The Price of Things

What is the value of things? How much are things worth? These questions have been the focus of many hundreds of economics lessons around the globe. Some, like those in the courses for green beginners and reluctant participants of the upper social strata, answer it quickly by venturing into the basic theory of supply and demand, and define the value of a certain thing as a monetary figure arrived at during a market transaction. Others are sensitive to the innate injustice in any and all economic systems, and they rattle off revolutionary arguments in favor of overturning the status quo that lets the haves hold on to their inflated halves and keeps the have-nots in their state of perpetual spiritual submission. For the latter the value of things is an affair of constant motion, rising and falling with the quirks of human interaction, manipulated according to hidden agendas by the clever in order to trick those less doted with practical mental brightness into believing that somebody is generously looking after them.

Little Savusavu town is yet another of those sad examples of a community that has been pulled into the global market economy on a fast track roller coaster ride without having been given the opportunity to choose how, when and what, nor sufficient time to reflect upon the true consequences of such rampant material development. We recently had a bit of sewing work to be done. There was a recycled zipper in Aluna’s bilges, which I had harvested from a discarded dodger thrown away carelessly into the fenced in rubbish bins of the Opua marina. One side of it needed to be attached to our sunshade, a square piece of black agricultural mesh that has proven to be pretty much indestructible under the constant UV bombardment one is exposed to when living on tropical waters. The other side had to go on one side of a piece of tarp, which would then extend the shaded area on deck over onto the center part of Aluna’s spacious topsides. I gave a good go trying to complete that task by hand, but soon came to realize that not only would a machine do this in a fraction of time, it would also do a much better job in distributing the load with its finer and more regular stitches. With our outdated third world mentality we thought we should be able to afford a local craftsman or woman, who with an industrial sewing machine should be able to finish it all in under half an hour.

The first place we went to was a tiny little locale squeezed in between the post office and the Christian Bookshop right across from Surf’n Turf Restaurant. Beautiful saris of heavenly colors hung on the concrete wall on either side of the narrow passageway. A feast of vivid colors, psychedelic patterns and elegant outlines all around us made the hastily folded piece of shabby tarp under my arm look like a drunk, bearded beggar who had staggered into the party of the royal court’s concubines from the stories of A Thousand And One Arabian Nights. A very petite and hauntingly skinny Hindi lady looked at us from behind a copper-clad Singer sewing machine, stretching her hunched vertebrae just a tad to elevate her gaze towards that piece of aesthetic abomination, and it seemed like our explanation in regards to what we wanted to have done with it caused an uproar of indignation in her fragile soul. We went over the necessary procedures at least five separate times without getting any sign of understanding from the big, bewildered eyes that looked at us through sizeable, hornbill-framed spectacles, which just so happened to sit on her spiny nose. After a good long run of cross-cultural communication exercises the good lady agreed to do her best with it and ordered us to come back after the weekend. The question of how much she would want to charge us for the service was met with the customary wave of the hand. We had seen that same gesture in many other places and almost gotten used to. It means as much as: I’ll give you the surprise once I’m done!

Unfortunately it did not come to that. We went back there after our pleasant trip to beautiful Taveuni, the lush Garden Island, where over the weekend we had visited friends and climbed half a mountain in soggy rain on slippery flip-flops. Our tarp sat decently covered in a big plastic bag, but the lady’s face was long and sagging. “I couldn’t do it, I’m very sorry,” she winced, “you have to take it to the upholsterer down the road. He has machines that can do plastic!”

The upholsterer turned out to be a young Hindi guy with a smirky face. Looking up from his chore of fabricating cushions for a nicely built sofa there was no wavering in his understanding about the task at hand and the next day our order was ready for picking up. As you would expect, that level of speedy craftsmanship came with its corresponding price tag. The forty dollars he billed for the job killed any good intentions from our part towards using him for the additional work on the tarp and the fact that we had to bring the sewn zipper back to him twice because it was done in a very splotchy and hasty manner did the rest. The gentleman quite clearly was used to making a quick buck, and his interest no longer found its ways to making an effort to please.

A good week before all this we ran into my good friend Bot again, provider of last year’s supply of bamboo in our eternal quest for the perfect spars to use with our crab claw sails. We had gone up to the Hotsprings Hotel that day, the top lodge in town, where guests pay big money to overlook the harbor from their luxurious suites, air-conditioned and therapeutic-hot-pool-equipped. A vivid bunch of American chiropractic students where offering free sessions of treatment to the public at large and Beatriz’ bones are ever in need of adjustments, weary as they are from her long and furious career on the professional dance floors of the world. We were just about to enter the majestic foyer, picturing rose-colored limousines parking under the archway to excrete corpulent VIPs with important looking briefcases, when out of nowhere Bot appears, standing before us with his trademark smile and machete in hand. A it turned out he had been working as a landscape maintenance guy at the hotel for a couple months now. All nice and good, a step up from last year I thought, when he used to borrow Aluna’s outrigger canoe to go and sell his coconuts to the yachties to make a couple of bucks so that he could recharge his mobile phone. Well, so it seemed. When he came over to Aluna for coffee a couple days later the real story emerged. His voice hardened and his smile vanished into thin air when he described the tedious work of cutting brush all day long, working from 8am to 4:30pm, the 30 minutes lunch break unpaid, Monday to Friday. All he takes home at the end of the week is a miserable one hundred dollars!

Almost everything becomes more expensive when the market economy comes sailing in. The prices for goods and services climb steadily as the cancer of capitalist dealings expands. The generosity evaporates under the stark sun of greed. Things that before were free, available for anybody and in abundance, now all carry a price tag and are used and abused to generate profits for the many who are now focused on accumulating material wealth. But not everything participates in that spiraling climb of inflation. The minimum wage particularly has the nasty habit of lagging behind consumer prices, sticking stubbornly to the past of post-colonial exploitation.

In an amusing coincidence Bot’s sister, who lives in town, turns out to be married to the upholsterer’s cousin. We see her almost daily parading her two kids and pursuing her daily chores along the dusty boulevard of Savusavu town. When I complain about the price he charged us for the quick stitching of our zipper, she huffs and puffs, insisting that it is a completely reasonable price, if not outright cheap. I’m glad I hadn’t made a bigger scene when complaining about the wavy couture with what now turns out to be a member of a friendly clan, but also secretly wonder how she would compare the value of her brother’s time, who the entire family adores as a hard working pal, and who earns two dollars fifty and hour, while his brother-in-law’s cousin pockets a hefty eighty. Of course, in order to be fair and comprehensive as one should be whenever pursuing claims of objectivity, we do have to include the particular circumstances of each laborer in our home-brewed economical analysis. We look at the cost of doing business for instance, shop rent, investment in assets, tools, etc. But even after doing that, the discrepancy persists and seems to be of the dimensional order.

Again, it is all a game of relativity. If we weren’t so dirt poor we probably wouldn’t mind giving the upholsterer that little bit of extra money. He after all looks like a nice chap and certainly mustn’t have it easy either, having to look after his family and provide for their future. But since we happen to be dirt poor, we do look at things a little harder. Because understanding the mechanics of the economy close by and far away not only allows us to continue travelling and enjoying a pretty darn good living, with that little intellectual effort we can to that on a budget that runs a tiny fraction of what probably a good ninety percent of humanity burns through without even have to think too much of it.

The upholsterer’s little wink with taking advantage of others is in and by itself a very justifiable and almost reasonable slip of moral integrity. It is after all this taking advantage of others that makes the whole global market economy sizzle and fizzle. That little grain of greed has been turned into the key virtue of modernity. It is instilled, for a small charge of course, at many a business school in East and West alike, and in fact permeates the education systems of all nations. When so blatantly visible before your eyes though, it bothers; it itches; it grows on you; it spits in your face; it tickles your bile; it upsets your ingrained instinct for peaceful coexistence. But it becomes truly haunting when it lives invisible underground. Like when you become curious who the owner of the Hotsprings Hotel might be. He who is presumed to live somewhere in the clouds of those who rake in their wealth with big, mechanized harvesting equipment. Bot has heard only that he is some Kiwi guy. Interesting! Not a local, go figure! Not a person rooted in the community! But apparently this guy hass got enough grip on the local politics that building codes have been altered and fine-tuned to protect the hotel’s interest. Smaller bed and breakfast establishments within the hotel’s vicinity are not allowed to have more than three rooms and there’s a moratorium in place for building any new ones.

Are there still people out there who think this all should not be like that, that there is something deeply wrong with this, that it urgently needs to change? Or has this kind of thinking become no more than an unfashionable idea? The radical propositions of the Twentieth Century have all been wiped under the carpet of oblivion by the abuse under tyrants and organized crime. Is this still new and juvenile Twenty-first Century able to come up with its own daring and sound suggestion in regards to what to do about it all? Or are these strictly times of complacency where we all lie around in plush pillows of comfort reciting loops of regurgitated snippets sifted from second and third hand newsreels streamed towards us at the speed of lightning like torrents of biblical floods on steroids?

Economics is an important science; we need to understand what precisely we are doing whenever we’re talking money. But like with all the other branches of structured mental discipline, its meaning is only of the practical realm. To have real insight one needs to observe, to listen, to sense, and any understanding gained from this direct extraction of primordial information must never be self-serving, but has to lead to radical changes and immediate improvements of our daily lives. Of all our daily lives!

One Response to “The Price of Things”

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