The wisdom of the free market is simple: you pay the price, even if you had no idea there was a price.
M.H. Miller, arts editor of The New York Times Style Magazine, writing in The Baffler tells the story of his struggle for survival in the US as an adult saddled with massive student debt. He identifies a number of contributing factors to the prolonged misery he is — even to this day — condemned to submit to and highlights this one: “The foundational myth of an entire generation of Americans was the false promise that education was priceless — that its value was above or beyond its cost.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Meaningless, in a world in which everything has a price
Merriam-Webster defines priceless as “having a value beyond any price,” which of course applies to abstract notions such as friendship or moral virtue. But the term is often applied to tangible objects, such as a precious work of art — a usage is inherited from ancient times, before what we now call the modern “art market” came into existence. Today, every work of art has a price, with modern paintings fetching a price as high as the record-breaking $157.2 million paid for Modigliani’s Nu couché earlier this year.
It’s true that paintings such as the Louvre’s La Joconde (Mona Lisa) have no price, simply because the Paris-based museum would never put it on the market. But if that were to happen there is little doubt that it would command at least $1 billion. It was insured in 1962 for $100 million, the equivalent of $700 million in today’s money. But even if the bidding started at that price, it would go much higher, especially given the number of new billionaires in the world (2,208 according to Forbes). The current estimate of the number of billionaires back in 1960 is between four and 11.
While Miller believed initially that education was priceless, he discovered through years of living in the thralls of debt following graduation that not only did education have a price (the amount of his debt), but so did his own life, as he began to envision suicide not out of depression, but just to cancel the debt. “My life, I felt, had been assigned a monetary value — I knew what I was worth, and I couldn’t afford it, so all the better to cash out early, he writes.”
The art market serves as a good illustration of the way the value of education has evolved in today’s economy. Until the trend among the rich to build personal collections and the competitive bidding of museums, which began a century or so ago, the price of a work of art corresponded in almost all cases to the work entailed to produce it. But as art collecting became a factor of vanity, the perception of value gradually shifted from the idea of creative effort and aesthetic quality to the branding of each artist’s reputation. The motivation for collecting focused on investment — growing value for the future — and tax write-offs for the present. It was no longer about the value of art, but about making money and putting a price on things.
Miller is right to suppose that until about 30 years ago, US culture still “believed in” education, to the point of considering it priceless, in the sense that it would be immoral to put a price on it. Yes, private universities commanded significant tuition fees, which meant their campuses were largely reserved for the scions of wealthy families and a minority of high achievers whose performance could earn them a scholarship. But most states provided high-quality, low-cost education because it was seen not only as a social good, but as a means of potentially implicating the entire population in a culture that valued knowledge, wisdom, shared artistic traditions and creativity. Americans saw education as a pillar and prestigious symbol of their advanced civilization.
Then came the Milton, not John Milton, the English poet, but Milton Friedman of the Chicago school of economics. He taught all “responsible” Americans that everything had a price, including free lunches. He and a host of politicians who had absorbed his wisdom also insisted that taxes (used to pay for education) were not only painful but — the new economic theology required it — sinful. Virtue consisted in reducing taxes to a bare minimum and letting people educate themselves.
And now the concept is everywhere. In recent days, Donald Trump, attempting to justify the transfer of the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which the Israelis assumed was a gift, suddenly announced it was part of a package deal and that, in the negotiations for a peace deal with the Palestinians, “Israel will have to pay a higher price because they won a very big thing.”
Amir Peretz, a former defense minister commented, “when dealing with a president who thinks like a businessman, it was clear it would only be a matter of time until he asked for something in return.”
But the reaction to Trump’s announcement, both by Israelis and Palestinians, has been largely negative. In other words, in the world of “everything has a price,” there may also be a price for the act of putting a price on every thing and every action.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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