Pictured Above: Beeple’s “Everydays – The First 5000 Days,” a piece of crypto-art which sold for a record $69 million at Christie’s in February.
Last week, upon arriving home after making the rounds delivering meals to at-risk families enrolled in our Head Start preschool program, I had a few minutes to unwind before my next virtual classroom was to take place. I chose to scan some of the articles and opinion columns appearing in the online edition of the New York Times, hoping to catch a few details outlining the unprecedented American Rescue Plan recently signed into law by President Biden.
Instead, what literally jumped through the screen as I pulled up the site was a piece written by Scott Reyburn exclaiming: “JPEG File Sells for $69 Million, as ‘NFT Mania’ Gathers Pace.”
Rather than delving into the nuances of cryptocurrency and the electronic formatting used to create the digital collage (both of which played a significant role in this record-breaking Christie’s auction), I feel compelled to address the unsettling reaction I had to this over-the-top transaction and its relevance to what I believe is the bigger issue here. It’s one that focuses on our misplaced values and an economic system that has run amok, one that has me shaking my head while declaring: “Something is wrong with this picture.”
Clearly, we live in a society primarily based on a free enterprise, capitalistic system, whereby goods or services are provided in exchange for compensation of one sort or another, usually monetary in nature. What determines the worth of that transaction is more or less dictated by the “perceived” market value at that point in time. Whether it’s the price of a house, shares in a corporation, or a gallon of gasoline, the conditions under which we conduct business are typically negotiated and finalized through this type of arrangement. Sounds pretty simple, ECON 101.
Where I find fault with this system lies in its subjectivity. Over the last century or so, we as a nation have placed an inordinate amount of value on entertainment and the arts. Professional athletes, actors, musicians, and those in the media, have tilted the proverbial playing field to the point where an appearance (let’s say a top-notch pitcher playing in a single Major League Baseball game), earns the combined yearly salary of 25 teachers or nurses. Call me crazy, but I think that’s rather obscene.
You might conclude that there’s a false equivalency at work here when it comes to this type of a comparison, yet the crux of the issue isn’t that there should be equal compensation for everyone, not at all. It’s that we are long overdue for a reality check. We’ve bought into a system whereby premium prices are paid for inanimate objects — be they art, antiques or sports ephemera. It’s more of an indictment of our society and what it chooses to value than anything else.
How is it (mind you, this is coming from someone who was an avid card collector while in my youth), that a color image on a piece of lightweight cardboard from an athlete’s first year in a sport should fetch $5 million? And heaven forbid it was to have a bent corner or be slightly off-center; well then that would most likely reduce its value by 80 percent or more. Acquiring “things” solely due to their scarcity or provenance only perpetuates an artificial marketplace lacking any true substance.
Because we’ve fallen for all of the trappings of a consumer-based economy consisting of a top-down distribution of wealth, we also become highly susceptible to its foibles. When we are no longer capable of maintaining a particular socioeconomic lifestyle, for whatever reason, or unforeseen circumstances occur (a pandemic for instance), it shatters our existing paradigm to the point where its foundation collapses from the sheer weightiness of it all.
We need not look further than to what happened soon after massive numbers of folks were laid off without health care benefits, due to no fault of their own, or to a dozen years earlier when financial institutions chose to bundle faulty loans and resell them at ridiculous profits to unsuspecting note holders.
I guess you could say that the progressive in me is hoping that there will be a sea change of sort that might transpire organically after such a life-altering collective experience. Maybe it begins with the recent legislation just implemented that will lift up countless individuals and families living at the margins. One doesn’t have to be a full blown Marxist to realize that, from a rational perspective, the conditions under which our current system has existed aren’t sustainable in the long run.
And in case you were wondering, the bidding for Beeple’s JPEG collage titled “Everydays – The First 5000 Days” that sold for $69 million, started at a mere hundred bucks. Like I said, something is wrong with this picture.