Mr. Chakrabortty has a write up of an interesting little experiment on e-Bay.
Yet monetary cost and true worth are not the same thing at all, which is one reason why accountants, loss-adjusters and Alan Yentob all come in for such stick. It\’s also why Rob Walker and Josh Glenn were able to conduct one of the most life-affirmingly cheeky studies I have seen for ages.
Two American writers interested in how objects are valued, Walker and Glenn have spent the last couple of years flogging stuff on eBay. I say stuff, but what I really mean is utter tosh: an old Pez dispenser, an ugly mug that last saw light of day in 1976, an abandoned jam jar of marbles. This is the sort of loft-dwelling detritus your mum wouldn\’t even ask your permission before chucking away. Yet each item they put on sale on the internet was accompanied by a story meant to add a bit of context or interest.
Paired with their new biographies, here\’s what happened: a Utah snow globe that originally cost 99 cents fetched $59; an old shot glass was snapped up for $76, and even the jar of marbles took in $50. In all, 100 items that cost the authors $128.74 were sold for a total of $3,612.51.
The secret was that they attatched stories to these homely items and it was the story which raised the prices on offer.
Now it is an interesting story but of course Mr. Chakrabortty, being the economics leader writer for The Guardian, entirely misses the point of it.
This kills the labour theory of value stone dead, buries it at the crossroads, head cut off and a stake through its heart. It does the same to any theory of \”true value\”, from Plato through to Marx, by way of Thomas Aquinas and even Adam Smith\’s flirtations with the ltov.
And in the process it kills the major underlying moral justification for communism, many flavours of socialism and similar nonsense from the right (Poujadism for example) and even retail price maintenance schemes.
The exchange value of an item does not depend upon the labour that went into its manufacture. Nor the resources used to make it. Nor any other calculable absolute: it depends entirely upon the always subjective and often arbitrary value put upon it by the participant(s) in the exchange. And that\’s it, there is no other possible method of valuation.
Thus things are worth what they can get in a market. There is no other possible or achievable method of calculation.
And yes, this does mean the value of the environment, the value of life, the value of a nesting area for wading birds and so on. They are worth what people value them at, no more, no less. A statistical life in the US is worth $5-$8 million, because this is what, by their actions, people value such a statistical life at. A statistical life in DR Congo is worth less than that because that is what people value a statistical life in DR Congo at.
We can certainly say that the moral value of a life in the UK is equal to the moral value of one in DR Congo. But we cannot say that the economic value of such is: for by their very actions human beings do not place equal economic values on the two. Similarly we can say that, as many environmentalists do, that the value of publicly owned forests is huge, vast, far greater than any amount that could be paid for them. And that might even be true of said environmentalists. But it\’s not true of humanity in aggregate and thus is in fact not true.
For the value of an item is its exchange value: no more and no less.