Beware the economics editor who indulges in moralism. Wonkblog’s Neil Irwin—a Washington Post columnist and the economics editor of Wonkblog—proved this yesterday when he clearly succumbed to a slow-news day and wrote a tolling piece about the sale of a case of 1998 Petrus for $41,500 last week. Unable to confine himself to wine prices, Irwin decided to go whole hog on all luxury goods (why not say the same about a $2m roadster or $100m house?)
But what he never explains—what no one who expresses outrage over the spending of huge sums on items with no use value—is why it matters. When money is exchanged for goods, neither the money nor the goods are consumed. The state of the world remains the same.
The person who had money that he could have donated to malaria prevention now has wine. The person who had wine now has money that could be donated to malaria prevention. There may be a moral issue in the fact that neither of these two is interested in preventing malaria infection, though Irwin has no knowledge or evidence of that. (Besides, the trickle-down quality theory of the first paragraph is surely abysmal economics.)
If people with billions of dollars want to overpay for creepy dead-shark-centeric artwork, or a bottle of Petrus, that’s fine. The latter even creates some benefits for ordinary shmoes; the astronomical price paid for first-growth Bordeaux surely incentivizes vineyards around the world to try to step up their game to claim a piece of the lucre, making wine-drinkers with more modest budgets better off.
But morally, it’s a different equation. If you are about to drink a $3,500 bottle of wine, you have to think for just a minute about this option instead: Drink a $100 bottle of wine that is about as good, but from a less renowned chateau. And deploy the other $3,400 to pay for malaria-preventing mosquito nets in Africa that, by one charity’s calculations, would be enough money to save about 1.5 human lives.
If you lack the moral imagination to figure that out, well, you’re really kind of a monster.