Friday, 29 April 2011

Crafting and Fair Prices (again), part V

I left off yesterday with the question of an hour spent doing something that is part of general education and an hour spent doing something that you invested a lot of time for learning is really the same value.

If everybody knew that they will never get reimbursed for the time spent on learning a trade, on developing something, but only on the hours and materials used for actually producing the developed thing - what would happen? Would you like to spend a year living off your savings, knowing that you will never ever get back what you spent? Can anybody afford that?

If learning and researching and developing new solutions do not hold the promise of reaping the benefits of hard work and lean living later on, they lose a lot of their charm. If you could work one hundred hours on improving a loom to work half as fast again on the new loom, would you do that to churn out half as much cloth again - but lose the hundred hours and not get more value for your work, because you are paid in time-swap values, and not by metres of cloth? You lose one hundred hours' worth of value. Or you could use your old loom and get time-swap value for these hundred hours. It's an easy choice, I think.

Learning, reasearching, improving things and trying out new solutions is a cornerstone of our western culture. Learning of - apprenticing for - a specialised skill is the very foundation of our society. Division of labour means that I do not have to do my own dyeing, my own planting of food and harvesting, my own blacksmith work and tanning work - I find a trade that matches my interests and talents, and then I can trade with others. Everybody wins, because everybody gets better quality items: Fabric that is spun and woven properly and holds up to wear; crops that are healthy and nutritious because they were grown by an expert; knives that will cut through material, holding a good edge for a good while. Humans are not totally stupid all of the time, and I am convinced division of labour set in at a very, very early stage. It's just natural to ask your neighbour if he or she would be willing to tan this piece of hide for you, when in exchange you can retouche their household's flint scrapers into that new, more efficient form.

Learning, researching and developing have always been a valuable investment in our culture - because they hold the promise of more benefits later on. Of reimbursement. Because we are not calculating hours spent on producing something - we are calculating value of products. And that value of products is more than just the sum of time spent on the piece and materials used for making it - it's also the creativity of the maker, the years of research and experience, the special talent. And, of course, something can rise in value because it is coveted by a society and sink in value because it is not.

The value of an item is never objective. It is always a very subjective thing, and it can be vastly influenced by a person's current situation. If you are stranded in a desert and you really, really need water, you will probably be willing to pay a much higher price for it.

There's a scene in Out of Gas from Firefly that does say this beautifully: "Catalyzer's a nothing part, Captain." "It's nothing 'til you don't got one. Then it appears to be everything."

And this is the basic problem, and the ultimate opportunity as well. If we are trading value of products, I have to decide upon a thing's value for me and my situation, and that will tell me if the price asked - no matter in what form that price is to be paid - is acceptable for me. To evaluate the price of an item, I have to know a bit about it and its quality - whether the material and the production quality are good, and whether it will be as practical or decorative or whatever as it should be.

For this, I need to know things about the item. That will be no problem if it is something that I commonly work with - like textile or a textile tool; I know what I am looking for and I know what to look out for. But with something that I am no expert in? That's where I have to rely on the craftsperson selling to me. Or the sales agent. Or whoever does the selling - to give me good advice about the thing I need and to help me find the best match for my needs, for a price fair to everybody concerned. And then it's up to me to decide whether I want to pay this price or not.

continue with part VI of this series

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