By Sarah Skwire
A recent newsletter from AdamSmithWorks reminded me of this great discussion between Russ Roberts and Mike Munger on division of labor, particularly their discussion about shoe and boot making in Colonial Williamsburg. (That bit of the podcast begins at around 27:54).
The discussion about shoes and boots caught my attention then and now because of the great discussion of the price of boots in Terry Pratchett’s Men at Arms:
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.
$10 boots that last for 2 years and $50 boots that last for $10 years may seem to amount to the same thing, economically. One is spending $5 annually on boots, after all. That’s why it’s so important that Pratchett specifies that even when new Vimes’s boots are merely “sort of okay.” He’s not comparing two similar goods. The $50 boots are better all the way through their life span than the $10 boots are at any point in theirs.
As an officer with the Night Watch in the city of Ankh-Morpork, Vimes is on his feet all night, every night, and has a lot of time to think about boots, especially because his are usually leaking, full of holes, and held together by tape and cardboard. Just as Russ Roberts observes that the Williamsburg shoemaker is still poor because he doesn’t have enough capital to hire more hands to help him, Sam Vimes knows that his feet are wet and tired because he doesn’t have enough capital to either borrow against or liquidate to buy better boots.
It’s not clear whether Ankh-Morpork has a functioning credit system. (Paper money doesn’t appear in the city until Making Money, the 40th novel in the series, for example). It’s also not clear–given the general rough and tumble aspects of Ankh-Morpork’s “business” community–whether borrowing money is a particularly safe notion.
Safe and functioning credit might also have allowed shoemakers in places like Ankh-Morpork and Williamsburg to bring on more hands, buy more raw materials, and produce better boots for lower prices. Either way credit could have allowed Vimes to buy a better pair of boots and have dry feet for a few years.
(The new BBCAmerica series, The Watch, begins filming at the end of September and is scheduled to premiere in 2020. I’ll be watching with interest to see what kind of boots Vimes is wearing, and whether any of Pratchett’s economic content makes it onto the screen.)