Having recently moved back to the states after almost 20 years abroad, our family had to choose what to bring with us and what to leave behind. Most of our choices had little to do with an items’ commercial value. The Easter eggs we’d dyed and decorated over the years, for example, occupied space that could’ve been used for expensive dishes left with friends. In fact, the eggs cost more to bring than to buy and do again.
The move increased our awareness of how we assess value, and especially the difference between market and what we might call “real” value. This is a fuzzy concept to be sure, but one we can’t do without.
Most of us, for example, consider our sacred literature to be invaluable. Think of the Qumran community hiding the Dead Sea Scrolls or medieval monks copying the Bible by hand. Today’s Kindle version of the Bible, however, sells for 99 cents, much less than the latest romance or tell-all.
Everyday speech attests to yet further distinctions. We often despair a favorite musician having “gone commercial,” for example, meaning that he wrote great music when he was true to himself, but now responds to whatever is popular. His new music makes more money but has lost something.
Of course, we often consider that market and “real” values go together. We could imagine, then, a kind of Venn diagram of value in which one circle represents market value and the other intrinsic. The circles will intersect. Where they don’t, however, we will find whatever we judge as having a higher market than intrinsic value, or whatever we judge as having a higher intrinsic than market value.
We may disagree on what goes where, but the distinction is important because the best way we’ve found to manage our economy measures worth in terms of market value alone. And when we conflate the two values, any attempt to employ social policy to adjust market rewards appears unfair. Yet, we know that market value isn’t always synonymous with “real” value and that it is subject to rules that we ourselves create.
Take Sheldon Adelson, for example, who owns casinos. On average they earn him $32 million a day, which he receives whether or not he sleeps in, is sick or leaves the work entirely to others. In the two days after hosting the Republican Jewish Coalition, he personally earned $2.1 billion. So, it’s fair to ask whether the intrinsic value of one man’s contribution to gambling is worth 10 times the total number of registered nurses working in the entire state of Utah. Moreover, Adelson uses part of his fortune to influence the rules of his industry — specifically to prohibit online gambling, as well as policies concerning taxes and wages.
Or take George Soros, who earned his money through financial speculation. On the day that he became known as the man who broke the Bank of England, Soros earned over $1 billion. Betting against the pound (in his words, going “for the jugular”), he forced a panicked nation to withdraw from its commitment to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism as desperate ministers saw the country “losing hundreds of millions of pounds every few minutes.” Efforts made to save the currency were seen by traders as the “desperation [of] a dying man a signal that the end was nigh that it was time for one last push to sell the life out of the British currency.” Soros admitted that his actions benefitted no one but himself. It cost the U.K. over £3.4 billion.
So we have potentially conflicting measures of value, which also include many at the other end of the economic spectrum as well — those who produce low market but high intrinsic value.
We tend to assume, however, that success at the economic game is synonymous with producing value for society. In an age of changing economic structures and widening inequality, however, we may want to reassess our assumptions. It may be worthwhile to ask how much of our changing economic fortunes are due to the contribution of various actors to our common good and how much is due to changed global circumstances and the rules governing the economy, the very rules that the wealthy have the resources to determine.
Mary Barker teaches political science in Madrid, Spain, and is currently on leave to conduct research and is teaching at Salt Lake Community College.
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