by Becky De Oliveira—
My husband and I were in London for a few days just before Christmas. We stayed in the city center and enjoyed the parks, the Christmas lights, and shopping—although on many occasions it was mere window shopping. To get to Selfridges, a large department store on Oxford Street that features what I consider to be the finest food hall in the city, we wandered along Old Bond Street that later turns into New Bond Street. These two streets are lined with luxury shops such as Hermés, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & CO., Gucci, and the like. I was mostly dismayed to note the closing of Bateel, a shop that sold stuffed dates (the kind of luxury I can afford), and fascinated to try to quantify the value of the inventory along these two conjoined streets that together comprise less than a mile and that do not include Selfridges itself, not to mention Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Fortnum & Mason, or any other of the countless purveyors of luxury goods that exist in London—or every other large modern city in the world.
“It has to be millions,” I kept saying. Earlier in the week, we’d stopped at Harrods and noted several Rolls-Royces parked outside the store with the engines running. There are people in the world who are driven to Harrods in Rolls-Royces by people who wait for them to finish shopping and take them home again. The drivers of these cars are neither waved off by angry police officers nor ticketed. This is how the other half (half?) live. I’ve often tried to think of a way to estimate the value of the goods in Harrods alone and given up. Who knows? A lot.
While browsing the food halls at Selfridges, I came upon the item that I decided earned my vote for the most crazy-expensive thing I’d seen this trip. In the past, the honor has gone to a pen for $20, 000, a vase for $90, 000—you get the picture. This was, in comparison with those items, quite affordable at just around $1, 700. But here’s the deal: it was a jar of honey. A smallish jar of honey, one I could have easily fitted into my handbag had it not been encased in protective glass (kidding—about the shoplifting, not about the glass). Obviously, this was no ordinary honey, as the price tag suggests. It was mānuka honey from New Zealand, produced from the nectar of Leptospermum scoparium, also known as the mānuka tree and believed to have medicinal properties. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is no evidence for any medicinal benefits, by the way.
Of course, I began to scoff and judge anyone who might make such a purchase. “Not even if I were a billionaire,” I said, affecting a sort of Bernie Sanders accent for the word billionaire as I seem to do these days to amuse myself. But then as a thought experiment, because there is little I love more than a thought experiment, I began to wonder under what circumstances I might purchase that jar of honey. It had, it must be noted, an MGO (methylglyoxal—the compound that makes the honey so prized) of 1700, whereas the average mānuka sold in shops in New Zealand and Australia, according to my friends from down under, is more like 100-200 MGO. So, we can agree it’s “better” when assessed according to these terms. I found this particular honey online and learned more about it, not least that only 1, 000 people “will be able to possess a jar.” Unless, of course, one of those people buys all the jars.
Now, I say nothing could persuade me to spend approximately the equivalent of a mortgage payment on honey that has no proven health benefits—but what if I or one of my children had a health condition that was painful and debilitating and that did not respond to conventional treatment? Might I be willing then? Out of desperation? Hope? And just to continue the experiment, how much easier would it be for me to make that decision if the cost were not the equivalent of a mortgage payment, if I were in fact a billionaire? Maybe even I, sanctimonious as I am, would buy all the jars and hoard them selfishly. It’s a sobering thought.
This week on the radio there was a segment on the news that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos gave a million dollars to help the Australia fires. The hosts pointed out that when you compare that donation to his overall wealth, it is the equivalent of an “average” person donating about six dollars. But, of course, the million will go much farther in addressing the fire efforts than six dollars would. Is it the amount of good the money does that matters or the amount of pain it costs the giver?
Jesus seemed to suggest the latter when He praised the widow who gave two worthless coins (Mark 12:41-44). He said the rich “all gave out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in what she had to live on, everything she had” (NET).
It is interesting to think about how we assign value, how we determine affordability. In The Wealth of Nations, economist Adam Smith outlined the water-diamond paradox: namely that while water is vital to life and health and diamonds are merely ornamental, diamonds are much more highly valued. One of my goals for this year is to reassess what I assign value to and question that rigorously. How will this affect how I give and what I put my efforts toward?
Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student in research methods working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.