distribution of cheap, disposable goods threaten not only China's environment, but our own.  

Ms. Allen is perhaps most famous for her Washington Post opinion piece entitled "We Scream, We Swoon, How Dumb Can We Be?" the "we" being women.  In it she argues that "The theory that women are the dumber amply supported by neurological and standard testing evidence."  Ms. Allen goes on:  "I am perfectly willing to admit that I myself am a classic case of female mental deficiencies." Putting aside for a moment why the Washington Post would publish the musings of a self-defined "mental deficient," one must ask a deeper question:  why a major metropolitan newspaper would chose to share with its readers the ravings of someone whose views are so clearly out of line with reality.   Could it be the more than one thousand protests readers launched objecting to this bit of idiocy?  Do all those protests make the paper feel more valued, more popular, more loved?   

There's an old cliche that a sure way to draw attention to oneself is by pulling down one's pants.  Yes, it gets eyeballs, but to what end?  One would hope that in these days of shrinking subscriber lists and revenues, newspapers will come to understand that while printing unsubstantiated ideological rants might indeed grab plenty of eyeballs, it is not the way to grab hearts and minds. 


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Ellen Ruppel Shell is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Journalism at Boston University. She is the author of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

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