#26: Consider the pineapple: the perfect symbol of idiot money
15th March, 2021
To celebrate this newsletter's six-month anniversary, the story of my favourite symbol of money idiocy, starring St Paul's Cathedral, prisoners rioting because of being made to eat lobster, and taking fruit for a walk.
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that would rather eat fruit than flaunt it.
This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that price and value are completely different things... though we often need ridiculous reminders of this.
If you’ve ever been to St Paul’s Cathedral in London, you may have noticed the proud golden pineapples that sit sentry-like atop the western towers. Or perhaps you’ve noticed the ones that adorn the Wimbledon trophy. Examples abound of pineapples popping up in contexts unrelated to their fundamental fruity purpose.
When St Paul’s was built the punk-haired pineapple was just about the rarest – and therefore priciest – item around, so its fruit-based function was forgotten in the name of price-based posturing. ‘A single fruit,’ the BBC reports, could be ‘worth thousands of pounds,’ and ‘often the same pineapple would be paraded from event to event until it eventually went rotten.’
‘Less well-off folk,’ we’re told, could rent them for ‘a special event, dinner party or even just to jauntily tuck under an arm on a show-off stroll.’ Some came with their own security guards. In 1807, a Mr Godding was sentenced to seven years in Australia, one year per pineapple he pinched. ‘For a long time,’ the School of Life relates, ‘only royalty could actually afford to eat them.’ Poems were written, and temples built, in their honour.
Today, pineapples don’t cost £5,000. A fiver can get you three and still have enough change for a couple of bananas. Stripped of its ability to showcase a wasting of resources – to provide one of the best examples of James Carse’s assertion that wealth is not possessed, but performed – the pineapple hasn’t changed. It’s still just a fruit. People nowadays even eat them before they rot.
To take another example, consider cacti. I’ve a friend that works in a garden centre. They tell me that people regularly come in and ask – without any sense of embarrassment – what’s the most expensive indoor plant they’ve got. It’s usually a bloody big cactus. Cacti grow slowly. That’s why they cost a lot. Not because they’re ‘better’. Better in houseplant terms is a function of how well it fits with where you want it to go and how its care needs fit with your conscientiousness.
Put so starkly as this, it may sound stupid to just pick a plant on the pot’s price tag. But imagine you’ve been given a voucher for a free plant. You can spend it on anything. Without playing silly games involving a second-hand houseplant market, do you go for the £40 one that fits best with your circumstances, or the £400 cactus? You may of course mix in circles where people will somehow think better of you after they know what your cactus cost, however out of place it looks, but who wants to mix in such circles, as opposed to ones that know your place is an awfully silly place for a cactus, and you’d’ve been much better off with a fern, or a palm, or an elaborate indoor shrubbery with two levels and a little path running down the middle…
David Foster Wallace tells of how ‘Up until sometime in the 1800s, lobster was literally low-class food.’ ‘Even in the harsh penal environment of early America,’ he continues, ‘some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats.’ We eat lobster, but when we pay for it, we’re being sold a story. That stories can literally make food (and wine) taste nicer is no bad thing. But it’s only a positive when you use the story to save money, to make inexpensive things taste better (e.g. treating dinner-party guests to an extra special bottle by regaling them with tales from the vineyard), not when you do the opposite and shell out for the story, not the substance.
If you eat caviar, you're probably an idiot. If you want eggs, eat those of a hen. They are more nutritious and leave significantly more resources to buy other things with in addition.
Not all ways of wasting our lives in a desperate bid to look as though we aren’t are as silly as having people round to view rotting fruit. But subtlety is more dangerous than silliness; more modern manifestations of pineapple posturings are more pernicious for being less public.
Because everyone needs a kitsch reminder of what really matters... a glimpse inside my life. This ridiculous thing is stuffed with little notes about great things in my life, to be remembered and dwelled upon when not-so-great things are happening.
Train to hear these words and phrases as you do you own name across a crowded room, then stop and check that the belief underlying your automatic reaction is true.
What something costs is not what something is worth. Cost is calculated by the world’s supply and demand. Worth is determined by a context-dependent contribution to your life.