How Much Did It Cost?

It’s been the kind of writing day where I chase peripheral ideas, as easily distracted as a puppy that sees its own wagging tail–though hopefully more productive.* A section on the nature of queenship led me first into the Japanese Shogunate and then into the double bind of women’s voices in politics. Several (hopefully) fascinating footnotes later, I found myself calculating how much a reward of 25,000 German marks in 1914 would be worth today. It is not an easy question. And ultimately there is no right answer because there is more than one way to measure value.

The easiest to understand (and the one I tend to fall back on because it usually works best for my purposes) is the changes over time in the cost of a “bundle” of goods–the idea behind the Consumer Price Index. Even this is tricky if you are looking at changes over a long period of time because the items in the bundle themselves change. Cars replace carriages, for example.

But changes in simple purchasing power are not the only way to measure the relative value of money. For example, you could measure the cost of an important project (say the Erie Canal or the Great Wall of China in terms of its opportunity cost.**

If this is a rabbit hole you are inclined to go down, I refer you to my tool of choice for historical currency conversion: Measuring Worth not only includes handy-dandy currency calculators, but an excellent essay on the different measures of worth and what I suspect are very useful tutorials that would keep me from flailing around the site in search of answers. It won’t help you figure out how much it cost to build the Great Wall of China, but it’s the on-line place to go if you need to know the relative value of the wages of someone who helped build the Erie Canal.

And now, if you will excuse me, I’ve left a Dutch political cartoonist with a price on his head–worth somewhere between $146,000 and $2,980,000–and I need to get him safely to Britain before someone collects it.

*I’m at a point where I need to be more like a cat staking out a mouse hole–focused and patient. Not that I’ve ever seen a cat do this outside of cartoons and early twentieth children’s books. But I digress. Again.
**Though realistically, you probably can’t measure the cost of the Great Wall of China since many of those costs happened outside the monetary economy, and it’s not clear what the monetary equivalent of the coin of the day was, etc. There are times when the answer is simply “lots”.




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