The Economics of Pricelessness

Okay, I have found that those on the right are just as cheap as those on the left! Yes, this blog of mine is not making money. No one clicks on links and banners to buy stuff! So I removed a lot of links and a lot of banners on my blog. From now on, when I put new links and banners on my blog, they will be a general type hopefully reaching out to people who actually want to buy stuff like kitchen appliances, software and more. And also, except for the occasional article, there will not be much in the way of stuff from the right of center. I eliminated a lot of blogs/sites that I drew articles from, thus eliminating a lot of the right wing spectrum. Mostly I will be posting stuff I find on the internet that I enjoy and I believe my readers will enjoy.

And today, I woke up feeling a lot better than I have been since Sunday afternoon! I ached in places I did not believe could ache, my head was on a different planet. So my wife been trying Sunday and yesterday to get me to the doctor. And being a typical man, I said no way. He will just tell me take some pain relievers like aleve and get lots of rest. About what I have been doing. Thus my wife cancelled her dental appointment today and instead made an appointment for me to see the doctor! Tried to tell her, one does not go to a doctor once one is feeling better. She is woman, she is wife, she is the one who tells me what to do. Thus to the doctor this afternoon.

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The digital economy has taught us a lot about one extreme of pricing: zero. The price-point of zero is a place where weird things happen. We now know what it is to have our attention productized in three-way attention markets. We understand what it means to  devalue to a zero price, things which required nonzero effort to produce. Perhaps most importantly, we know what it is like to constantly be inundated by advertising, the sine qua non of zero-point economics. The zero-point economy has of course always existed, but it has only recently gained a great deal of economic mass.

But we aren’t talking as much about the other end of the spectrum, the price point we poetically call priceless, as in the Mastercard tagline, “there are some things money can’t buy, for everything else, there’s Mastercard.” I think the two are connected (mathematically, via division by zero, and philosophically via “the best things in life are free”), so it is impossible to construct a proper theory of the zero price point without also creating a theory of the infinity price point.

Pricelessness is at the heart of what I call saint-saint transactions, a weird economic regime where people who abide by the guardian moral syndrome, in the sense of Jane Jacobs, are forced to play by the commerce moral syndrome. This means somehow trading things, which are culturally assumed to be priceless, via indirection. Depending on who you ask, the category of nominally priceless products and services includes life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, nature, human dignity, religious values and the welfare of children.

Such priceless things trap us between a rock and a hard place. If we admit that we do in fact price these things indirectly, and get rid of the indirection, we might manage the economy better, but will likely stress our sanity. If we continue, as we do today, to pretend that priceless things are literally rather than poetically priceless, we will continue with our grand display of possibly unsustainable species-level honor and nobility.

An economics of pricelessness might help find a way to get out of this bind. The fact that the phrase itself likely sounds like a profane contradiction in terms suggests it is the right direction to explore. Let’s take a stab at it.

Saint-Saint Transactions

Here’s a toy example of a saint-saint transaction around priceless things: a True Believer in the religion of local-and-organic buys $5 worth of tomatoes from a True Believer vendor, for whom it is a calling rather than for a living.

The primary economic transaction is: I validate your loco-organic values in exchange for you validating mine; an exchange of infinities. The secondary transaction is tomatoes going one way and $5 going the other. That much is obvious. Let’s unpack it further.

The primary transaction anchors the bargaining narrative in a particularly high-minded place where it would be disrespectful to Mother Earth to haggle. It would also break the narrative to buy from a cheaper seller of organic produce who is reputed in the marketplace to have opportunistically jumped on the local-and-organic bandwagon, and is suspected of inorganically cutting corners. Affirming shared values is a non-negotiable aspect of the transaction, so cannot be traded off against other aspects (the phrase traded off is revealing here).

The transaction is also a cousin of what Clifford Geertz called deep play with reference to betting patterns in Balinese cockfighting. Shallow play involves betting rationally, based on calculated assessments of the abilities of the roosters in the ring. Deep play on the other hand, involves betting in ways that affirm priceless alliances and rivalries in the heavily kinship-governed Balinese society.

These features of the transaction suggest something systematic is going on, and this is revealed by the guardian/commerce comparison.

For your convenience, here is the guardian vs. commerce table from Wikipedia that I had in my previous post on this theme.  In that post, I labeled people who operate by the guardian syndrome saints, and people who operate by the commerce syndrome traders.

moral precepts

Pricelessness is a meaningful only within the guardian syndrome. Several of the items on the left can be quantified in infinite terms, and the corresponding ones on the right in finite terms.

For example be loyal has no meaningful inherent limits or qualifications. It is implied that you should give your life (which is also priceless) for loyalty. The corresponding commerce value, come to voluntary agreements, naturally suggests finite binding agreements with potentially expensive, but not infinitely expensive termination mechanisms. Dispense largesse and be ostentatious are naturally unlimited behaviors. Invest for productive purposes has a notion of return, and be thrifty is explicitly anti-infinity.

Shun trading and treasure honor make the principles explicit. To treasure honor is to affirm its pricelessness through your behaviors. To be honorable is to simply be true to your values — the rest of the code.  To shun trading is to refuse to compromise values, even if it means violent death. To shun force on the other hand, is to affirm the value of actual life over abstract values, which are open to compromise if it means continuing to live.

(The guardian syndrome is built for the finite game, the trader syndrome for the infinite game. One might argue that pricelessness is a feature of guardian economics precisely because actual life can be given up, but that’s a complex little side-trail).

Taken together, you have a simple alternative to trading: the price of anything that affirms shared values is infinite, the price of anything else is zero or negative when the alternative is to debase or reverse a value.

Saint-saint transactions are not uncomputable though. You can order priceless values from greatest to smallest. You can do some simple, low-precision math with the infinities of pricelessness. Lives are priceless, but it is only acceptable for a mother to give her life to save  a young child, not the other way around. Often, one infinity is devalued in proportion to how corrupted it seems relative to another infinity of the same kind. So the adult life has been more corrupted by base trader considerations of adult circumstances. Therefore it must be sacrificed for the child’s life.

Continue reading all this at the Ribbon Farm.





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“The Reverend Jesse Jackson is, to the surprise of all thinking people, right about something: “A spark has exploded,” he said, referring to the protests and violence in Ferguson, Mo. “When you look at what sparked riots in the Sixties, it has always been some combination of poverty, which was the fuel, and then some oppressive police tactic. It was the same in Newark, in Chicago, in Detroit, in Los Angeles. It’s symptomatic of a national crisis of urban abandonment and repression, seen in Chicago.”

A question for the Reverend Jackson: Who has been running the show in Newark, in Chicago, in Detroit, and in Los Angeles for a great long while now? The answer is: People who see the world in much the same way as does the Reverend Jackson, who take the same view of government, who support the same policies, and who suffer from the same biases…

…The more progressive the city, the worse a place it is to be poor and/or black. The most pronounced economic inequality in the United States is not in some Republican redoubt in Texas but in San Francisco, an extraordinarily expensive city in which half of all black households make do with less than $25,000 a year. Blacks in San Francisco are arrested on drug felonies at ten times their share of the general population. At 6 percent of the population, they represent 40 percent of those arrested for homicides. Whether you believe that that is the result of a racially biased criminal-justice system or the result of higher crime incidence related to socioeconomic conditions within black communities (or some combination of those factors) what is undeniable is that results for black Americans are far worse in our most progressive, Democrat-dominated cities than they are elsewhere. The progressives have had the run of things for a generation in these cities, and the results are precisely what you see.” –Kevin D. Williamson, “Who Lost the Cities?”


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