We don’t think we hate cheap things – but we frequently behave as if we do.
The first meeting between Europeans and pineapples took place in November 1493, in a Carib village on the island of Guadaloupe. Pineapples proved extremely difficult to transport to Europe and very costly to cultivate. For a long time only royalty could actually afford to eat them. Then at the very end of the 19th century, production and transport costs plummeted and, unwittingly, transformed the psychology of pineapple-eating. It still tastes exactly the same. But now, the pineapple is one of the world’s least glamorous fruits.
The pineapple itself has not changed; only our attitude to it has. When we have to pay a lot for something nice, we appreciate it to the full. Yet as its price in the market falls, passion has a habit of fading away.
Why, then, do we associate cheap prices with a lack of value?
For most of human history, there truly was a strong correlation between cost and value: the higher the price, the better things tended to be – because there was simply no way both for prices to be low and quality to be high.
Instead of making wonderful experiences universally available, industrialization has inadvertently produced a different effect: it has seemed to rob certain experiences of their loveliness, interest and worth.
There is an intimidating hierarchy operating in the background, shaping what we are grateful for and feel that we lack and must have.
How do we reverse this? The answer lies in a slightly unexpected area: the mind of a four-year-old. Children have two advantages: they don’t know what they’re supposed to like – and they don’t understand money – so price is never a guide of value for them.
They have to rely instead on their own delight (or lack of it) in the intrinsic merits of the things they’re presented with, and this can take them in astonishing (and sometimes maddening) directions.
But at a certain age, something very debilitating happens to children (normally around the age of eight). They start to learn about ‘expensive’ and ‘cheap’ and absorb the view that the more expensive something is, the better it may be.
We can’t directly go backwards, we can’t forget what we know of prices. However, we can pay less attention to what things cost and more to our own responses. The people who have most to teach us here are artists. They are the experts at recording and communicating their enthusiasms which, like children, can take them in slightly unexpected directions.
Instead of reducing prices, artists can raise levels of appreciation; which is a move that is perhaps more precious to us economically – because it means that we can suddenly get a lot more great things for very little money.
Advertising tells us in insistent and urgently enthusiastic and sensitive ways what is loveable about bits of the world. The only problem with advertising is that it isn’t done for enough things, or indeed the things that would be most helpful and convenient for us to appreciate.
We need to rethink our relationship to prices. The price of something is principally determined by what it cost to make, not how much human value is potentially to be derived from it.
We have been looking at prices in the wrong way: we have fetishised them as tokens of intrinsic value, we have allowed them to set how much excitement we are allowed to have in given areas, how much joy is to be mined in particular places. But prices were never meant to be like this: we are breathing too much life into them, and therefore dulling too many of our responses to the inexpensive world.
There are two ways to get richer: one is to make more money; and the second is to discover that more of the things we could love are already at hand. We are, astonishingly, already a good deal richer than we are encouraged to think we are.