Sunday, November 29, 2009

Four - In Cheap We Trust - Lauren Weber

"Cheapness doesn't require abstinence and austerity - simply a thoughtfulness and care about how we live and a skepticism toward the messages peddled by the retail industrial complex."
Lauren Weber set out to figure out what happened to thrift in America through exploring ways that thrift has been used and at times deployed like a weapon to judge, please and condemn those who were or weren't conforming to shifting standards. The word cheap originally derives from the Latin word "caupo" which means trader man. It then evolved to the noun "ceap" - which means a trade in Old English. Finally in Middle English the phrase "good chepe" meant a good bargain or good price.

Ms. Weber starts out by detailing the founding fathers vision of cheapness. Back then cheapness came in form of boycotts on taxation and focusing on the virtue of being frugal to not be tempted by worldly ways. Next she moves into the mid 1800s and how banks were initially created to serve the masses of poor and struggling Americans. "What use can a woman have for arithmetic?" is the next question that Ms. Weber addresses. In the late 1860s, farm wives were the bookkeepers for their families and knew how to stretch a little budget to keep the farms afloat. In the 1920s advertisements started to focus on women and home economics education became the focus.

Part of the "cheap" perception are different stereotypes. Ms. Weber explores the history behind the "cheap Jews" and "thrifty Chinese" stereotypes. The next focus was how the wartime atmosphere brought a focus of cheapness and frugality into everyday life. After both world wars there was a shift back to consumerism to help continuing to boost the economy. Bank credit cards were introduced and Americans love affair with credit started.

Ms. Weber describes some local modern efforts to live in frugal means - Compact - year long embargo on buying new stuff and Freegans - people who employ alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources. Finally the last topic is the psychology behind cheapness. Ms. Weber's father lived by a simple phrase - "It's all about what you hold on to and what you let go of".

In her conclusion of the book, Lauren Weber leaves her readers with two questions
- How do we live low-cost lives while also recognizing that how we spend and money an impact for beyond our wallets?
- How do we consume conscientiously without supporting poor labor conditions or the deterioration of the environment?

This book was interesting and full of great statistics. I'm not sure it provided much guidance on how to live a more frugal life in modern day society. I liked that she did include a short chapter on the current economic crisis - but didn't dive deep into the causes. This book was definitely tough for me to get through. I found my mind drifting in the middle of chapters.

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