The Myopia of Price


October 11, 2006


Browse in Commons

Why is the commons invisible? Why does an air conditioner – and the electricity it uses – count in the computations of economic product, but not the cooling provided by shade trees? Why does Disneyland count, but not a national park or forest; Prozac, but not traditional neighborhoods and Main Streets that provide human connection and comfort without the need for pharmaceutical concoctions?

The reason, in a word, is money. What is called “economics” today is the world as seen through the myopic and tendentious lens of money and price. If something is transacted through money it has reality; if not it does not exist. It makes no difference that trees provide shade and neighbors provide comfort; it makes no difference that they serve real needs. They are not sold for money and therefore they do not count. As a result, the more “the economy” destroys these things – the more it displaces that which is free with commodities that we have to buy for money – the more the economy is growing and the better life is getting, or so we are told.

If you sniff an ideological agenda in this supposedly “objective” and “scientific” script – well, you are not alone. The mental astigmatism would be comic in a Mr. Magoo sort of way, if the implications were not so grim. Our high-level Magoos are engaged in a chronic and relentless quest to destroy commons wealth in the name of creating private wealth. They count the gain but not the loss; and so believe they are leading us upward when in fact they are taking us into a pit.

When Wal-Mart wipes out a traditional Main Street, they count the sales at the new Wal-Mart, but they ignore the community – the social productivity — that was destroyed in the process. When a wetland becomes a shipping channel, they count the commerce but ignore the loss of the cleansing and absorbing functions those wetlands provided, as well as the habitat for wildlife Then Katrina hits, and New Orleans is walloped in part because the wetland buffer no longer exists.

The response? Drill more oil in the Gulf, which will add more to the GDP – ie “the economy” – as currently measured, than the wetlands did.

Economists contend that money and price are true metrics for what really matters. What they really mean is that money is the only thing they know how to see; and that without this cognitive crutch they are adrift. They cannot pretend to be scientists, do their arcane math, advise presidents, win Nobels (which are not really Nobels, but that’s another matter.) In fact, a compelling case can be made that commons often serve authentic needs better than the realm of corporate commodities does.

Take air, for example. Which serves more, the air we breathe or the muck that corporations and their products emit into the air? The quiet of night, or the stereo systems that shatter that quiet? When a community garden becomes a condominium, the GDP increases; but life in the neighborhood is not automatically improved thereby. I’m not suggesting that we don’t need the products of the corporate economy; but rather that we need the production of the commons too, and often more. Yet the corporate economy keeps destroying these; and the experts keep calling it “growth” and good.

One giveaway is advertising. Corporations now spend upwards of $300 billion a year to cajole us to buy their products. They feel compelled to saturate the cognitive environment, to keep us in a buying mood. Why would they have to do this if we really needed their stuff? With the commons no such prodding is necessary. Central Park does not have to advertise its availability for jogging and picnics. Community gardens have long waiting lists, even without the benefit – if that’s the word – of thirty-second spots. Tap water needs no advertising; Coca Cola’s water needs a lot.

People use such commons because they are genuinely useful to them, and for that reason alone. This may be not be “economics;” but it is economy of the most basic kind. To put it another way, the mere use of a commons attests to its utility, and more effectively than does the pseudo-scientific price metric to which economists are attached. This insight comes from blogger johnrobert at http//, who points out that to measure economic value by price, as economists do, assumes an equal ability to pay, which is not the case.

“If everyone in a particular market had the same wealth and income, then the differences in their bids for the good within the market would reflect actual differences in their desire for the good and their expected utility from it. As soon as differences in wealth and income enter the picture, this measurement becomes skewed. For just one example, the ratio of vacation time taken by wealthy people to that taken by the working poor does not mean that wealthy people value their vacations more highly. The fact that a poor person has been priced out of the market doesn’t mean that he or she does not value that good.”

Johnrobert is talking economics talk here, which you have to do to be taken seriously by that crowd. In truth it’s a little nutty. In the textbooks we might “bid” for a latte at Starbucks; but I have yet to witness an actual auction there. Similarly, the notion of “utility” is one of the great tautologies of all time. You buy something; ergo the thing you buy is assumed to give you “utility,” whatever that is. What exactly is the “utility” of the Sara Lee pound cake that was scarfed down by a compulsive eater, who then hates him or herself for doing it? In the end, “utility” is just an attempt to cast an aroma of practicality and high seriousness around the consumption circus.

But when in Rome you speak as the Romans do. The point remains. The aggregate sales of a product tell us little about its actual value, even in conventional terms; because not everyone can afford to buy that product, even if they need it badly.  The conventional measures of “the economy,” which are based on total sales, miss the mark. The commons remains invisible because not transacted through money, even though it often serves more.

That people use a Central Park, or sit on a bench on Main Street, is compelling evidence of the value of those, even if that evidence does not come in a form amenable to regression analysis and Nobel Prizes.  This is not the whole story, as johnrobert acknowledges.  But neither is the conventional narrative the whole story either; and that’s his point.