On the way to visit a friend Thanksgiving weekend my car broke down, and I found myself at a Pep Boys in Rohnert Park, CA, wandering a vast parking lot. Big Box superstores stretched from one end to another: A Home Depot and Wal-Mart. In between, like an isthmus, was Pep Boys, Dollar Tree, and a discount beauty supply store. Islands at the parking lot’s entry housed fast food restaurants: an Arby’s (offering a $1 value menu), Burger King (offering a $1 double cheeseburger), and Chili’s, where I sat waiting the outcome of a battery test, eating smoked chicken tacos that would upset my stomach for an afternoon.
There not far from wine country, right off the 101, I had found myself stranded in the heart of the bargain, one of many that dot the American landscape: a coincidence of global circumstances linked by cheap hydrocarbons, global logistics networks, and the exploitation of global price differentials among wage-earners and for materials that feeds a consumer economy running up massive debts, both financial and environmental.
At least, that’s how I understood the situation after reading Gordon Laird’s impressively reported new book, The Price of a Bargain: The Quest for Cheap and the Death of Globilization.
Laird’s central conceit is that we live in the age of the bargaineer: “Most of us stalk value on a serial basis, sometimes in full contravention of common sense. Row upon row, aisle upon aisle, this realm of affordability, selection, and discount is a dominant force in today’s world.” At the core of the shift from production to consumption lies not just unsustainable debt, as the ongoing recession has shown us, but a network of unsustainable practices creating frightening fault lines in the global economy.
“To grasp what will shape economies, nations, and communities in the years to come,” Laird writes, “we have to look at the world not as a growth and wealth machine governed by orderly business cycles, but as something that performs and responds more like a stressed ecosystem.”
What follows is a provocative, well-researched, and illuminating tour of the forces shaping our consumer culture, starting with a trip through the ASD/AMD Merchandise Show in Las Vegas, a marketplace of bargainers, and leading through Shenzhen, China, where each day “109,000 steel containers of finished product are removed for export,” to the manufacturing site of bitumen crude in Alberta, Canada’s Athabasca region, to Dubai Mall, the largest in the world.
As he crisscrosses the world to report on everything from cheap hydrocarbons to logistics networks to Wal-Mart’s anti-union efforts, Laird provides a compelling narrative and raises a central question: “Can we survive the bargain?” In the process he paints a picture of a global economy whose financial center is rapidly shifting away from the United States, toward China and the Middle East. But it is also taking on characteristics of our destabilized environment (for which the pursuit of the bargain has to take some credit): “[W]e are incurring stresses and strains that [will] likely have critical much-delayed consequences.”
“Much like the problem of toxic debt within dangerously flawed financial products, costs and dangers within the modern supply chain are not evident, nor are they passed along to consumers as the true price of things,” writers Laird.
At its core, The Price of a Bargain is about sustainability. Our modern economic practices have created massive amounts of waste—both human and environmental—by externalizing the true costs of things. As the U.S. economy shifted from manufacturing to consumption, the quantity of things around us grew dramatically, but our wages began to fall. Bargains provided an illusion that our standard of living was keeping pace. Laird makes a strong case that illusion is over for good.