You Can’t Take It With You

Value Exists When It Has No Price

We love questions of value.

How was that meal you had from the new restaurant? Tasty, but points deducted because it was a bit expensive?

Would you rather enjoy a long weekend or work for time-and-a-half?

Does your grandmother’s wedding ring have a price?

I too am intrigued by value, particularly as one follows personal value into political and economic, i.e. the reflection what value looks like when the values of many people are aggregated.

The tension between what you value vs what society seems to value is what drives your opinion of politicians and parties.

Underneath political posturing, talk of value leads to economics.

Regardless of whether your leanings are towards your nation’s more liberal or conservative parties, I have a question:

Where do shared things fit in modern politics or economic systems like capitalism?

Let’s consider, specifically, the environment.

There’s a depressing internet quip that “a tree, financially, is worth more dead than alive”.

It makes one wonder: what other things become most valuable through their destruction?

It’s compelling evidence that the free market is fundamentally flawed in this regard. (And no dear reader, due to time considerations we’ll not delve into the myriad flaws of all other socioeconomic systems today lest we stray into discussing the flaws of people themselves.)

“We are, as a whole, still in that low state of civilization where we do not understand that it is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature — whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird.” — US President Theodore Roosevelt

Consider when trees are plentiful and more valuable as boards* how fast we decimate** forests.
* I hope your consideration of “when” is over five centuries ago
** Technically, “decimate” says you’re still left with a ⅒th, but for a number of iconic species such as kauri, coastal redwood, and rainforest hardwoods once deemed “exotic”, we’ve left ourselves a much smaller fraction

Perhaps the price-to-value for balance for trees occurs when there are so few of them that people will pay exorbitantly just to stand under one and breathe.

However, being a free market, could some oligarch or tycoon who wants their summer house extended with the last-ever wood deck outbid the tree-huggers?

You laugh at such an absurdist catastrophe. There are still trees, it’s all so hypothetical!

But consider tuna. Yes, the fish. One looks vacuously at tins in a supermarket or maybe has a whinge about their price never considering what a tuna is.

It’s a decidedly fantastic animal, but I digress.

The “low grade” smaller species end up in cans. The largest, the bluefin, is too valuable for all but the most selective sushi restaurants.

Few are aware this is a massive, athletic fish which, given an ocean without long lines, commonly grew over 12ft|3.7m and in excess of 1,500lb|700kg.

Tsukiji market, Tokyo 2018 REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Like giant redwood or kauri trees there are maybe just 3% of historic numbers of bluefin.

Now, remember your school classes about supply and demand. All sorted when talking about lemonade stands, right?

Yet when things become truly rare they become infinitely expensive. Markets stop working normally when there are so few that people will take what’s remaining at any cost, damn the consequence.

The middle of the above three fish took probably 15 years to grow 970 lbs, was sold for as much as a three-bedroom house, and within days of being deleted from the world’s ocean would be unceremoniously shat out of wealthy sushi diners.

That fish was pricey at few hundred thousand USD but wasn’t close to where prices can go.

The next year a buyer paid USD $3,000,000. Let’s state that again: that’s three million dollars for just one fish, a fish Hemingway would have just thought of as another fine afternoon on a boat just 90 years ago.

Do you still think the hypothetical conundrum with the tree-huggers and the porch-builder fighting over the world’s last tree is so hypothetical?

When humans eradicate 97% of a species the value of the remaining 3% is so high it overwhelms any counter effort.

With tuna’s absurd valuation it’s no secret it incentivises people to hunt them with the most expensive detection technology on the seas, just as market forces drive people to poach iconic animals in Africa — the value to buyers is so much greater than any paltry, ill-applied fine, or governmental slap on the wrist. Tourism has helped slow the trade by creating value for the living, but as I’ve written, when there’s no counterweight, it’s a disaster.

Environmental groups have become aware of market issues. A good example is former partner at Goldman Sachs, Mark Tercek, heading The Nature Conservancy for over a decade. If anyone understands financial value it’s a finance guy. He spearheaded a paradigm shift in strategy to protect the environment: devise big financial valuations for localized preservation.

But there’s still the issue with the pendulum. It works well when the market moves slowly enough for self-correction or when there’s so much of a thing that the swings can’t meaningfully affect supply.

Think of swings between styles of clothing, the popularity of high-fat, low-carb foods, or action movies vs character dramas. The free-market pendulum of supply and demand is acceptable regardless its oscillations since we’ll never run out of bell bottom trousers, fad diets, or action stars who later want to be taken seriously.

But when we think of the environment, its elements are finite. The timelines are long.

We can chop down a 2,000 year-old-tree when boards are popular, but we can’t explain to Jesus, Socrates, Ashoka, or Qin Shi Huang to plant a second one and reserve some land around it with the future in mind.

Markets can move faster than value can be ascertained. In this day and age what was termed a commodity for which supply can be presumed to rise and ebb through market forces may instead become a rarity: be it a product, your attention, your privacy, our environment.

That’s where my question sits. Markets concern me little where the frontiers are endless — Elon has a compelling new idea and a stock valuation becomes a silly multiple? Good on ya’, mate.

But are you confident enough in the next coming of Teddy Roosevelt to create more national parks, or some metropolitan board to hire a consultancy to estimate the value of an unpolluted river, or an international marketplace to determine the value of the last fish?

I’m not. Are you?

If not all parties have an understanding of nature’s value beyond financial, it may mean agreeing to leave most of it alone for the next 2,000 years.

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