Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Cost of Goods

We've been thinking on darker themes of late, so how about if we pep things up with a few thoughts from the "dismal science"?

I have been thinking, lately, about buying shoes. Working as I do in marketing, you can get away with wearing 'business casual' or even jeans much of the time, but even if you wear jeans and oxfords rather than slacks and dress shirts, you are expected to wear high quality clothing. (One can, of course, ignore these things, but following the tribal customs seems to help one with advancement and such. Call me a sellout...)

So as I try to bring my wardrobe up to departmental standards without depleting the family budget, I have come up against the question of shoes. It begins to seem the time has come to reconcile myself to spending more than $70 for a pair of shoes and shell out for a pair or two of real men's dress shoes, with leather soles and everything.

This, I find, is not a cheap thing to do. And as I confront with some alarm the prospect of spending $100 or more on a pair of shoes, I found myself wondering about what exactly constituted a 'good' shoe, and what determines show cost.

Now if you want to be truly stodgy (and I try to be whenever I can afford it) a good pair of men's shoes should be made by a cobbler at a shop on high street in Town. If you have limited funds or want to be economical, you opt instead for shoes made by low-wage labor in China and/or made mostly by machine. Once upon a time, however, this wasn't a matter of choice. If you wanted shoes, you bought them from the town cobbler.

Now, being a cobbler (especially a good one) is certainly a skilled profession. And being right about at the national average income for a family of four plus a Smaskig, I would assume that (in inflation corrected dollars) a cobbler might expect to make pretty much the same as I do, which works out to about $20/hr.

I should think that a good pair of shoes could easily take 10+ hours to make by hand, so that puts the price of a handmade pair of shoes at $200 plus materials and margin. Perhaps $300 in 2005 dollars. And sure enough, it looks like that's what it costs to get hand made men's shoes from an English shop (if you skip over the ones that start at $1000 a pair and include the royal family among their clients). Here's another. (As you can see, I was getting into this...) Or, you can go for the more mass produced variety, either expensive or cheap. (Though the reason I got into all this in the first place is that it seems you can't really get any sort of leather soled men's dress shoe for less than $80-100, mass produced or otherwise.

Once upon a time, however, all shoes and clothes were made by hand. And all leather was cured by hand. And all cloth was woven by hand. No wonder we live in such rich times. I can pick up a $15 polo shirt because the cloth is woven by machine, the pieces are cut by machine, an the shirt is assembled in 20-30 minutes worth of machine sewing in Turkey, India, China or Egypt. Four hundred years ago, a shirt would have represented at least 20 man hours worth of spinning, weaving, cutting and sewing. And assuming it cost the return for 20 hours worth of my own work to buy the shirt, that would be in modern terms some $400.

If every shirt cost me the equivalent of $400, you can bet I'd have fewer shirts. And I'd wear them longer. Which would in turn mean that I or someone in my household would invest time in mending the shirt and re-dyeing the shirt to keep it presentable for years.

In many ways, the wealth of modern times is the result not of making things better (though goodness knows we can make things now that were impossible a mere fifty years ago) but making things worse, or at least cheaper. My wife sometimes will pick up a cute pair of women's shoes at Target for $15, knowing full well that they're only up to 3-6 months worth of occasional wear before they become too beat up to wear. They're badly made. Everyone knows they're badly made. But people are willing to accept it because, while cheaply made, they're also cheap.

We've gone from an economy that required people to produce good products because it was impossible for them to create many product, to an economy that frequently prefers high productivity to high quality.

So as I contemplate whether to be so retrograde as to purchase hand made shoes (which, I am assured, last far longer than the mass produced variety: leather souls being longer lasting than rubber, and welted shoes being repairable, while glued shoes are not) I am nonetheless thankful that I have the option in our modern world of buying $15 shirts and $40 shoes when I want to.

I haven't been what you could call 'poor' for several years now, nor were we for very long. But the period made enough of an impression on me to make me very much a supporter of Wal Mart and cheap imports. However less charming they may be than locally produced goods, Chinese imports have allowed our poor to possess more small luxuries than at any other time in history. And the business has helped turn China from a starving country into an emerging nation.

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