Housewives, trees, and Mastercard

In recent times, I came across 2 things that have stirred some conversations around their monetary value.

The first is the work performed by ‘housewives’! Actor Kamal Haasan proposed this idea first as part of his election manifesto in February 2020.

The idea has generated a LOT of debate since then. A lot of opinion pieces and editorials have since been written on it. The general consensus seems to be that the idea is implausible, for a variety of reasons, but mainly because nobody can come up with a formula to convincingly add a monetary value to what a housewife does, mostly out of ‘love’ and a ‘sense of duty’, and that if we were to add a monetary value, it may degrade and disrespect that love/duty.

Other reasons include the obvious too – how would the Government assess and pay for this, would it mean housewives would be guided by labor laws, what would happen if the work is ‘not satisfactory’, would it lead to the firing of professional house-help and housewives dumped with more work, women seeking other careers may be forced by the family to take the Government’s salary and stay at home… among many others.

In January 2021, a Supreme Court ruling indirectly reinforced Kamal Haasan’s idea in an entirely different context.

The Court said that “the conception that housemakers do not work or that they do not add economic value to the household is a problematic idea that has persisted for many years and must be overcome”. It also added that according to the 2011 Census, “nearly 159.85 million women in India have mentioned ‘household work’ as their main occupation, compared to 5.79 million men”!

So, when it comes to claiming insurance after an accident where a couple had died, the Court ordered that a woman’s housewife status should not devalue the insurance value she can get after her death (paid to her dependents) and that she is eligible for equal compensation as her working/employed spouse!

In a way, the Court was confirming what Kamal Haasan had proposed – the only difference was that Kamal’s proposal was to add a monetary value to a housewife’s work while she is alive, and the Court’s order is to add a monetary value after her death!

The second instance was also a Court ruling – the monetary value of a tree.

This seems straight-forward but is more complicated than that.

If we consider the monetary value of a tree, we think of it in only terms of timber. We do not ascribe any monetary value to the many kinds of ‘services’ it provides – the cost of oxygen they release and other benefits to the environment!

The Supreme Court was hearing a petition on the West Bengal Government seeking to cut 356 trees for the construction of five railway over-bridges. The Bench, in January 2020 aimed to do away with the evaluation of trees only on the basis of their timber value and rather focus on the positive impact of trees on the environment. So they had appointed a committee of five experts — Nishikant Mukerji (managing director, Tiger Environment Centre), Soham Pandya, (secretary and executive director at the Centre of Science for Villages), Sunita Narain (director, Centre for Science and Environment), Bikash Kumar Maji (assistant chief engineer, ROB unit, West Bengal government) and Niranjita Mitra (division forest officer, North 24 Parganas) to evaluate the true monetary value of a tree!

According to the report filed in February 2020, but made public only on February 3, 2021, a tree is worth ?74,500 a year. Out of this, the cost of oxygen alone is ?45,000, followed by the cost of bio-fertilizers, which are worth ?20,000. Upon adding costs of micronutrients and compost, the report stated, living trees will more often than not outweigh the benefit of most of the projects they are felled for!

It’s a different issue that the method was immediately deemed implausible since the Government would need to pay a massive chunk of the project’s value to simply cut down trees! So they are considering other forms of rationalizing the tree cutting.

And we are on similar terrain to the ‘housewives must be paid a salary’ problem.

In both instances, the participants are already performing their functions – housewives and trees – regardless of a monetary value being available for them or not. In both cases, we (humans/people) see the functioning (of the housewife, and the trees) as ‘natural’ and not as a formal task that is performed on-demand, because it is seen as the participants’ nature – a housewife ‘should serve’ her family and a tree ‘should release oxygen into the atmosphere and perform the other functions with regard to its roots, the ground, etc.’. The argument may be that if they do not perform these ‘natural’ functions, they cease to be called by those names – no more a ‘housewife’ and ‘not a tree’ (a wooden stump, then?).

These are highly complex issues, not just because of our conditioning to see these as ‘natural’ functions, but also because even money is as imaginary a concept as these ‘natural’ functions. To ascribe a monetary value to them, one could argue, is like trying to fix a monetary value to a flower’s beauty, before it is plucked. The potential questions and permutations are literally endless.

In terms of marketing, one brand had cracked a phenomenally resilient and famous campaign using this complex issue, long ago!

In 1997, McCann-Erickson’s planning team came up with a key insight through their research. When people bought things they couldn’t afford, it was usually for the good of the family. They bought a TV so everyone in the family could watch TV together. The reasons behind the indulgences afforded by a credit card were all noble, and that led the team to understand that Mastercard was a good way to pay for the things that really mattered!

This led to the iconic ‘priceless’ campaign.

The first ad featured a father and his 11-year-old son who is watching his first live baseball match with his dad. While the experience was ‘priceless’, for everything else, there’s… yes, of course, Mastercard.

Marketing had long ago given up fixing a monetary value for the intangible, but the world now is turning its attention on at least 2 things previously assumed to be intangible and trying to affix a monetary value!

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