The Price of Everything

May 26th, 2006

Not too long ago, a Gurian cutaway guitar sold on eBay for $4,000. The exact price, if you’re curious, was $4,051.99. (99 cents? What’s with the 99 cents? There’s something odd going on in the world of eBay that I simply don’t understand.) Now, I like Gurian guitars. Bought one myself recently. $1450. So, you ask yourself: was our eBay buyer on crack, or what? Well, I think it’s safe to say that, no, he wasn’t on crack, but he wasn’t buying a guitar.

I’m fascinated by economics. One of the things that fascinates me is the way people think that economics is this mysterious, sentient blob, subject to immutable mathematical laws, when the truth of the matter is that it’s just a giant pyschology experiment. Not at first, of course. In the absence of obvious psychological twists, there are a lot of things in the world which are priced according to their ability to perform the function for which they’re designed. The cheapest items perform the function least well; and at least for a while, as you ascend the price scale, the performance continues to improve. My father, bless his Depression-era heart, has yet to figure this out – a couple years ago, I had to replace three flourescent light fixtures in his kitchen because they, well, wouldn’t go on when it was humid. Unsurprisingly enough, the ones which cost ten dollars more worked fine.

But at some point, the price keeps rising. You can buy a Bentley for $149,000, and I can pretty much guarantee you that it isn’t 10 times better a car than my Honda Civic. Sure, actual slaves were used in its manufacture, and the radio controls are made of solid gold, and there’s just the tiniest extra bit of oxygen in the air that they use to inflate the tires, but this doesn’t make the car better at being a car. In other words, at $149,000, you’re no longer buying an automobile; you’re buying an automobile and something else. Why it makes any sense to pay for something else when you’re actually buying an automobile, I have no idea; but yet, there it is.

And in fact, it gets stranger. People buy antique cars not because they’re cars, but because they’re antiques. They no longer buy them for the function for which they were built, but rather because, many years later, they’ve decided that they’re nice to look at, and that their value as automobiles is no longer relevant. (I shudder at the day when the original Ford Taurus, ugly bulbous creature that it is, becomes an antique.)

Now, people try to come up with explanations for this sort of insanity, like the “law” of supply and demand; and sure, if more people want something, and there’s a limited supply of that something, the price goes up. But the interesting question, which hardly ever gets asked, is: why do they want it? The madness reveals itself in the answer. Eventually, we vanish into the nothingness of “because other people want it”, like stamps or fine art; sure, there will never be another Picasso, but an original Picasso is waaaaay more valuable than a print or a perfect forgery, which shows that people aren’t buying Picassos because they’re art, but because they’re Picassos. And, the last time I checked, being art had an observable function, while being a Picasso, um, well, not so much. Out of such things tulip crazes are made.

In any case, guitars are utterly unexceptional when it comes to our psychology experiment. At first, there’s value for function. One of the things that’s amazed me is that as I’ve gotten to be a better guitarist, the minimum cost of an acceptable guitar has increased, pretty steadily. You can just tell – it buzzes over here, it doesn’t have the right sound in this register, it’s vaguely unappealing in some indefinable way, until you get to a particular price point, and then you have a number of guitars to choose from. You may not like them all, but you can no longer find something wrong with them.

But we eventually leave the realm of sanity, which, of course, brings us back to our $4000 Gurian. As a guitar, there’s no way a Gurian is worth $4000. They’re nice guitars, really nice; and if you like the sort of punch and voice that they have, there are very few competitors. But there are competitors, and anyone who tells you that Michael Gurian is only person in the world who made a guitar that they can stand to play is just plain lyin’. But that’s only relevant if you’re actually buying a guitar. For some people, apparently, Gurian is like Picasso, and since he made very few cutaways, they’ve become the infamous “collector’s item”. So we have a musical instrument which has “graduated” to the role of collectible object, and those of us who actually play Gurians and want a cutaway because, well, it’s cut away and you can reach the upper frets more easily, we no longer have the option of buying a Gurian cutaway, as a guitar. Because they aren’t guitars anymore.

Nigel Tufnel, you have a great deal to answer for.

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