Friday, December 11, 2015

Beyond Exchange

One definition of Economics is the study of limited resources. In a world without enough, what is the best way to go about producing, consuming and transferring wealth? Price becomes a signal for how much people want something by quantifying how much they are willing to exchange for it. If there is only a little bit, that thing will go to the person who is willing to exchange the most for it. Its price will go up. It should be obvious that the actual thing continues to be the same whatever the price is. Unless the thing isn't the thing. Sometimes the price of a thing IS part of the thing. What you are signalling is that you have got something other people want. And they haven't.

The soaring prices of the world's most expensive paintings have stopped being about the paintings bit, and are largely about the most expensive bit. The buyers want the price to be higher. This becomes circular, feeding on itself, and exploding to the point where the most expensive painting sold is Gauguin's 'When will you Marry?' to the State of Qatar for an unknown amount estimated at close to $300m. A Rothko painting sold for a known $186m.

'When will you marry?' Gauguin

Where it gets really interesting is the world beyond enough. The world beyond exchange. The School Of Life has a section on Epicurus who dedicated his life to the study of happiness. One observation resonates very strongly with me.

'He noted how rewarding most friendships are: here we are polite, we look for agreement, we don't scold or berate and we aren't possessive. But the problem is we don't see our friends enough. We let work and family take precedence. We can't find the time. They live too far away.'

You can't apply the analogy of Economics to friendships. Time spent isn't 'producing, consuming and transferring'. There aren't limited resources. And yet to me the connections established with friends are the real stuff of life. Stuff that can't be measured. Stuff that breaks away from ideas of productivity, progress, aspiration, goals and success. Stuff that breaks away from measures of the good life.

But we like to measure, which is why the actual study of Economics becomes full of models and numbers. Time and energy spent on people who matter to us seems like one measure that I would buy.

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