Good Reads: Fancy (but Worthless) Kitchens and College Degrees, and More

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Here’s some recommended reading, inquiring into issues like: Why do consumers keep paying top dollar for huge, high-end kitchens and designer appliances they almost never use? Why do students keep buying into the idea that college is the only path to success, and that racking up tens of thousands in loans is a good idea? And how the heck does your chalupa get assembled so quickly while you’re waiting in the drive-thru lane?

These stories have great headlines too:

The Joy of Not Cooking. Megan McArdle’s story in The Atlantic nails a modern-day consumer curiosity: Home kitchens are fancier and more expensive than ever, and yet, on average, they’re used less than ever as well. The popularity of $10,000 stoves and $200 knives displayed on counters on museum-like stands seems plain silly in light of the numbers showing how people really eat—and really don’t cook—nowadays:

One market-research firm, the NPD Group, says that even in the 1980s, 72 percent of meals eaten at home involved an entrée cooked from scratch; now just 59 percent of them do, and the average number of food items used per meal has decreased from 4.4 to 3.5. That’s when we’re home at all: by 1995, we consumed more than a quarter of all meals and snacks outside the home, up from 16 percent two decades earlier.

The University Has No Clothes. Here we have a New York mag piece about how college education today is overvalued, overhyped, and overpriced (an argument I’ve heard before.) In the story, James Altucher, a venture capitalist and finance writer (and Cornell grad) known for penning columns such as 8 Alternatives to College, compares college to health care—over the last 30 years, prices have increased tenfold for the former, sixfold for the latter—and yet most people are far more exasperated with health care. He also compares to college to homeownership, and not in a good way:

“What’s the other American religion? Owning a home.” For years, the government encouraged home ownership for all citizens. “So we got more and more loans that were considered subprime, and look what that did. The idea, the religion of home ownership for all, turned into a national nightmare, a national apocalypse instead of a religion. The same thing’s going to happen here.”

In The Golden Age of the Drive-Thru, BusinessWeek contributor Karl Taro Greenfield tries his hand at working at a Taco Bell, donning the headphones and struggling to keep up with the chain’s state of the art, ultra efficient, no-room-for-improvisation drive-thru system. Greenfield likens the scene to the classic American factory assembly line:

Go into the kitchen of a Taco Bell today, and you’ll find a strong counterargument to any notion that the U.S. has lost its manufacturing edge. Every Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King is a little factory, with a manager who oversees three dozen workers, devises schedules and shifts, keeps track of inventory and the supply chain, supervises an assembly line churning out a quality-controlled, high-volume product, and takes in revenue of $1 million to $3 million a year, all with customers who show up at the front end of the factory at all hours of the day to buy the product.

Unfortunately, today’s workers are far more likely to find employment in these fast food factories, not ones where the wages can support a family, as Greenfield writes:

Taco Bell starts its workers at $8.50 an hour, $1.25 more than minimum wage.

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