The Price of Everything by Eduardo Porter
May 5, 2011 by Bob Livingston
But in his extensive compilation of research, Porter can’t seem to see the financial forest for the trees. For instance, while wading through factoids like how much a donated kidney is worth (about $15,200) or the median salary of the 2009 New York Yankees ($5.2 million), he never asks himself a really meaningful question. He never stops to wonder: What is the real significance of wealth and prices in a world where the supply of money is cynically manipulated by government bureaucrats beholden to corporate oligarchs who continually seek to concentrate power in the hands of an elite few?
I kept waiting for him to go deeper into his subject as I waded through this book’s mish-mosh of stories and anecdotes about the byzantine subject of prices. But he stays on the surface.
The Value Of Nothing
The title of Porter’s book is taken from an Oscar Wilde story wherein one of the characters muses, “What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Now, I’m sure that Porter doesn’t consider himself a cynic. But he never offers discerning insight into our modern day values even as he regales us with calculations of how much we’re willing to spend pumping gasoline, joining a church, keeping illegal immigrants on the other side of the border and downloading music.
Yes, he talks about the relationship between wealth and happiness, opining that “…money is not the only relevant variable…” to increasing your happiness. And he points out that happiness “…can be bought with love… (and) time. And pursuing (economic) growth at all costs can lead us to sacrifice other components of our happiness.” But he omits an analysis of our motivations. He never seeks to analyze how, today, most people’s conception of happiness is psychologically manipulated by giant corporations who spend billions to persuade the masses to buy products that are allegedly necessary for personal fulfillment.
Example: When he talks about what we pay for snack foods, you’ll learn about the number of cheese curls in the bag, but not why we’re buying so much of this extruded corn dough. He tells us, “If munchers had no other option but Frito-Lay products, the company would have less of an incentive to put more Cheetos into the bag and trumpet it to the world.” But he doesn’t think to ask why we are consuming so many more of these nutritionally-worthless snacks than is good for us. Or what the price tag is for the zillion dollar marketing campaigns that entice us to keep coming back for more.
At one point, Porter notes that “… belief in the inerrant ability of our choices to communicate our preferences is inconsistent with how we behave… people often make decisions about prices and values that, upon careful consideration, are inconsistent or shortsighted.” But it would have been enlightening to see him examine how companies that market consumer goods take advantage of our inconsistencies and purchasing irrationalities.
Porter does acknowledge that despite a marketplace full of goods and services Americans seem to be “…stuck in a happiness rut…” And if he had expanded on this notion, the book might have been more valuable. In this part of the book he briefly mentions that our happiness deficit is linked to the fact that we get too little sleep, we don’t spend enough time cooking our own meals instead of downing processed foods, we watch too much TV and we don’t exercise enough, especially when compared to other, healthier, industrialized nations.
He doesn’t point out, though, that while we’re watching all that TV, not only are our bodies turning to flab, but our minds, bathed in endless commercial messages, are turning to flab, too. We’re not only letting the companies who have purchased these ads persuade us to pay inflated prices for their merchandise, we have allowed them to commandeer our perspective on the meanings of our lives in the same way they’ve commandeered our government, our money supply and the direction of the country.
Although the subhead of Porter’s book is Solving The Mystery Of Why We Pay What We Do, it’s no mystery. The mystery is why we’ve allowed these behind-the-scenes manipulators to make us pay the price we’re paying.