The cost of things

I’m a big fan of the ‘slow’ movement. For those not familiar with the concept, ‘slow’ is about doing things mindfully, taking the time to focus on what we are doing and making a conscious effort to do it well. ‘Slow food’, for example, encourages people to choose fresh, high quality ingredients, to cook them with care and to take the time to enjoy eating them, preferably with family or friends.

This approach has spread – slowly – to other disciplines, so that we are now starting to see things such as ‘slow cities’, ‘slow working’ and, indeed, ‘slow living’. Often dismissed as a new-age, lefty indulgence, it is, rather, a welcome rally against the cult of speed that threatens to take over so many aspects of our lives. For adherents of slow, life is something to be savoured and enjoyed. The journey is as important as the destination.

One of my favourite slow concepts is that of ‘eigenzeit’. It comes from the German ‘eigen’, meaning one’s own, and ‘zeit’, meaning time. The idea that everything, if we are to do it well, requires a certain amount of time. Now, the particular amount of time required clearly depends on the specific task in hand, but if you try to do it any quicker than its ‘eigenzeit’, then you will inevitably do it badly or not at all.

Take my garden, for example. I know that it’s going to take me an hour to cut the grass, if I include trimming the edges and tidying up the clippings afterwards. I’ve done it quite a few times now and it has never taken me less than an hour. It sometimes takes me more time, particularly if I’m having an off day or stop to chat with my neighbour, but never less. Now, I could save time by only cutting the more visible parts of the lawn, by leaving the edges to fend for themselves or by not bothering to tidy up afterwards. But that’s not ‘cutting the grass’ as I’ve defined it. My task has an eigenzeit of sixty minutes. It’s a fact.

In a similar vein, I would like to propose the concept of ‘eigenkosten’. We already know what ‘eigen’ means, and ‘kosten’ is German for – and you may be able to guess this – costs. If we are to produce a good or a service to a certain standard of quality, there is – in my view – a minimum amount that it must cost. We might be able to shave a few pounds off here and there by being more efficient or whatever, but we will eventually reach a point where we can’t cut costs any more. That’s the ‘eigenkosten’.

If we try to drive down the cost of something below its eigenkosten, bad things happen. Some producers will just stop what they are doing and go off and try something else. We’re seeing this at the moment in the dairy industry, where farmers are selling off their herds due to the unrealistically low price that they are able to get for each pint of milk that they – or, rather, their cows – produce.

Alternatively, producers might simply struggle on, making a loss on what they do, in the hope that something will turn up or that circumstances will change. Or they might change the goods or services that they provide, sticking to the ones that they can afford to deliver or reducing the quality of what they produce. This is the situation, for example, in local government across the UK, where funding cuts are having a direct impact on the nature, scope and quality of public services.

Sometimes, however, producers will opt to respond to cost pressures by trying to hoodwink us. They will cheat. They will reduce the cost of their goods or services below the eigenkosten by using sub-standard raw materials, by cutting corners in production or by claiming to have done things that they have not. It is looking increasingly likely that this is what is happening across Europe with the substitution of horse-meat in beef products, for example, but this is hardly the only instance where producers have responded in this way.

The slow movement tells us that we need to think carefully about how much things cost to produce and how much we are willing to pay for them. We need to be prepared to pay a fair price for the things we need and to challenge those who seek to do otherwise. We need to recognise that everything  has a minimum cost – its eigenkosten – and that to seek to drive prices below this is to pay disrespect to the goods and services that we consume, as well as to those who work hard to produce them.

Markets, morality and modern social values

“The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?” These are the questions posed by Harvard politics professor Michael Sandel in his recent book ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’.

The book is not a polemic. Nor is it an outraged argument for one particular point of view. It is, in fact, much more powerful than that. It is a calm, rational explanation of how markets have encroached into all aspects of our lives. And it should, in my view, be required reading for everyone in government, business and pretty much everything else.

Using a broad range of everyday examples, Sandel shows how the values of the market – so beloved by economists as promoting the ‘efficient’ distribution of resources – have overwhelmed almost every aspect of our lives, from education and medicine to sports and family life.

In Sandel’s view, the problem with markets is that they are not morally neutral. Far from it, in fact. When we use markets to allocate a particular social good, he says, they change the character of that good and the way we perceive its worth. In their quest for efficiency, markets overlook less tangible values such as fairness, solidarity and social justice. So while money can buy most things, Sandel argues that there are some things that it should not be able to buy.

Take the ‘life settlement’ industry, for example, in which investors buy life insurance policies (for a percentage of the insurance payout) from older people who no longer need them, continue to pay the pay the premiums and then collect the benefit when the original policyholder dies. This is all completely legal and in line with the values of the market, but is it right for investors to, in Sandel’s words, ‘bet against life’?

And what about sport, in which the increased use of corporate suites and ‘skyboxes’ to bring in additional income to clubs divides fans – literally – according to their willingness and ability to pay. This may not sound too bad when we’re talking about football or even if we apply the same principles to first class rail travel or to ‘speedy boarding’ at the airport. But what about the school that your children go to, your ability to see a doctor or how long it takes the police to arrive when you dial 999?

According to Sandel, market and commercial values also erode our collective humanity. The more things money can buy, the less we share a common experience. “Democracy does not require perfect equality,” he argues, “but it does require that citizens share a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of ordinary life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.”

This book does not give us the answers. It is not even clear if there are any answers. But we have an obligation to ourselves, to others and to future generations to think most carefully about Sandel’s questions and the issues that they raise for us all. This is a very important book. Read it and do something about it.