Notes from the Field

  • by Ken Ames
  • March 14, 2014

A Question of Value

It started with shoes. I bought a pair two and a half years ago at an outlet in Freeport, Maine. I paid $100. Something of a departure purchase, these shoes were unlike any I had previously owned but swiftly became my favorites. They felt good on and looked great. About six months ago, however, one shoe began to show a peculiar and highly visible pattern of wear, so I reluctantly gave up the shoes.

But I began to wonder whether or not these shoes had been good economy. Assuming two years or twenty-four months of use, they cost me about $4.16 a month or a bit less than fourteen cents a day. Such figures obviously make little sense in themselves, however, so as a comparison, I bought a pair of similar shoes on the secondary market for $15. These lasted only six months but, at $2.50 a month or a meager eight cents a day, they surely were a better bargain, all things considered. To complete the experiment, it might have been appropriate to also buy a pair of first-quality shoes and run the numbers. Yet assuming $200 for the new shoes, the pair would have had to last for eighty months or over six years to better those bought on the secondary market. I might have tired of them long before that.

Intrigued by values available in the secondary market, I priced out some of the goods around the house. Lamps bought for $5 or $10 years ago have proven good values.  One of the more striking instances of low cost averaged over time is a teak salad bowl, twelve inches in diameter, purchased for $2 at a yard sale some twenty or more years ago. At a dime per year, the daily cost is not even worth computing. Sterling forks obtained at $10 each a decade or two ago come to pennies per month and are likely to outlast us. The table on which I am now writing is a bit more complicated, partly because I don’t remember exactly the price or date of acquisition and partly because it once seemed to be a cherry table but, the finish wearing, is starting to look more like maple. Still, it probably comes out to less than $20 per year. To be completely accurate in assessing original cost for any of these goods, of course, the expense of driving to the yard sales, flea markets, and antique shows from which many of them came should be added to the calculations. And, needless to say, although buying low on the secondary market is both frugal and entertaining, similar reckonings can be made for utilitarian goods bought new.    

Calculations narrowly focused on objects of utility—shoes, forks, tables, salad bowls—are easily made.  But what of objects of little or no technomic value, things that don’t get used up or worn out? A painting hanging over our mantel cost $900 some twenty years ago. That comes to $45 a year, $3.75 a month, or under thirteen cents a day, about the same daily cost as the Maine shoes. And the price per temporal unit will decline the longer we own the painting. But are the shoes and the picture in any meaningful way equivalent? Measuring about thirty by forty inches framed and depicting a large sailing craft moving diagonally across the open water, the picture is unsigned and not easily dated. It projects a considerable feeling of “oldiness” but I would be cautious in the extreme in assigning it a date. There is little evidence that the painting has deteriorated since we acquired it; it is likely to exist in about the same condition for many years more. 

An important part of the satisfaction the shoes provided derived from the duration of their utility—how long they lasted—although I admit that the pleasures of wearing and admiring them were also significant. The primary attractions of the picture, on the other hand, are visual. It is pleasant to look at. It creates a satisfying focal point within the room. The colors work with other furnishings. There is some slight mystery about what is actually depicted. And so on. But is it a good value? If so, would it still be a good value if we had paid $9,000 for it rather than $900? For it to be worth the higher price, would we have to derive ten times more pleasure from contemplating it? An intriguing question. But then, how do I measure the pleasure the picture provides at present? As I have no reliable means of measurement, it becomes apparent that I also would have no means of calculating ten times that unmeasured pleasure.

Evaluating the shoes on the basis of utility makes it easy to amortize their cost over the total period of their usefulness. But that makes no sense for the painting, since the pleasure it provides is not used up over time. If it is worth $900 any day, it is worth $900 every day. This truth is embedded in the notion of the “million-dollar view” associated with prime real estate. The value of the view does not fall to $100,000 because we look at it ten times. The value of the view can be diminished by unsightly intrusions but it cannot be used up by being enjoyed.

All of this suggests some of the difficulties involved in evaluating the pleasures we derive from the objects in our lives. We assume that the purpose of some objects is to provide pleasure and that there is a connection between pleasure and happiness. Philosophers from Epicurus to Peter Singer have posited pleasure as a central feature of a well-lived life. But, despite some promising studies of brain wave responses to varied stimuli, techniques for measuring pleasure outside laboratory situations remain elusive. For those committed to leading examined lives in a time of static or diminishing resources, understanding the economics of pleasure would seem to have obvious utility. The matter is complex and difficult to sort out, of course, but it could be beneficial to assess the comparative pleasure value of shoes and paintings and a host of other goods. It might turn out that there is little or no consistent correlation between pleasure value and economic cost.

Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.



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