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Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Bonsai and the Candy Bag

A wedding reception offers evidence of market miracles around us

It’s natural to pay attention to something that has a high market value, but to take little notice of something of low market value. And that’s despite the fact that those differences in value are in no way the result of the amount of care and labor that go into making them. I don’t see anything wrong with that, except insofar as it leads us to discount the abundant creativity that goes into making seemingly ordinary things.

Now, the value of a work of art, like that of any other scarce good, is based entirely on what we think of it, on the value we subjectively perceive in it. Throwaways of the past, such as Depression glass, are prized collectables today, and vice versa. Indeed, it’s been over a hundred years since the subjective marginal utility theory of value displaced theories of objective value in economics.

Great works of art are largely the result of a single mind. Ordinary commercial objects are the outcome of the “collective genius” of many minds. That idea might make some readers of The Freeman think of Leonard Read’s essay, “I, Pencil.” Read brilliantly explains in clear, plain language why it’s inconceivable how anyone could make a pencil all by themselves. Thousands, probably millions of people across the globe, united by market prices and the competitive system of profit and loss, produced every single element of that pencil, from the shaft to the carbon to the paint. But there’s another aspect of that production process that Read’s essay doesn’t really emphasize.

Another take on a Leonard Read classic

At a wedding reception I recently attended, the centerpiece of the banquet table was a 34-year-old bonsai tree. Such trees are an unusual combination of the natural and human intention, painstakingly crafted decade by decade, sometimes century by century over several generations. The oldest one I’ve seen was over 400 years old, so by comparison the 10-inch tree on the table was just a baby. Nevertheless, we regard it as a valuable work of art.

Also, at each dinner setting were individual bags of candy that each of the 200 or so guests could take home. Several kinds of candy filled the bags. Some looked like pebbles, others were wrapped in shiny paper, others were tiny, colorful spheres of malted milk. In its own way, each piece was unique, and many had the quality—dare I say “wabi-sabi”—of irregular beauty. I’m sure the eight candy bags at our table together were worth only a fraction of the bonsai tree's value.

The bags themselves were pretty. Made with a kind of ribbed, metallic material, in the light their silvery surface sparkled with tiny dots of aqua blue, pink, yellow, and white. The tie was of a similar color but different material, and when you pulled on it, it closed the bag at the top. Someone designed this bag with a great deal of care. Or, more likely, the elements—the ribbing of the bag, the embedded dots that made the material glitter, the thread that kept it together, and the color, width, and stitched border of the tie—were each probably the product of a person who worked hours, days, or longer to get just the right effect. It might have taken dozens of trials and tests to get the right combination of texture and colors. The same goes for all the other elements.

The coffee cup and saucer were white ceramic. Most people wouldn’t look twice at a coffee cup, but that night I studied it carefully. It was one of those low-profile cups I associate with France. Perhaps it was a knock-off. But whether an original or a copy, to the people who designed it, I’m sure there was nothing simple about it. The curve of the handle, for example, had to fit the cup’s low profile while staying functional and attractive. How many times did the designer try this angle or that? How many meetings did it take for the designer, the production engineer, and the marketing guy to agree on a feasible and sellable product?

Every item on that table, including of course the table itself, took repeated inspiration and tons of perspiration for that visible blip of creativity. The rubber cap on the table leg, the handle of the fork, the cap of the salt shaker, the border of the dinner plates; every part of each and every mundane object represented the tip of a creative iceberg. Looking around the ballroom, the thought of how much effort and ingenuity, argument and compromise, teamwork and artistry it took to bring together the whole spectacular ensemble was truly overwhelming. How many ideas at each stage of every aspect of the production were raised and rejected, tested and discarded before a winner emerged? The mind boggles. So much creativity in the smallest detail—and so many details!

Look at the keyboard of your computer. From the icons and lettering on the keys to the shape and color of the space bar, imagine how much brainpower must have gone into their making!

The extraordinary in the ordinary

Each of us has worked on a project, probably many projects, alone or on a team, and knows exactly what I’m talking about. A report, a book, a chair, renovating a room, landscaping a yard, planning a party. What is seen, if it’s seen at all, is so important to us the creators as we focus our minds and raise the market value of our work. It’s one drop, but a vital and creative drop, that helps drive the vast and powerful river that is the market process.

There’s a book by Dan Millman called No Ordinary Moments, which records his path to realizing why happiness means taking nothing for granted. “I, Pencil” teaches us that there is virtue in the impersonality of the market, that what makes a market flourish is how complex and extensive the division of knowledge among strangers can be. I suggest that taking a moment to think of the individual acts of creativity in the seemingly ordinary will reveal the unbounded creativity of the market, where there is genius in the mundane and there are no ordinary objects.

I let someone else take home the bonsai. I’m going to hang on to the candy bag because, well, you never know!

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.