valuation: anthropology meets economics

I was talking to a New Yorker recently about an upcoming trip.

“Where are you staying in the city?” she asked.

“Oh, mid-town”

Actually, this was just a guess. I like to sound like an insider. So I use “upper west side,” “soho,” “tribeca” with nonchalance. But to be honest, I am never exactly certain I have got my terms right.

“But where, exactly.”


“Um, on 49th, near the Plaza.”


Whew! Guessed right.

I put down the phone in a vertiginous moment. These neighborhood labels are a little testing for a rube from Canada. (I am in another classificatory scheme, “bridge, tunnel and border.”) But as a classificatory scheme, these labels are almost nothing at all.

And this is where anthropology meets economics. For the neighborhood labels are, like most cultural schemes, pretty general. There are, and now I’m really guessing, about 12 of them. (Ok, I know this because I just googled the question.) That’s 12 categories to cover an island that contains, um, 8 million people.

And here’s where it gets vertiginous. As I put down the phone, I realized that these 12 cultural categories contain, roughly, 19.5 economic distinctions. This is the number of discrete prices for property in Manhattan. (This assumes that the most expensive property sells for $20 million and there is no property that sells for less than $500,000, and that there is, or could be, a property for sale for every dollar amount.) (I am sure there are places that sell for more than $20 million, but you get the idea.)

Let’s review. Culture gives us 12 distinctions. Economics gives us 19.5 million distinctions.

This is not to mock culture. We are very happy to have a set of 12 categories that somehow manages to map the great, blooming diversity called Manhattan. Without it, many things, including a taxi ride, would be vastly more difficult. It’s always true that we want embracing classificatory schemes and without them would be lost in a welter of detail.

But compare this cultural valuation to economic valuation. With this classicatory scheme, we can make endlessly fine distinctions. We can mark the difference between a Soho condo on the 4th floor and the 5th floor. We can distinquish between a property that has double paned windows and with single panes. We can in other words make impossible fine distinctions. And in the process we can what many things are worth: sides of the building, views, neighborhoods, access to a park. Clearly, only the virtuoso real estate agent is fully conversant in these distinctions. But all of us will defer to these distinctions if and when we buy a place on the island.

But what is really astonishing, and here is where culture must not just tip its hat to economics, but actually remove it in a gesture of abiding deference, the valuation scheme created by economics actually floats. All those monetary distinctions can change 1) over night, 2) without committee oversight, 3) in almost perfect concert.

That’s condo on 5th avenue that is now worth $8.3 million will sometimes fluctuate with stock market as its owners sleep. Oh, the Japanese buy more dollars. Oh, the exchange rate changes. Oh, the markets respond. Oh, the owners wake up a little richer or a little poorer.

It’s nice to think of a city that has digital read-outs attached to every property, the numbers spinning up and down over the course of a day as the real estate market works out what value is and external factors impinge. Oh, someone just bought a place in your building for 1.5 million more than asking. Everyone’s value goes up a little. The market has spoken.

This is the mystery. Not for economists for they take this for granted. But for anthropologists. A classificatory scheme that lets the market “speak,” in very little voices, in the creation of millions of utterances that are prone to second guessing and revision many times a day.

Anthropology meets economics and comes away astonished.