Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Someone Needs To Turn Vivienne Westwood On To Some Pratchett

This Vivienne Westwood article seems to be doing the rounds of the internet lately.

The most discussed bit, it seems, is this:

Speaking after the show, Dame Vivienne said: "Buy less. Choose well. Make it last. Quality, not quantity. Everybody's buying far too many clothes. I mean, I know I'm lucky, I can just take things and borrow them and I'm just okay, but I hate having too many clothes. And I think that poor people should be even more careful. It doesn't mean therefore you have to just buy anything cheap. Instead of buying six things, buy one thing that you really like. Don't keep buying just for the sake of it. I just think people should invest in the world. Don't invest in fashion, but invest in the world."

And somehow, I feel rather vindicated that the majority of comments about this piece of advice seem to be saying, "Yes, that's all very well and good if you can afford it and feel like it, Dame Vivienne, but kindly take that piece of advice you've helpfully aimed at the 'poor' and shove it in your probably $5000 borrowed kid leather handbag, because a pair of your shoes may be half the rent". 

It's the Captain Samuel Vimes "Boots" Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness, in other words. The non-Pratchett fans among you might be going "The whose theory of the what, now?" at this point.

Sure, many of us are lucky and comfortable enough that we can be choosy with how to spend our money. And the wise thing to do, if you're so inclined, is indeed to invest in better quality goods that cost more up front but are cheaper in the long run due to durability. But there's a fascinating, and quite real, economic phenomenon in which you can be too poor to save money. Not just in the "there's no money left over after paying the bills" sense, either.  You lack the resources to be able to effectively plan long term. 

You're living paycheck to paycheck and can't afford to pay your dental or medical bill early enough to reap a discount. So, you have to wait until payday and end up paying the full price.  You can't afford the Costco membership and buying in bulk, so you pay full price for those goods and make more trips when you have the money. You occasionally have to pick one bill to pay late and incur late fees, thereby spending more in the long run. You can't afford the good pair of leather boots that will last a decade, instead, you end up buying boots that cost a fifth as much but last only a tenth as long. It's something many politicians don't seem to grasp.

It's a phenomenon that cannot be explained more brilliantly and succinctly than it is by one of Terry Pratchett's characters, Samuel Vimes.

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

I'm sure Vivienne Westwood meant well enough, and there's certainly a segment of the population that could probably save money and closet space over time by following her advice. You know, assuming you're also one of those people who are lucky enough to never fluctuate in size in addition to being well off enough to afford being choosy about when and where you're spending your income.

But the instant she brought the word "poor" into it, someone really should have handed her a copy of Men At Arms and suggested she read that passage.   

Sam Vimes as drawn by the brilliant Paul Kidby. Go buy all the things he sells at http://www.paulkidby.com, Vivienne Westwood be darned. Also, read the Vimes books. Start with Guards! Guards! You won't be sorry.

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