Saturday, September 12, 2009

Good research, but sloppy thinking.

I just finished Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell.

The thesis of the book is that the fixation on low price has significant long term costs, mostly hidden. Overall, that thesis is mentioned many times but not fully developed or explored. Most of the book is historical discussions about the rise of discounters and other purveyors of low prices.

The research is mostly very well done. The sections on cheaper food, discount stores and behavioral economics are very interesting. But each chapter stretches at the end to include some meandering thoughts, seemingly attempting to tie into the overall thesis but usually with little success.

In general, the logic and arguments presented in the book are it's weakest points. The author does not seem capable of connecting the data to the thesis and continually makes weak, off-topic or totally invalid argument after argument. One egregious example is the following excerpt from the chapter on cheap food.

Left to their own devices, global food markets pretty much follow the same "race to the bottom" model followed by other unfettered markets. Subsidies and economies of scale make grain and everything it is made of -- including animals that eat it -- increasingly cheap.
The author doesn't seem to notice that the 2nd sentence actually undermines the first, since "subsidies" are not a part of an "unfettered" market. This kind of sloppy thinking dominates the argumentative sections of the book.

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