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The Price of Everything by Eduardo Porter

May 5, 2011 by  

If you’re looking for some scattered, interesting facts about prices and the spending habits of different societies, The Price of Everything by Eduardo Porter, is the book for you. Porter has spent the past few years researching global statistics on paying for things like housing, food, athletes and votes. Mixing this all together, he provides a few entertaining nuggets about the exuberance of financial bubbles, the differing costs of getting married, why Pele never got paid enough and how folks decide what to tip a waiter.

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.

Bob Livingston

is an ultra-conservative American and author of The Bob Livingston Letter™, founded in 1969. Bob has devoted much of his life to research and the quest for truth on a variety of subjects. Bob specializes in health issues such as nutritional supplements and alternatives to drugs, as well as issues of privacy (both personal and financial), asset protection and the preservation of freedom.

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  • Russell Errett

    For over two thousand years men have been trying to solve the problem of poverty. Will it take another two thousand years for men to discover the real reason for poverty.

    The one thing that is left out of the debate on poverty is human nature. I see that human instincts and animal instincts are the same except that humans have their instincts somewhat under control.

    Self-preservation includes all of our instincts, greed is one of the important ones.

    Greed is a selfish desire for more than one needs or deserves. We all have a different opinion as to how much need and how much we deserve.

    Fire is a dangerous thing, but we have learned to control and use it to our benefit. Greed is a dangerous thing in a civilized society, but have we learned to keep it under control or to use it to our benefit?

    A country controlled by a dictator or king uses greed to control the country. The dictator or king uses money, taken from the people, or privileges to buy allegiance.

    In a democracy there is two types of economy, socialism and capitalism.

    Socialism is based on greed. The promise of an equal share of the wealth produced whether they share in the equal production of that wealth. The population becomes complacent Why would anyone try to produce more when the rewards are the same? This generates laziness in the population. This results in a smaller pie. What do the promoters of socialism want. Certainly they haven’t learned from the past. Wherever it has been tried it has failed. Socialism requires a larger government and the larger the government the closer we get to tyranny.

    Capitalism on the other hand promotes greed. But unlike socialism, the competitive free enterprise system controls that greed. The latent effect of capitalism is that it provided more goods to more people. Socialism (welfare, subsidies and grants)removes the penalties that has keep the greed of capitalism in check. So why would any one wont to inject socialism into a good system? Socialism puts laziness into the system and reduces the size of the pie.

    • active citizen

      “why would any one wont to inject socialism into a good system?”

      Because the system does not work as simple as you and others claim it does. Characterizing the capitalist system as regulating greed is an oxymoron or total misrepresentation because it is not a system in the pure form…It is unregulated greed.

      So the socialism you mention tends to have a somewhat larger government (more jobs by the way and more area’s to collect revenues)because regulations are needed to prevent abuses, which are bound to occur given human nature and selfish desires to reach total control of industries. This pursuit of total control is profit driven and neglects all the other human concerns affecting health of individuals and the community.

      The pure form of Capitalism is just not realistic, considering how people like to find ways to cheat and jump ahead with their own personal connections. Considering that, what we have today and what has always existed has been varying forms or mixed economies. Socialism is an effort to ensure these public concerns/needs are better addressed than by leaving it to total chance under a laisess faire capitalist model.

      The forms of capitalism that exist also promote laziness and lack of efficiency because of the monopolies that form which then act to suppress innovations from within, to minimize one’s own costs, or to suppress innovations of others so as to minimize competition.

      Socialism is geared to address greed, while a capitalist (pure) celebrates greed and holds it should not be regulated. Socialism was a reaction to unregulated capitalism and may allow some levels of greed, particularly the kind that supports a functioning society, but actually puts regulations to limit it.

      Socialism also established that there are areas that are considered public goods or key to the society as a whole, like education, security, health…all of these area’s few would say are unimportant to the future of a society or the future generations.

      Unregulated capitalism or at least much of the supporters in todays time it seems, would like us to think it is better to leave each of these area’s to chance, to the mercy of global markets and random monopolies and powerful elites that will form.

      One can make the argument that elites will form regardless but at least socialism sets some minimum standards which actually with the times people can demand stronger or less regulations. Sadly today, corporations or corporatists that are beholden or care for no one but themselves, they are pushing for total deregulation and a end to any regulations. They want a return to the stone age where it is each neighbor out for themselves. Perhaps at least a return to the industrial revolution of England, where wealthy business owners did not have to answer for any of the gross abuses that became apparent in work conditions, in harm to children and communities, in the environment and living conditions. Slavery was actually deemed okay because this was just the nature of the market.

      So now you and others can understand why many are not eager to a return towards the unregulated capitalism fantasy. A race to the bottom does not sound like a good proposal.

  • s c

    Russell, I would hasten to add that the writer [Porter] may be a product of Harvard. Some writers (thinkers, “leaders,” icons) never get into the habit of delving deep into a subject [Queen Nancy Pelosi comes to mind].
    Most people in Congress come to mind. The self-made losers in the W H come to mind (and anyone who voted for them, including all of the many dead voters around Chicago). My point is that America has devolved, and that looking for the whys isn’t as important as lighting a raging fire under the arses of every man, woman and child in America.
    Porter will survive ho hum book reviews. America WON’T survive citizens who think that life goes on forever ansd that “it can’t happen here.” “It’s” happening NOW.

  • s c

    For what it’s worth, Porter has a background in SCIENCE. Why he dared to write a book on ‘the price of everything’ is beyond me.
    Because he’s on the staff of the NY Times, maybe he should have written a book on Herr Obummer, moral relativism and America’s elected prostitutes who think moral relativism is the ONLY religion an elected slimer needs. At least it would be relevant.

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