20 December 2022

"That's too expensive": a mini rant

 I've been too burned by The Discourse on twitter not to include the following disclaimer for something so incredibly obvious it shouldn't need to be stated: the following discussion does not refer to people on limited budgets.

So. There's this habit among Germans to look for the best Preis-Leistungsverhältnis, which literally translated is roughly the relationship between cost and what you get out of it. Price-performance ratio, maybe. Cost-benefit analysis isn't quite right, but you get the drift.

This isn't limited to the Germans, of course! I think everyone who buys something wants to get the best value for their money. But I've encountered the specific attitude I'm irritated about far more here in Germany than back in the US, and I grew up with a single mom who was a secretary. (i.e. we were working poor. A lot of things were out of our budget.)

I adopted a cat from Ukraine, so I've been looking for all the cat things I don't have anymore. I wanted to get a name tag for her collar (and a collar), and I ended up searching at Amazon, where I also looked for a couple other things that were useful for me. (I personally prefer to avoid Amazon if at all possible, but sometimes it's the easiest option because of the extreme siloing of German stores. Which is another mini-rant in itself.) I forget what specific item I was looking at, it might have been eyeglass cases because mine broke and I wanted to replace it, but there were always reviews for the items that were "It was 5 Euro too expensive" or "I wouldn't pay that much again for this."

Granted, on Amazon, a lot of what you'll get is cheap plastic crap, and sometimes the cheap plastic crap is overpriced for something that'll break in five minutes. And the reviews mentioned above also included phrases like "cheap plastic crap." But not everyone was so displeased with the same thing, so I ordered the glasses case that one guy complained had "lumps in the outside material already when it arrived" so it was basically shit. (There is indeed a bit of lumpiness around the hinge, but who cares? It's not structural.)

So some of the Preis-Leistungsverhältnis can be chalked up to different definitions of value for the money. Does it hold my glasses? Great. Does it keep them from getting smashed in my bag? Excellent. I got what I paid for.

I'm going to add a caveat here that it's not exactly true anymore that more expensive equals better quality, especially for clothing. My old roommate in Georgia is a fashion studies PhD student, so I've heard so much about the fashion and textile industries, especially the $$$$ brands. But it's still true often enough that I expect a $150 pair of shoes to last longer than a $15 pair of shoes. (Obligatory "Sam Vimes Boots theory of economics" reference here.)

The following situations are not made up. I either witnessed them first-hand or was a participant in them.

Last year, I got a little into hiking, and my regular gym shoes weren't cutting it anymore. I'm not a hardcore hiker or anything; I'm not going to the mountains on a regular basis and definitely not in the snow. So I wanted to get low-end, quality hiking shoes. There's a sporting goods chain here called Decathlon, which is sort of like Dick's, so I poked around their website for their options. They have their own store brands, which are inexpensive, but I wasn't sure about the quality. So when I saw that they stocked a Merrell hiking shoe, and it was only 78 Euro, I snapped it up. I've always had good experiences with Merrell, and their low-end hiking shoe was well suited to my needs ("hiking" in Berlin is actually "going on long walks in the forest," because it's very flat here.)

Then I brought them home and mentioned it to my then-roommate, who said that was really expensive and promptly showed me the Lidl-brand hiking boots she'd acquired for 35 Euro (and which lived in their box in her shoe cabinet). Sure, they were warm and insulated and supported the ankle by being boots, but they're cheap plastic crap.

Earlier this year, I went to o-hanami with a friend (there's a cherry tree avenue that was planted by NHK) and we went into a shoe store afterward because there was a particular pair she wanted to try. I really like shoes, and I ended up leaving with a pair of not-exactly-olive-green leather peep-toe sandals with an ankle strap and a slight heel for 100 Euro. (The brand is Think! and they follow sustainable practices to make their leather.) That's a pretty normal price IMO for a pair of slightly dressy sandals, and I think it's half what I paid for my Danskos ten fifteen years ago. I have a pair of Keen sandals I bought when I started my MA program in Georgia, and I wore them to death. They were my "dress" sandals, the ones I wore when I was teaching and a pair of Tevas wasn't appropriate. I think they were $90 in 2016. I still have them! They were in storage until recently, so I haven't worn them in a while, but they still work.

Then I wore the new sandals and left them on the shoe mat by the front door, and my then-roommate once again said, "Think! sandals! Weren't they really expensive?" I was just like "sure, I guess?" because I didn't want to have to deal with it or her.

(I have six pairs of Fluevog shoes. I bought them on sale, but they were still a lot of money. And one pair was preorder only, so I paid full price, which was about half a new smartphone. One pair of boots I wear so much I had to get them resoled. And I just spent 300 Euros on a pair of knee high winter boots. So that's my footwear baseline. I grew up on Payless shoes, okay, and those are absolute shit, kill your feet in five minutes, have to replace them every nine months. Shoes are my fashion vice, and I would rather pay more for shoes that don't hurt my feet. And Fluevog makes 2-3" heels that I can stand in for hours, so fuck yes, I'll pay $200 for them, thanks.)

My ex-roommate also said things like "I bought a frozen pizza at the store and it was 4 Euro and that's too expensive. I also think paying 10 Euro for a pizza in a restaurant is too expensive." (I am so glad to be out of her apartment, for so many reasons.)

Just last week I was at a winter market where people were selling their handmade goods, from art prints to ceramics to fiber arts. A friend from roller derby is a ceramic artist, and I wanted to get two more little tart ramekins for my tart ramekin army. (I have 4 now; I want to have a set of 6 eventually. They're really cute, little pastels with polka dots like some 50s retro cuteness. They're 10 Euro each.) A guy comes up and looks at her plates. He picks one up and asks the price. It's an 8" or so plate, handmade, with a hand-painted design on it. It's 25 Euro. He asks about a different plate, a dinner plate, and it's 45 Euro. He makes some comment about the bigger plate not being twice as big as the smaller plate, as if they ought to be priced by the square centimeter or something. Then he says it's too expensive and wanders off.

So now we reach the point of this entire post: "it's too expensive" means "I don't think you, the artist or person who created this item, deserve to be paid fairly for your work. I don't believe you deserve to eat or pay rent or buy your materials." It also means "I don't believe factory workers deserve a fair wage, and I definitely don't believe the price should include external costs like environmental costs. I believe that the cost to me should be as low as possible, no matter who gets fucked along the way." [Please see obligatory disclaimer at the top of the post. Thank you.]

Modern society (and capitalism) has got us so far separated from the source of our things that we don't truly understand that there are people on the other end of the equation. Our comfort is the only thing that matters, not that some factory somewhere is employing people for a dollar a day and dumping waste into the local river so we can get our 35 € hiking boots.

The only way to change this attitude is to change society, and I unfortunately don't see that happening any time soon, what with Amazon inventing a holiday for the sole purpose of getting people to buy things they don't need (Prime Day).

No comments: