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Christmas Lobsters, Price and Value

Posted on Dec 24, 2011

Santa's Lobsters (or, Ho, Ho, Homard…)

In Paris, it's a hallowed tradition to eat lobster at Christmas – and so great freight-carrying airliners rumble down the runways at the Halifax airport every year, carrying crustaceans to the City of Light. It's become the biggest bonanza of the year for the Maritime lobster industry.

If homard canadien is good enough for the Restaurant Guy Savoy on rue Troyon in Paris, it's good enough for us. So Marjorie hustled out to the local supermarket and collared a couple of lobsters. She paid $8 each. We could have done better buying straight off the back of a lobsterman's pickup truck, but we didn't see one nearby. Add some fresh bread, steamed artichokes, Marjorie's Peerless Potato Salad, some melted butter, a couple of glasses of Annapolis Valley white wine – Gaspereaux L'Acadie Blanc, let's say, a good buy at $16 – and there's our Christmas eve dinner.

Just like Restaurant Guy Savoy. Well, not quite. Guy Savoy also gives you a soupcon of caviar, a smidgeon of pigeon, a morsel of mullet, some scraps of apple, and two chocolates. The meal  costs €315 – about $420 Canadian. And I don't think that includes the wine.

My point is not to denigrate French cuisine, or even French prices. I'm sure that a meal at Guy Savoy would be an exquisite experience – and, from a certain point of view, worth every penny of the cost. But the fact is that you can often get a lobster in Halifax for $5, and that the same lobster might cost $100 in Paris – and the lobster itself is no better because it costs 20 times as much.

All of which got me thinking about price and value, and the way we confuse the two. I remembered writing something about it in my Sunday Herald column. The column is dated – it was written in 1998, more than 13 years ago, when the east coast was reeling from the collapse of the cod fishery, and the federal government was trying to induce people to migrate elsewhere in search of employment. Michael MacDonald headed the Greater Halifax Partnership. The web was in its infancy,  9/11 hadn't happened, and in many ways it was a distant world.

But the core point about the confusion of price with value remains, and maybe it's worth sharing the piece for that. And here's a more radical thought: maybe the fact that something has a price is an indication that it does not have great value. You can't put a price on love, on community cohesion and security, on clean air and good health. But those things are worth far more than anything that comes with a price tag.

Happy holidays! And may your next year be rich in the things that can't be priced – like the ambiance of a wood fire, the sound of children's laughter, and the pleasure of eating lobster with your loved ones.

 

*******

Price and Value
[Sunday Herald, June 9, 1998]

“I love living in a depressed region,” sighed Michael MacDonald, holding a glass of pale white wine up to the light. “One lives so well.”

Michael was then a professor of English at Mount Allison, entertaining friends in the warm and gracious dining room of an elegant old Maritime house. He was — he is — much concerned with economic development. He is now Maximum Leader at the Greater Halifax Partnership. But, like most Maritimers, he knows the difference between price and value.

Price is an economic term; it’s measured in money. Value, on the other hand, takes many forms. Friendship, love and learning have value — indeed, they are value — which can’t be measured in money. Most of us care more about value than price. The exceptions are mostly economists, whose ruling theory assumes that the world is made up of completely rational producers and consumers, all seeking maximum economic advantage and making cool decisions based on a perfect knowledge of the implications of their choices. Anyone who has ever seen such a world, raise your hand. Ah yes, I thought so: one of you is an economist and the other works for the federal government. Let us proceed.

Let us consider, for instance, the “resistance to relocation” which puzzles the DTUCs, the Deep Thinkers of Upper Canada, when they appraise the effectiveness of the Atlantic Groundfish Strategy. People who live in Maritime fishing villages, it appears, don’t want to move. They could get jobs in Oilpump, Alberta, buy a nice split-level in a new subdivision with a paved driveway, new furniture, satellite dish and everything. If they stay in Sculpin Gut, they’ll be lucky if they can scrape by on odd jobs. Yet they stay. Thick as brick, those Maritimers.

The problem is the calculation, which is figured entirely in prices — the price of labour, the price of goods. But how do you put a price on time with your aging parents, and a little old house which nevertheless is paid for, and the dance on Saturday night with people whose lives are intertwined with yours?

Maybe the best way to make a DTUC understand the difference between price and value would be to double his salary — provided that he spent the rest of his life picking aluminum fragments from the garbage dump in West Arichat. He might demonstrate a little resistance to relocation himself.

Even Dan Montgomery of NovaKnowledge, who should know better, believes the “conservatism” of rural Nova Scotians retards the growth of the knowledge economy. Tell that to my neighbours on Isle Madame, which now boasts a television station and a call centre, and is gearing up to export new, locally-developed technology for aquaculture. Development Isle Madame has a Visitor Information Site on the World Wide Web.  Even the Lennox Passage Yacht Club in D’Escousse has a Web site.

If other rural communities are slower to accept technology, it’s because they haven’t been shown that technology can enhance the character of their communities and root itself in their own cultures and aspirations. People aren’t numbers in an equation — they have characters, skills, preferences, emotions, relationships. Values, in short. Change, paradoxically, can help preserve what we value in rural communities — but it has to respect the community’s basic identity.  Why is this so difficult to grasp?

Here’s another example of the confusion between price and value. This one comes from a neo-conservative newsletter called Frontier Commentary, discussing job creation in health care. Canadian health care, says the commentator, remains “mired in bureaucratic, monopolistic gridlock… In the last 15 years, the United States added 3.9 million jobs in this field, a whopping two-thirds increase in an industry that is only semi-socialized.  We are all too familiar with what's happened in Canada, with cutbacks in service and deadly rationing by means of waiting lists.  Net new jobs are less than zero.”

The reasoning here is much too sophisticated for mere mortals to follow. Pressured by neo-conservatives, Canada’s health-care system has laid off regiments of workers. Now the same people are blaming it both for reduced service and for not generating new jobs. Whaa –?

And, more important, what sane person thinks that the purpose of the health-care system is job creation? The objective of health care is public health, which is a matter of value. The US system costs much more per capita than ours and leaves 25% of Americans completely unprotected.  Only the economically-blinkered would prefer the US way.

“The acceptance of economic thinking as unquestionable, and the current worship of free markets as the source of all good is, without doubt, the most extraordinary triumph of theory over reality in human history,” writes Robert Theobald, an economist, in *Reworking Success.*

Yes indeed. A cynic, said Oscar Wilde, is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. That’s the kind of society we’re creating.  Is it the kind we want?

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