[econ, couture, class, Patreon] The Vimes Boots Theory: Further Reflections


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“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.”

― Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

For most of my adult life, I had bought my winter boots by going to Filene's Basement – the original one, in downtown Boston – in August. This pretty reliably turned up something tolerable I could wear for about $20 (in 1990s dollars).

Then, one year, I failed to acquire boots in August. I don't recall the reason. I don't remember if I foolishly thought, "Well, last year's boots are still sound" and didn't bother to go, or whether I went and didn't find anything suitable. So I entered the autumn without only the previous year's boots.

Unsurprisingly, after winter had already started, my worn, cheap boots failed me. Alas, like trying to harvest apples in spring, I could not find suitable boots at Filene's Basement in that season.

[personal profile] tn3270 gallantly offered to take me boot shopping. He drove me to the Burlington Mall, and walked me into the first place that seemed to have the sort of product I described wanting.

I looked at the various promising offerings, and then looked at a price tag. When I regained the power of speech, I wanly observed, "That's... a lot more than I usually pay for winter boots." My sweetie pointed out that good boots are good investment. I was not unfamiliar with Vimes Boots Theory. At the time, I was a programmer making programmer money, so it wasn't like I couldn't afford it. I certainly liked the idea that paying a lot of money for boots could get you sufficiently better quality boots that they would save you money in the long run – it's just that I was dubious that it would work out that way in practice. There seemed so many things that could go wrong.

How could you know (for instance) that the additional money you were paying would result in durability, and not just, say, a fancy brand name or fashionableness? And even if the product were generally durable in make, what if you found some problem with them after only a month, as had happened with other shoes I had bought? Or an inward manufacturing defect resulted in a structural failure emerging only after a year – after the warranty expired?But, you know: what the heck. I had the money, I could afford to gamble. I could try out buying quality boots, as opposed to buying an endless series of short-lived disposable boots, and see how long they lasted."These boots," I said gesturing at what I was trying on, on my feet, "cost $200. Given that I typically buy a pair for $20 every year, that means these boots have to last 10 years to recoup the initial investment."

That was on January 17, 2005. They died earlier this month – that is in the first week of December, 2018. So: almost but not quite 14 years.

So, purely as an investment, they returned a bit under $80, which is a 40% ROI.However, I would like to propose that this is not the only financial value that I realized from investing in more durable boots.1.I would propose a further elaboration on Vimes' theory: another reason rich people are rich is that they don't have to spend as much time shopping, and, as we all know, time equals money.Boot shopping is not a time-negligible activity. Insofar as it involves trying on multiple pair of boots, it entails travel to and from a store, or multiple stores; or doing similar with shipping tasks. It can easily be a multi-hour process, and one that can only be conducted during the times shoe stores are open.Unless one has figured out how to monitize boot shopping – which, to be clear, is exactly what I'm doing in writing this patron-supported post about shoe shopping! – time spent boot shopping is time not spent earning money.I feel that especially keenly because I am not on a salary. Time I'm not spending working is time that I don't get to bill for. Having to, say, take four hours out of my life to shop for boots every year is basically taking a half a work day. Now, it might be on a weekend, but it's still an amount of time that if I spent on work, I could get a half-day in with. So boot shopping annually is a half-day's wages cost.The great value to me of having one pair of boots last 14 years is that it saved me, across those 14 years, about seven days' wages in what would otherwise have been time lost to boot shopping. (Well, six and a half – fenceposting correctly.)My income has varied wildly over that time period, but that's generally real money. Call it a thousand dollars.This is what economists call an opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of something is the things you could have gotten (the profit you could have made) if you had done something other than what you did. The opportunity cost of buying the cheap, fragile, $20 boots each year was, across 14 years, about $1,000; if I had had to go boot shopping every year, it would have cost me about a thousand dollars in income I otherwise could earned.

So by buying $200 boots – well, at least these sturdy, long-lived $200 boots – I saved both $80 on cheaper boots, as per the Vimes Boot Theory, and I saved an estimated $1000 in wages I would have otherwise lost.

2.

And then there's another thing. It is not really knowable what role my having reliable boots – and not needing to scramble to get or replace boots in the middle of the winter should the cheap boots fail precipitously – had in my being able to get and keep the internships and jobs I had that let me make it to private practice.

One of the big differences between being a programmer and being a therapist – at least how it played out in my life – is that as a programmer, I went approximately nowhere, but as a therapist, I was schlepping all over the place. As a grad student, I was attending classes on two different campuses (both in Cambridge), and had three different clinical internships across four different sites (Arlington, Lexington, Waltham, and Boston); at all three interships my responsibilities included errands out into the community. My first clinical job after graduating, I got on the agreement I was willing to do housecalls throughout East Boston. I was doing housecalls in Eastie off and on for seven years, including through the brutally snowy winter of 2015, walking the narrow chasms built and then carved along the sidewalks, between the mountains of snow against the houses and the chin-height walls of snow at the curbs. I trudged through the snow to my job interview at what became my second clinical position in Medford. It was ten minutes hike to the bus stop to catch the bus there, and then another ten minutes walk from the bus stop at the other end to get to the clinic; my commute entailed twenty minutes of walking, each way, which was fine in good weather.I don't know that doing all this in the cheap boots would have been impossible. Perhaps in an alternative reality where I never got the expensive boots, nothing bad happens. Or maybe I pay a little extra for cab rides in bad weather on a few more occasions.Or maybe I don't declare during the interview for the position in Waltham that taking public transit all that way out into the suburbs – a good 20 minute hike from the commuter rail station, and that in fair weather – wouldn't be a problem. Maybe when I learn that the position in Eastie requires a willingness to do housecalls, I think about cold wet feet, and decide to hold out for better – and not find it.

Here's the thing: the attrition rate of junior therapists is terrible. At my grad school, which doesn't place interns, you can wash out due to being unable to secure your required internship. For graduates of all grad schools, you have to be able to land a job and then manage to see enough patients not to starve to death, and accrue enough hours of doing so to qualify for a license. I know multiple people who went through grad school – at tens of thousands of dollars of cost – and then washed out before licensure because they couldn't get enough patients. I breezily assured the owner of the clinic I interview at after graduation that I was happy to do housecalls on foot – I maybe even quipped that I had a great pair of boots for it – and got a job at a place with all the patients I could stand. I completed the patient-seeing part of my licensure requirements in almost the minimal time allowed by statute.

We can't know the effect of my having reliable boots on my getting licensed as a medical professional, because we can't know the alternative reality in which I didn't have them. But it does seem like there was some positive benefit. And there was nothing inevitable about my making it to licensure. Other therapists fail to make it all the time. Every little bit helps.

And here's the other thing: Not having a car, and not driving, I had to get my internships and licensure-qualifying jobs in the places the public transit is. This meant I had to compete in the worst labor markets. The graduate schools, themselves, are all right in the urban core, and of course everyone wants internships close to school; the job sites within Route 128 are way more popular with applicants, not least because they can guarantee more hours. It is not at all clear that if I hadn't been able to take the internships I did take and the entry-level job I took, that there would ever have been alternatives. That's why I took them, sucky commutes and all.

But by being able to secure jobs I could – with sufficient fortitude, patience, and really good winter boots – get to via the services of the MBTA, I didn't have to get a car.

Which is how everybody else does it. If you're a junior therapist who can't land a position within 128, well, Lowell needs therapists. Brockton. Worcester. Fall River. Pioneer Valley.

Worse, even within 128, many of the social service agencies require their therapists to drive, and to have good driving records, and a car, and a willingness to transport patients. Right as I was graduating, the Rosie D. decision hit the social services agencies, mandating that they provide home visits for pediatric behavioral health patients on Medicaid; several responded by making car-driving a job requirement for all new hires, yes, including those of us who don't see pediatric patients. One made it mandatory for all existing hires, to the outrage of a classmate of mine who worked there.

So not only was I competing for jobs in the tightest labor market for entry-level therapists, I was doing so in a straitened pool. Both of the two major social service agencies that served my town made driving a job requirement for therapists – yes, in Cambridge, MA, one of the best-served places in the MBTA system – thus preëmptively disqualifying me from working where I live.

There is a legitimate sense in which having really good boots was the sole alternative to having and operating a car.

Cars aren't cheap. Cars aren't cheap to acquire, they aren't cheap to operate, and they aren't cheap to maintain.So there is some sense in which my having good, reliable boots to some unknowable extent saved me the rather extreme cost of having to have a car.

(Only it's a little worse than that. Turns out the economics of being a therapist who has a car and does housecalls can be worse than it first appears; therapists who have cars tend to wind up using them – and then spending a lot of uncompensated time on the road. If a therapist isn't careful and financially ruthless, having a car can, in addition to the expenses of having the car, reduce your hourly income.)

3.

And let us note, here, while we're talking about cars: Vimes' Boots Theory – and in particular these further observations about opportunities and opportunity costs – applies to cars just as much as it does to boots, only more so. Swapping in cars for boots only multiplies the stakes and magnifies the risks.

There's a reason job ads for entry-level positions often say "must have reliable transportation." You can reasonably infer just from seeing that that, "Oh, this employer must have had a problem with someone they hired previously not being able to get in to do the job consistently." Not a bad inference, in that workplace and organizational rules and requirements are often instituted in response to specific incidents. But in this case, it's not just with someone that they had this problem.

A thing about being poor is that if you can afford a car at all, you can't afford very good one. And by "good" I mean "not given to dropping its transmission on the Pike". Just like Vimes' boots, poor people have to buy cheap – generally used – cars and wind up doing so frequently, because they can't get a sufficiently big pile of money together to just buy a more reliable car in the first place, and ultimately sink way more money into a succession of beaters and their maintenance.

I got a ring-side seat to watching this phenomenon play out among my Medicaid patients. There was nothing rare or unusual about it. I had one patient, who worked as a home healthcare aid, so needed a car for her own housecall-doing healthcare job, who went through three cars in two years through no fault of her own. The beater she had had died out from under her in traffic, so she put what money she had into a new-to-her used car – which turned out to be a lemon. After about eight months of cycling frequently through the dealership for repairs, leaving her scrambling to get rides from friends and family to her job sites, she gave up on it, let them repossess it, accepting the devastation to her credit rating, and tried again at another dealership. (I gave her the info for the Attorney General, but you can't ride a lawsuit to work – at least not in the short term.) This was perhaps the most extreme example, but only by a little; the general pattern held for most of my patients that had cars at all.

When listings for entry level jobs specify "must have reliable transportation", that's because many of the people who apply for entry level jobs don't. Because nobody who applies for an entry level job does so because they have higher-paying alternatives available to them; the whole point of entry-level jobs is their pay sucks, and the people who therefore apply for them are poor enough that that's better than not having them. And poor people can't afford reliable transportation because they're poor. As Vimes' Boots Theory points out.

Pratchett's whimsically expressed Vimes' Boots Theory proposes that rich people are rich because they spend less because they can buy better things. But of course one of the consequences of being able to buy better things is that one can then capitalize – quite literally – on the better thing, securing paying work that would otherwise be unavailable to one.

4.

This is, in an important sense, what capitalism is. If you have a sufficient chunk of money – a lump of capital – you can buy something – a liquor license, a whaling ship, a robot for putting CDs into CD sleeves, a farm, a hotel on Boardwalk, a share in a business – with which you can make more money, and/or you can hire people to do labor for you by which you can make more money. This is why it is called capital-ism.

Poor people are poor – in our society, and in many societies – because they don't have much capital with which to participate in capitalism.

One of the fascinating things about the experiments in aiding the poor by giving direct unconditional cash grants instead of in-kind aid is that the reports that come out of them – and, admittedly, these are likely to be cherry-picked to some extent – are of people using the money to invest. "We went and bought a cow, so now we can sell milk at the market". Some of those investments are unobvious, like "We bought solar panels, so now we have light at night – and can do piecework sewing for more hours of the day" and "we hired a baby-sitter – so eldest daughter could complete high school and get a better paying job". These are not what we usually think of as capitalism, because we strangely do not consider the activities of the domestic household as particularly economic in nature, but of course they are. Every family is also a firm.

5.

The return on investment to me of buying the $200 pair of boots quickly balloons out into some unknowable and therefore un-account-able figure if we allow as how my having the option to buy one durable, reliable pair of boots once in fourteen years for $200 not only saved me the cost of all the cheap boots I would have had to buy, and the time spent buying them (and the wages lost that would have cost me), and the costs of automotive ownership that my career choice plausibly would otherwise have required of me, and allowed me to persist in my profession long enough to get here were I have a license and can charge enough to live on. And beyond the unreckonable numbers, there's the unquantifiable yet considerable satisfactions of getting to have the job of my choice.

Among which are the social class benefits of being a professional.

For those of you who are new here, you might want to take a moment to get oriented to the difference between economic and social class.

Now, one's job doesn't determine one's social class – but it doesn't not determine one's social class, either. It is, like education, one of the important contributors, which is why we use terms like "blue-collar" and "white-collar" and "professional" – which, note, are terms that describe job types – to describe individuals' class memberships.

As I mentioned in that post about social class, social class and economic class intermediate one another. I got to become a healthcare professional, and enjoy the social class that accrues from that, because I could economically swing the financially challenging process of doing so. And part of how I could economically swing that financially challenging process was by the advantage of having those $200 boots.So in an important sense, I could make through the financially challenging process of getting to be a licensed medical professional where I had better economic prospects (than a junior therapist who fails to make it to licensure does) because I already had the economic advantage of being able to get $200 boots. I could make a move in social class which improved my economic class because I already had an economic class advantage. You've presumably heard the expression "it takes money to make money"; I was able to make more money because I already had the money – to get the boots.But allow me to draw your attention to something that was happening in parallel. Let's talk about what it took for me to be able to take advantage of the $200 boot option.Vimes' Boot Theory says that the reason rich people get to save themselves money on boots is that they have the $200 for boots that poor people don't. That is true, of course, as discussed above. But that's not the whole story.

They also know where to buy $200 boots.

They also know which $200 boots to buy.

There are many things that fascinate me about social class as a social phenomenon; one of the less obvious is that, classes being cultures, class boundaries are knowledge boundaries. Even more intriguingly, they're inadvertant – emergent – knowledge boundaries.

We're much more used to thinking of people not having access to knowledge because of deliberate efforts to keep them from it – from medieval guilds keeping secrets of their crafts to educational institutions discriminating in admissions against those they deem unworthy for reasons of race or sex.But modern societies are rife with knowledge boundaries that are not deliberate. I would even propose that complexity in any enterprise necessarily gives rise to inadvertant knowledge boundaries, and modern society is nothing if not complex. This is just due to the nature of knowledge: what is specialization, if not a knowledge boundary?Inadvertant knowledge boundaries fascinate me, both in and of themselves, and in what they do to society.Social class boundaries are generally knowledge boundaries. They're not hard boundaries – they have some permeability. Or perhaps the better metaphor is translucency. As I wrote previously, one tends to only have contact with adjacent classes, so that limits one's ability to pick up another class' knowledge to the classes closest to one's current class. One can see into the next class as through a slightly hazy window. But try to see through – across – multiple windows at once, and things quickly become impenetrably opaque.Here's a weird little example. A number of my poorest patients in East Boston couldn't get together enough money at once to buy a monthly T (public transit) pass, so instead they bought four (or occasionally five) week-long passes each month, at, yes, a slightly greater over-all cost. From 2012 to 2016, a month pass cost $75 while a week pass cost $19 - so if you bought weekly, every three months you had to pay an extra $19.But the week-long passes only came in the ticket format. The MBTA has this weird dual-format system with tickets and with cards. You can't (or at least couldn't) get a week-long pass on a card. Only on a ticket. Note there are three things here, all different – tickets, cards, and passes – and the passes come in two varieties, week and month.My patients, who were getting week-passes on tickets? They often didn't know the first thing about cards. In fact they often:• Didn't even know the difference between a card and a pass;

• Didn't know that for some of the subset of things that you can put on a card – which doesn't include week-passes, but does include a la carte fares – the cards get you a discount;

• Didn't know that empty cards are free, though you have to go to special locations to get them.Why would they know such a thing? It doesn't have occasion to come up. If the only product you can afford – the week-pass – only comes on tickets, why would you know anything about cards?

And if you had learned that the cheaper product you bought – the week-pass – was only available on tickets, while the (sturdier, more convenient tap-and-go) cards were for other products, you might assume that cards were month passes, expensive and not for you. And I did indeed meet people who had made exactly that assumption.

I would never have thought that having a free public transit card was a class privilege, but there I was, with an $75 monthly pass on a card in my wallet, talking to people who didn't have $75 at once, so got their $19 week passes on tickets, who had no idea that the pass was $75 but the card was free and gave a discount on individual fares, should you need to pay for rides that way. The difference between having $75 available once a month and not was the difference between knowing what the card was and when it matters.

And this isn't secret information. When the patients I explained this to frowned or scoffed, I'd call up mbta.com on my computer and show them the posted prices. Those that had smart phones – and many did, thanks to the Lifeline program – could have looked it up at any time; but why would they have done so? The information is posted in some T stations, and discoverable at all fare machines, but why would they have studied it?(There's a thing here about curiosity as an engine for social mobility; many of us have been well rewarded – and deeply conditioned – by our natural inclinations to find out random things for no reason, which has been on occasion richly profitable.)And that's how emergent knowledge boundaries happen along class boundaries – whether economic or social class.There's, obviously, a similar knowledge boundary on what we might term the top edge: if you have a car and don't use the T, or use it only occasionally, so that buying a pass doesn't seem convenient or worth while, well, you'd have no reason to learn the difference between passes, cards, and tickets, either.

If you take a poor person and give them $200 and say, "That's for boots; buy a pair that will last you more than ten years" they will not necessarily know how to make that happen. I know this because I didn't know how to make that happen. I guessed – and it was a good guess, and educated guess – and I got lucky.

When I decided to pay $200 for those boots, I squirmed at the price, because I didn't actually know whether or not I was throwing my money away. I decided to go through with it in large part because I could gamble $200. If the boots fell apart on me in three years, that would be a disappointment, but I could go right back to trying to buy $20 boots at discount stores. I would be out the equivalent of $140, but that wasn't going to cause me to pay the rent late, or mean I would have to skip a meal. I had the economic privilege not just to have $200 to spend, but to have $200 to gamble.

Importantly, as a side note, let's appreciate that that gamble isn't just in the quality of the boots. It's the gamble that nothing randomly bad will happen to the boots in the next 11 years. That the Longfellow bridge will not collapse under the train I am in and I have to kick my boots off to swim for the shore; that when I take them off to enter the yoga studio where I'm attending a continuing ed event, somebody doesn't nick them and run off; that when I take them off at a friend's, their dog doesn't gnaw holes in them; that I won't step on a broken bottle left in Government Center Station by a drunk Bruins fan and slice open the sole and permate one boot with blood. Sometimes bad things happen to perfectly respectable footgear.Sometimes poor people prudently don't invest in the good stuff because they realize they don't have great odds of realizing the full vaule of the investment. In which case, you might as well buy the cheap boots.

But back to my point, spending $200 on a pair of boots with the intention of saving money on boots in the long run requires one to either know how to identify and source durable boots – or to get lucky.

I assume there is out there some shoemaker's kid who can pick up any random footgear and discourse at length on the product's likely longevity given the physical evidence available to the knowledgeable observer. But that's not most of us. For most of us, boots are a pig in a poke: we can only note the most obvious faults, and have no way to judge the inner construction of them.If you grew up able to spend $200 on boots, surrounded by other people who spend $200 on boots, you might have developed opinions as to the comparative merits of different brands, both from your own experience and from the report of your friends and family.

If you didn't, you might have identified somebody you know who did, and solicit their advice. Absent such a social resource, you might read reviews and ratings online.

And you might have wound up doing what I did: walking into a shoe store, noting the boots were expensive, but not evidently for reasons of being particularly fashionable (which they were not) nor prominantly advertising on their surface being a prestigious "brand name" (which they didn't), so surmising that, hopefully, by process of elimination, their price-commanding virtue was in fit and durability.In my case, it all worked out. I had enough money that I wouldn't miss the $200 if it were gone, so I could gamble on pursuing durability, and my efforts to scry the future of the boots in the class signs of the store were not amiss – and I had the good fortune to stumble randomly on a high-end shoe seller with quality $200 boots. As opposed to, say, a shoe seller with ridiculously over-priced $100 boots.(For completeness sake, I should also mention one other thing I did to try to improve my odds. Gendered clothing is notorious for inequalities of construction; women's clothing is often put together cheaply out of fragile materials, prioritizing fashionableness far over durability, on the not unreasonable observation that many, if not most, women dispose of their clothes far more frequently than do men, in their efforts to keep up with fashion. Apparently – or the apparel industry believes – women don't keep their clothes around long enough to find out how durable they are, so there's no point in constructing for durability. Trying to buy women's clothing – including footgear – for durability is a mug's game: I bought "men's" boots.)

So I got to demonstrate Vimes Boots Theory in the real world and reap the benefit of being economically privileged enough to buy the expensive boots. I was able to do that because my economic privilege extended beyond having the $200, to being sufficiently well off at the time that I wouldn't miss the $200 if it turns out to be a bad gamble. To a very modest extent I leveraged some social class privilege, in that I knew that two of the other values high price can signify - that is social class knowledge - which I needed to avoid as gotchas.

The other way to have acheived the same end was to start off with the social class privilege of knowing which $200 boots last for more than 10 years and how and where to buy them. Getting together the $200 dollars may still be hard; one might still have to save up for them gradually and at length. But because it mitigates the risk of buying insufficiently durable boots to realize the financial advantage of $200 boots, it makes saving up for them at least plausible.

We can imagine two people, both working at Dunks, both living hand to mouth in Everett, both finding it equally economically challenging to save up $200. But where one grew up largely on public assistance, the other grew up – and ran away from – a wealthy family. The former is far less likely to be willing to go to the through of saving $200 for boots, even if she thinks this Vimes Boots Theory is right on, because she has no idea how to ensure her $200 actually gets her at least 10 years of boots. The latter, who knows not only what kind of boots to get but what store in Harvard Square to go to to get them, has every reason to feel that saving up $200 for boots is a reasonable, worthwhile thing to do.This, by the way, explains one of the differences in behavior between poor people and not so poor people. It's easy to say, "Why don't you just save up to buy the better quality thing?" but sometimes people don't know how. Not how to save, but how to buy the better quality thing. Whether you have the money is mediated by your economic class; whether you have the knowledge how to convert money into quality (in goods or in services) is mediated by your social class.If you have enough economic class that you don't have to worry about the cost, that's one way to realize the benefit of ten-plus year durable $200 boots. The other way is to have sufficient social class that all you need is $200.7.Which is how I'm doing it this time around.I'm no longer making anywhere near the money that would make $200 no big deal to gamble on a pair of boots. If I'm going to sink $200 into a pair of boots, I need to be reasonably assured I'm not going to have to do that again for better than another decade.

I've managed to get the knowledge of how to turn $200 into a really durable pair of boots that look professional and fit me well. A really durable pair of boots. They may not be the optimal pair of boots for me. There might be something out there that is more attractive, more fashionable, fits even better, and lasts even longer. I do not know how to shop for $200 boots, such that I will be satisfied with the results 14 years on. That is class knowledge I don't have; I'd either have to have bought a lot more $200 boots or know a lot more people who buy $200 boots.

But I do know these boots – this model of boot, by this manufacturer – does, indeed, fit the bill. So I just fired up my web browser, went to the manufacturer's site, and just bought another pair of the exact same boots.

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