Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl was a respected doctor and therapist before he became a concentration camp prisoner during the Holocaust. After somehow surviving the unthinkable only to find that he had lost both his parents and his pregnant wife, he wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning.

I’ve visited the Dachau concentration camp, but reading this book was so much more vivid. You’re not just sent somewhere to die. You’re forced to relocate to a “labor camp”, and so you pack up your entire life into a few bags. Your bags are confiscated, so you hide some photos or jewelry in your clothes. You are stripped completely naked, and given a dead man’s rags to wear. You don’t even have a name anymore, you’re just a number (Frankl was 119104). And this is before the coming years of physical and mental torture.

With this background, Frankl introduces logotherapy, a form of existentialism that says that humans are driven not by the pursuit of pleasure (Freud) or the pursuit of power (Adler), but the pursuit of meaning. There are three ways to achieve meaning:

  1. Creating a work or doing a deed,
  2. Experiencing something or encountering someone (love),
  3. By taking a proper attitude when faced with unavoidable suffering

This last part is hard to explain unless you read the book, but the unavoidable part should be emphasized. We’re not talking about “pain is good”. In my mind, I think of it as maintaining honor and self-respect no matter what. Frankl writes:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

He also quotes Nietzsche, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”

How does this relate to personal finance and the pursuit of financial freedom? I think of it in two ways. First, in terms of yourself. We are all attracted to material things like houses, cars, clothes, and I’d include money. Imagine if all that was taken away. You’d still have your body, your mind, your unique meaning and purpose in the world. We should develop those things. The things you’ve learned, your memories, your experiences, your skills, all those can’t be taken away. All the good deeds that you have already accomplished, those also can never be taken away.

Second, it relates to motivation. Why do you want more money? Why do you want financial freedom? Is it enough to just want to avoid work? Maybe your goal is to spend time with your loved ones. Maybe you want to create beautiful art. Maybe you want to build an orphanage in Cambodia. Maybe you just want to try every ramen restaurant in Japan.

I have some meanings that I am pursuing, but I’m still searching for others.

Book Review: Bossypants Memoir by Tina Fey

I have a goal this year to read and review more books, ideally a book per week on average. Recently, I’ve been into reading biographical books about interesting people pursuing their passions. Feel free to send me some suggestions.

Tina Fey’s Bossypants seemed like a funny auto-biography about someone who grew up in a “normal” working-class family and took a little while to become a respected writer, actor, producer, and comedian. Wealthy, too: Fey reportedly makes $500,000 per episode of 30 Rock and has an estimated net worth of $45 million. I should add that I have never seen a full episode of 30 Rock, although I have seen some SNL Weekend Updates, all the Sarah Palin skits, and a few of her movies.

The book was definitely Tiny-Fey-style funny and a quick read, but it wasn’t very revealing. I should have known, as the book is crosslisted under both “Humor & Entertainment” and “Biographies & Memoirs”. Indeed, I get the impression that she’s actually quite a private person and is reluctant to share anything truly intimate. She considered herself an ugly, unpopular nerd in high school. Well, that applies a lot of people. She worked a menial job at the YMCA while supporting her improv education. Eh, okay. Besides the funny bits, here are my highlighted quotes:

On being a leader:

It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good. I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.

On discrimination:

When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: “Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way.

On teamwork:
[Read more...]

Lists of Companies That Consistently Raise Dividends

I’m about halfway into a review copy of the book Get Rich with Dividends by Marc Lichtenfeld. Although there is more hype than I usually like – “easy 12% returns!” – I am learning things about dividend stock investing.

There is a handy chart in the book that compares a variety of stock lists that track companies with histories of consistently raising their dividends with no cuts. They are included below, along with a brief description and links to the full lists. Some of these have corresponding ETFs, but many of the smaller-cap companies are not covered by ETFs or fund managers and may be good targets for individual investors. Good reference.

Name Provider, Full List Requirements
S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats Standard and Poor’s
  • Annual dividend raised 25+ years in a row.
  • Part of the S&P 500.
  • Liquidity requirements.
Dividend Champions DRiP Resource Center
  • Annual dividend raised 25 years in a row.
  • No size restriction, or liquidity requirements.
  • Aristocrats are a subset of Champions.
Dividend Achievers Indxis
  • Annual dividend raised 10+ years in a row.
  • Liquidity requirements.
  • Several versions of index.
Dividend Contenders DRiP Resource Center (included in Champions spreadsheet)
  • Annual dividend raised 10-25 years in a row.
  • No size restriction, or liquidity requirements.
  • Achievers are a subset of Contenders.
Dividend Challengers DRiP Resource Center (included in Champions spreadsheet)
  • Annual dividend raised 5-9 years in a row.
  • No size restriction, or liquidity requirements.

Free Chapter: New Edition of The Undercover Economist

Writer Tim Harford recently published a newly revised edition of his book The Undercover Economist. I read the first edition in 2009 and definitely enjoyed how it explained economics using everyday occurrences. I wrote about two memorable examples: price targeting and coffee shops, and the efficient market hypothesis and supermarket lines.

According to Harford himself, the biggest change in the new edition is a new chapter about eggs, probabilities, and the financial crisis (naturally). As a favor to those of us who already have the first edition, he has kindly put the new chapter as a free PDF download. I’ve read it already and it was worth the time spent even though the subject has already been covered extensively.

Hat tip to MR. Harford also has a handy website that republishes the articles he writes for The Financial Times.

The Most Important Thing Illuminated by Howard Marks (Book Review)

Updated. I bought the original version with my own money, but then got offered a review copy of the newly released The Most Important Thing Illuminated which contains the same material but with additional commentary from respected investors Christopher Davis (David Funds), Joel Greenblatt (Gotham Capital), Paul Johnson (Nicusa Capital), and Seth Klarman (Baupost Group) as well as an extra chapter from Howard Marks. Most serious investors will recognize these names. The original is great, but if you’re willing to spend a bit more money (eBook is $9.99), this new version does have a little more meat to it. I’ve updated this review to include the new chapter.

If you wrote a book about investing and wanted some big-name endorsements, you couldn’t do much better than this – The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor by Howard Marks has recommendations from Warren Buffett, Jeremy Grantham, Jack Bogle, Joel Greenblatt, and Seth Klarman.

Howard Marks is already famous around many investment circles for his Client Memos as the chairman and cofounder of Oaktree Capital Management, although not as well-known as Buffett’s shareholder letters. This book is basically a distillation of those memos into book form. Here are my personal notes.

Efficient Markets
Marks is an active investor, and this book is about successfully generate excess turns (alpha). Some people seem to think that “efficient markets” is black and white – either you believe in the Easter Bunny or you don’t. Market prices are completely perfect or investing is purely skill. This book helps you view market efficiency as a continuum. Beating the market by trading large-cap common stocks which are following by thousands of professionals is exceedingly hard. Oaktree Capital chooses to focus on what he perceives as less efficient markets – things like convertible securities and high-yield debt from distressed companies (“junk bonds”).

Developing your own investment philosophy
I enjoyed this quote:

Where does an investment philosophy come from? The one thing I’m sure of is that no one arrives on the doorstep of an investment career with his or her philosophy fully formed. A philosophy has to be the sum of many ideas accumulated over a long period of time from a variety of sources. One cannot develop an effective philosophy without having been exposed to life’s lessons

Quality vs. Price
The title of the book is a bit misleading, as there is no single “most important thing”. Basically each chapter is an expansion of one or more of his memos and it titled “The Most Important Thing is… XXX”. However, an overarching theme of the book is about risk control. I’ve already written about higher risk vs. higher investment return.

A related idea is that people tend to think of investments only in terms of quality. Strong companies vs. struggling companies. Highly-rated bonds vs. Lower-rated bonds. Strong developed countries vs. Weaker emerging countries. But what’s important is the price. A high-quality company can be a high-risk or low-risk investment, depending on what price you pay for it. A junk bond can be a high-risk or low-risk investment, depending on what price you pay for it.

Marks strongly believes in the recurrence of cycles. One side of the pendulum occurs when people seems think that there are minimal risks, either because of recent history or some new invention that eliminates risk (CDOs?). Often, the only worry remaining is that we’ll miss out on the opportunity for great returns. The other side of the pendulum is when uncertainty is everywhere. Here, people say things like “I’m staying out of the market until the dust settles.” This reminded me of a chart I pulled out a lot during the housing bubble:

If you’re going to pick a time to invest, it’s better when people are scared, because at least they are properly considering all the potential risks. It should be scary and uncomfortable. He reminds you, as Charlie Munger says, “It’s not supposed to be easy.” If you wait until the dust has settled, there won’t be great prices anymore.

Illuminated-only Bonus Chapter: Reasonable Expectations
This is good reminder about having a clear goal as to what you want to achieve with your portfolio, but also to keep that goal within reason:

The key questions are what your return goal is, how much risk you can tolerate, and how much liquidity you’re likely to require in the interim.

Extraordinary skill is rare. When someone else promises returns “too good to be true”, the next question to ask is “why me?” If they found a can’t miss investment opportunity, why are they sharing this with you? If some talking head on TV makes a bold prediction, why aren’t they busy betting their net worth on the outcome? With today’s complex derivatives and betting markets, they should be rich and sunning themselves on a yacht instead.

Even though I am primarily a low-cost, buy, hold, & rebalance type of investor, I felt this book still provided me with new information for my own evolving investing philosophy. Creating alpha is not easy, and most people who try to do so consistently fail, so you should be very careful and realistic when assessing your own skills. I’ll be sure to read his future memos. Thankfully, they can be found at the Oaktree Capital website, free and available to all.

Poor Charlie’s Almanack: Wisdom of Charlie Munger – Book Review, Part 1

Charlie Munger is best known as the long-time friend and business partner of Warren Buffett, and officially as the Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. Even though he is Buffett’s partner in investing, Munger is different in that he does not enjoy the spotlight as much and is rather more blunt and cranky. For some reason that just makes me like him more. :)

Ever since I read more about him in the Buffett biography The Snowball, I have wanted to learn more about him via the book Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger, which is mostly a collection of his speeches but also includes some of his own personal notes and reflections from his peers and family. From the website:

For the first time ever, the wit and wisdom of Charlie Munger is available in a single volume: all his talks, lectures and public commentary. And, it has been written and compiled with both Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett’s encouragement and cooperation. So pull up your favorite reading chair and enjoy the unique humor, wit and insight that Charlie Munger brings to the world of business, investing and life itself.

The first thing you should know about this book is that it is not meant to be an investing How-To book. Yes, there is a lot of investing advice in it, but the book is more about how to live a successful and fulfilling life more than the accumulation of money. Munger puts more emphasis on integrity and how to think correctly than how to calculate a company’s return on capital.

Financial Independence
One of the reasons that Buffett and Munger appeal to me is that their primary motivation for doing what they do is not simply to be rich, it is to to be independent. Here’s a quote from Buffett on why he wanted to make money: [Read more...]

How To Retire Early and Live Well With Less Than A Million Dollars [Book Review]

I enjoy reading older books about early retirement; I seek to learn from their experiences, but I also look for ways in that their perspective is colored by their own time period. For instance, a book written in the 80s1 – an era of high inflation – would likely assumed that interest rates would be moderately high forever, at least in the 5% range. The tendency to extend recent trends into the future is unavoidable, and something you should consider when reading or making forecasts today.

This is a review of How To Retire Early and Live Well With Less Than A Million Dollars by Gillette Edmunds, a book published in 2000 that was recommended to me by a reader. Edmunds was a former tax attorney and financial journalist who retired in 1981 at age 29.

Unreasonably High Expected Returns
Remember that for both the 1980s and the 1990s, the average annualized total return of the S&P 500 for both decades was around 18% a year. Imagine two decades of such returns, all before the dot-com bust and the housing bust. Edmunds retiring in 1981 turned out to be some of the luckiest timing possible. As a result, a major criticism of this book is the continued expectation of high stock returns going forward. The quoted excerpts below are taken verbatim from the book:

  • Can you retire today? His answer is that “most middle-class Americans, including me, could live comfortably on the investment returns from $500,000.” Perhaps, but with currently-accepted safe withdrawal rates of 3-4%, this would only create $15,000 to $20,000 a year in income. Instead, the book promotes withdrawals rate of 8-10%, which would have left many nest eggs completely wiped out from 2000 to 2010.
  • “An average, educated, experienced investor can reasonably expect to make 10% a year for life.”
  • “Anyone should be able to produce a 7.75% return.”

I bet these assumptions sounded reasonable, perhaps even conservative, in 2000 but they are just bad jokes today.

Owning Non-Correlated Asset Classes
Edmunds tells us not to time the markets, ride out temporary market drops, and to maintain low investment costs. He advises you to hold a variety of “non-correlated” asset classes such as:

  • Real Estate
  • Foreign Stocks
  • US Large Stocks
  • US Small Stocks
  • Emerging Markets Stocks

Edmunds believes that these asset classes are on different business cycles. When one is going up, the other is going down. However, I don’t like the term “non-correlated”, as very few asset classes have negative correlations these days. Low or minimally correlated is a better term. As we saw in the recent financial crisis, when the poo hits the fan correlations can go back to 1 (everything goes down together). However, I agree with the general asset allocation advice of holding different asset classes with minimal correlations. He counts as an early proponent of not holding too much in US stocks (no more than 1/3rd of total portfolio), and an equal amount in foreign stocks (also use for 1/3rd of your portfolio).

I did have an issue with the lack of supporting evidence as to why these assets and not others, as we only get weak arguments like “after owning bonds for about five years, I realized that a portfolio of five different high-return asset classes that excluded bonds had both high predictability and high returns”. I’m sorry, but making a conclusion to stop holding bonds after 5 years of data is just plain bad advice and makes him come off as egotistical.

He ends the book with a philosophical epilogue with the usual “money isn’t everything, enjoy life with family and friends” material. I don’t mean to belittle the importance of this factor, just that I didn’t really learn anything new from it. He does come off as well-intentioned and talks about the effect of his divorce. Despite its flaws, I found this book worth the read as it encompasses the overall philosophy of one person who had been successfully retired for 20 years. Just remember he had a very strong tailwind of high returns, and adjust your own expectations accordingly.

Other “early retirement” books that I’ve reviewed:

The (Next) Big Short: Current Investments of Michael Burry and Steve Eisman

I’ve read parts of The Big Short by Michael Lewis before, but finally re-read the entire thing over the weekend. If you are unfamiliar with this bestseller, it tells the story of the housing bubble through the viewpoint of investors who saw the crisis coming and bet big money on the collapse of subprime mortgages. Lewis portrays these guys as almost heroes, courageous individuals from smaller hedge funds that went against the commonly-held beliefs of the big firms on Wall Street.

Instead of writing the 8,449th review of this book, my question was – what are these characters betting against now? Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean I think they’ll be right, but I’m still curious.

Michael Burry, Scion Capital
Burry no longer accepts money from outside investors (he doesn’t need to), but still invests at Scion Capital using his own money. He doesn’t write a blog or release his recent letters to shareholders to the public, except for a few old ones. He did make a April 2011 lecture at his alma mater Vanderbilt University entitled Missteps to Mayhem where he sees continued problems with the government printing too much money and not tackling our current fiscal problems.

The government’s borrowing of money for the purpose of injecting cash into society, bailing out banks, brokers, and consumers, is a short-sighted, easy decision for a population that has not yet learned that short-sighted and easy strategies are the route to long-term ruin.

He ends his speech with the ominous advice “All that said, I might suggest opening a retail banking account in Canada.” I’m not even sure that’s possible to do as a U.S. citizen… is it?

From this complete transcript of a September 2010 interview with Bloomberg, he states that he believes that “productive agricultural land with water on site is — will be very valuable in the future”, he is bullish on gold due to currency debasement, but he doesn’t have a good feel for the timing of things as it could take a while to play out.

Steve Eisman, FrontPoint Partners
Eisman left FrontPoint in June 2011 and is reported to start his own hedge fund Emrys Partners in 2012. He has gotten the most publicity in recent years for shorting the stocks of certain for-profit colleges taking advantage of easy credit from government student loans. Basically, people who can’t get into traditional colleges are pitched a great future and convinced to take out large amounts of debt that they can’t pay back, all so these pseudo-accredited colleges can profit. Sound familiar? From a 2010 conference speech:

Until recently, I thought that there would never again be an opportunity to be involved with an industry as socially destructive and morally bankrupt as the subprime mortgage industry. I was wrong. The for-profit education industry has proven equal to the task. [...] This is similar to the subprime mortgage sector in that the subprime originators bore far less risk than the investors in their mortgage paper.

I also looked for information on Charles Ledley and James Mai of Cornwall Capital, but really didn’t come up with much. They have a website, but there is nothing to see for the public.

Cashing in on the American Dream: How To Retire at 35 by Paul Terhorst (Book Review)

One of classic books on many early-retirement reading lists is Cashing in on the American Dream: How To Retire at 35 by Paul Terhorst. However, this book was published in 1988 and has been out-of-print for a while. Luckily, I noticed that there were several used copies available on Amazon for $0.01 + 3.99 shipping (or $4 with free shipping) and grabbed one.

Author Background
Terhorst earned his money as an accountant, making partner at a major accounting firm in his early 30s. He retired in 1984 at age 35 with a nest egg of around $400,000. He and his wife Vicki (no children) refer to themselves now as “perpetual travelers”. He wrote this book in a era before the internet became popular – imagine how hard it would be to gather information on this topic back then, limited to early BBS chat boards or snail-mail newsletters. Sometimes I take for granted how easily we can share and discuss information today.

Paul and Vicki used to have a Geocities page that is now defunct, but they still occasionally write travel articles and it looks they have a small internet presence here.

Implementation: Managing Expenses
The basic retirement plan in the book is to spend no more than $50 a day = $18,000 a year (1988). Adjusting with the Consumer Price Index, this would be around $33,000 a year in 2010 dollars. However, personal inflation does not necessarily match the CPI, and they reportedly still manage on $50 a day as recently as 2003.

A major part of lowering your expenses is to avoid living somewhere expensive. Realize that the most expensive cities in the US are up there with the most expensive cities in the entire world! When you’re retired, you can live anywhere. The book includes several example of smaller cities in the southern US with temperate climates, lots of things to do, and a proximity to a major city and airport. They also support living close to the center of these smaller cities, using public transportation, and not owning a car – another big source of savings.

In addition, the author is a strong proponent of spending a good chunk of your time in foreign countries where a dollar goes a lot further. Latin America (Argentina) and Southeast Asia (Thailand) are places where they have lived. The key is to “live like a native, not like a tourist”. Don’t stay in hotels or live in gated communities made for expats. If the natives live on $10,000 a year, you should be very comfortable at $20,000 a year.

They pay for health care with cash in the same foreign countries, which offer quality care at much lower prices than in the US. The rest of the frugal-living advice is pretty standard. Prioritize your spending, cut out the excess consumerism, etc.

Implementation: Creating Investment Income
Investment advice is often referred to as the weakest part of this book. You have to realize that the 1980s were a completely different financial environment. With high inflation, you could buy FDIC-insured CDs paying 8% interest annually. Thus, he recommended liquidating all your assets to cash, including selling your home, and then build a CD ladder creating 8% income. Obviously, this is not an option today. But if you take a step back, you’ll see that the basic premise is that you should never take on any more risk than you need.

It’s hard to find any updated investment advice from Terhorst, but it appears like they are still happily retired and don’t worry about money much. If they needed money, you’d think they’d republish their book. :) I did find this 2003 Kiplinger’s Personal Finance article which provided some insight:

…they began to move their money into stocks – mostly low-cost index funds – when interest rates declined in 1992. Now they have 40% of their portfolio in large- and small-cap stocks, 40% in natural resources companies (oil, gold, platinum), and the rest in money market accounts. [...] Their assets now total more than $1 million

These days, I pose that a more realistic early retirement portfolio might be 50% dividend stocks and 50% investment-grade bonds paying out a 3% yield that will keep up with inflation overall. However, creating $33,000 a year would require $1,100,000. Creating $18,000 a year ($50/day) would require $600,000.

Implementation: Saving Up That Nest Egg
I think this area is actually the weakest part of the book. The advice is essentially work hard at your career and be a good company man. Do all the right things to get promotions and work your way up the ranks to management and upper management… until the day you bail out. This is what Terhorst did, and he doesn’t really explore any other options like starting your own business. I suppose the truth is that this method will work for many, but it’s not very satisfying.

The main lesson that I got from reading this book is that the concept of “early retirement” for everyday middle-class folks has been around and available for decades. However, most people today don’t seem to even know it’s an option. I guess it takes a special disposition to be unsatisfied enough with the normal 9-5 grind to do what it takes to get out of it. I’ve also realized that many people – good people! – are quite happy with working 40+ hours a week for 40+ weeks a year for 40+ years of their life. There are so many different ways to balance work, investment income, and spending to retire partially or retire early.. but first you just have realize that you have that option!

The Last Lecture: Legacy, Achieving Goals, and Gratitude

The late Randy Pausch became well known as a Carnegie Mellon professor who made a inspirational “last lecture” called Achieving Your Childhood Dreams (over 14 million views) after his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer. He later then wrote a book called The Last Lecture with Jeffrey Zaslow. As a former bestseller, you can now find copies on the cheap. It is a short and worthwhile motivational read. All the quotes are from the book.


Time is all you have. And you may find one day that you have less than you think.

One of the things I think about a lot more these days is legacy. As a human, I think most of us have a desire to outwit our own mortality.

What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy?

I think children help fulfill that need, as they allow a chance for a part of us to live on forever. For him, the Last Lecture itself was a legacy project for his family so that his young kids would know him better when they grew up. He also talked about his professional legacy:

Now a computer science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Caitlin (oops, I mean, Dr. Kelleher) is developing new systems that revolutionize how young girls get their first programming experiences. [...] (You can keep tabs on their progress at Through Alice, millions of kids are going to have incredible fun while learning something hard. They’ll develop skills that could help them achieve their dreams. If I have to die, I am comforted by having Alice as a professional legacy

So his legacy projects were three things: his family itself, something for his family, and something to leave the world a better place. I think this is good framework for creating my own legacy.

Achieving Goals
Now how did he achieve those childhood dreams, as well as his legacy goals? More or less it was just hard work and persistence. What stood out to me was the idea that some things should be hard to achieve, and if you get it anyway you should be proud of it. Time spent complaining is time wasted.

The brick walls are there for a reason. They’re not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.

…The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.

Pausch didn’t get there on his own, even with all the hard work. He showed gratitude to his parents, his wife, the professor that got him into grad school after he was rejected, his kids, and many other colleagues.

Michael Lewis’s New Book – Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World – Free Copy Online

I’ve enjoyed every Michael Lewis book that I’ve read, from Liar’s Poker to Moneyball to The Blind Side. Reading his writing is as easy as listening to a great storyteller, making the most mundane subjects interesting. I’ve been hearing about his new book Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, and was surprised learn from Felix Salmon of Reuters that the book is simply a collection of previously written articles from Vanity Fair magazine. Articles that are still available, for free, online!

I looked inside a copy of the book, and it’s true. Amazon reviews confirm it. The articles are the same, word for word. You can even read the only “new” thing, the Preface, online for free at Amazon since it’s the “free first chapter”. I don’t feel bad sharing this, since Vanity Fair paid Lewis good money to write these articles, put them up publicly with ads, and no doubt enjoy the traffic. So if you want to read Boomerang electronically, the Table of Contents of the book is below. I used Instapaper on my iPod Touch and read parts of them while waiting at the doctor’s office.

Preface: The Biggest Short – Amazon book page (“Read first chapter FREE”)

I. Wall Street on the Tundra – Iceland (Partial only, but has the entire article. Thanks to reader Travis.)

II. And They Invented Math – Greece

III. Ireland’s Original Sin – Ireland

IV. The Secret Lives of Germans – Germany

V. Too Fat To Fly – California

Warning: Reading this book will make you some combination of scared, angry, and depressed. I’ve only read the Preface, Greece, and California chapters, and I’m already seriously thinking of buying some gold and guns to join my food hoard. I remind myself that Lewis is a gifted storyteller, but some people still disagree with they see as oversimplification and broad stereotyping of cultures. But just going by the hard numbers given, I’m still worried.

* Update: The Iceland article has been changed to only a partial stub at, pushing you to buy the book “The Hangover” to read the rest. Interesting, the same article recycled in two separate books. The rest of the articles are still up, but I’d print to PDF or similar in case they change them as well. The Iceland article was free to read for years before this book came out, so it’s still out there if you look hard enough. Update 2: A couple of astute readers found saved versions. I recommend visiting this link and saving it quickly.

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture [Book Review]

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell covers a wide variety of topics, but the main idea I got from reading it, was that we are too focused on price, and not enough on value. We have shifted from quality, durability, and craftsmanship towards quantity at the lowest possible price. I previously wrote about how it’s harder to judge quality these days as it relates to Coach Outlet stores. Next time you buy something, think about what you actually know about who made the product, the materials or ingredients used, and how long it will last before you have to buy another one.

Thanks to globalization and a relentless pursuit of efficiency, we now have $1 chicken sandwiches, $5 toasters, and $10 IKEA coffee tables. That saves us money, right? However, also notice that it’s often the crap in our lives that gets a bit cheaper. The real essentials – rent, education, healthcare, gas, never seem to get less expensive. On top of that household wages are stagnant, partially because all the jobs making stuff have gone to the countries with cheapest labor before our workforce has had a chance to learn to do something else. Look at the current unemployment rate. So are we really coming out ahead?

The book includes an interesting history of the evolution of retailing and the creation of the discount superstore. There was a time before Wal-mart when small shops sold specialized products through educated salespeople. Now, everything is propelled by mass advertising everywhere, followed by do-it-yourself shopping. Now, I personally like reading tons of peer reviews on Amazon before buying a product, but you have to admit that the genius of a store like IKEA is that so much of the cost is shifted onto the consumer. We load up the huge boxes onto a shopping cart ourselves, cram it into our car, drive it back home (paying for the gas), and build it ourselves with hours of labor.

There is also the interweaving of behavioral economics topics you may be familiar with by academics like Daniel Kahneman and Dan Ariely. For example, you probably get excited when you buy something marked down 60% at the mall. We’re all genetically wired to get hyped up for that, so it’s not surprising. Well, these days basically everything is marked down. Only 20% of department store merchandise is actually sold at full price. If everyone is getting the same “deal”, is it still a deal or just manipulation?

On a related note, discount stores often tout “everyday low prices”, but they really just try to compete hard on things that we buy most frequently and are most familiar with. Wal-mart actually has higher than average prices on about 1/3rd of its inventory. On the items for which prices are lower, the savings is 37 cents, with about 1/3rd of items carrying a savings of no more than 2 cents. The loss leaders draw us in and make us feel like we’re saving money, but the other things we toss in our basket make the profit.

Although some of these trends are unlikely to be reversed, we should remember that it’s not all about the price tag. An example of how things “should” work is the grocery store Wegman’s, which I am not familiar with but sounds a lot like Trader Joe’s on the West Coast. Locally-sourced products, good wages and benefits for employees, and good service create an atmosphere that is not solely focused on price (although it is still an important component).