In Proportion to Zero: More About Number Theories

It’s easy enough to calculate the  rate of inflation in, say, housing costs over the last forty years.  Compare rents back then to rents now.  When we first moved into our current digs, in 1969, our rent was something like $176.00 a month.  Since then, the building has gone condo, and the combined cost of our mortgage and assessment payments on the same apartment is roughly $1500.00 a month.  If we decided to rent the place out, we’d have to charge something like $1700.00 a month, obviously.  So the rental cost of our humble abode has increased by a factor of ten.

But what makes that calculation easy is that both the numbers involved are positive whole numbers.  How do you calculate the rate of inflation of something you didn’t have to pay for at all until a few years ago?  That involves a proportion, one of whose components is zero. Any math buff will tell you it can’t be done.  (See for more elegant treatment of the subject.)

For example, the Chicago Art Institute just raised its admission cost to $18.00 for general admission ($12.00 for students and seniors.)  Up until 1971, admission had been free.  From then till 1989, the “suggested donation” had crept up only to $5.00.  Now it’s $18.00, and there’s no “suggestion” about it.

All the other great Chicago museums and zoos have followed roughly the same path, from free admission through the 1960s to the equivalent of 3 or 4 hours’ work at minimum wage today.  As former Art Institute director James Wood told the Chicago Tribune when he retired in 2004, there is a real qualitative difference between a museum with free admission, and one with any kind of required fee, however small. “One might pop in, say, at lunchtime to spend a few minutes with a favorite work of art…. when a visitor comes and goes without any thought of paying, a truly natural habit has the possibility to develop.”

Another case in point, arguably even more essential to the Good Life than art and learning, is water.  Beginning approximately in the mid-1990s, bottled water in the US suddenly ceased to be the province of health nuts and snobs, and became a universal necessity.  Now, in many places, it is no longer possible to get water with one’s restaurant meal except by buying a bottle.  Back when I was in college and spent some vacations in South America with my family, I was first introduced to two things I would not see in the US for another twenty-odd years: street beggars, and bottled water. The bottled water was outrageously expensive, but necessary if one had not had the opportunity to build up immunity to the local microbes.  Well, not exactly necessary—over a weekend in Lima, I took a look at the price of bottled water and decided instead to buy a bottle of the local rotgut, in which I brushed my teeth for the next two days. Since  I have never had occasion to repeat this practice, I have also never checked with my dentist to ascertain whether it’s better or worse for the teeth than water.  But it was definitely the cheapest and most microbe-free way to go.  Anyway, today, bottled drinking water is a multi-billion-dollar industry.  Mostly, one suspects, that results from the Reaganite suspicion of anything “public” or “government issue” that first arose in the 1980s.  And there is no real way to calculate the proportion of our current expenditures on bottled water to what we spent Back in the Day.

Aside from things that really used to be available free, gratis, and for nothing, there is yet another set of things that tend to be perceived that way even though it is absolutely clear that the recipient has paid for them. I’m referring to co-pays and deductibles for health care services which have already been paid for with health insurance premiums.  The  theory behind such payments is that it discourages frivolous use of the health care system.  The reality is that it often discourages any use of the system at all.  ( For more detailed treatment, see .  )    This is significant because, if the recipient is dunned for the cost of any individual purchase transaction after having already paid for the whole system, this will enable the providers to collect premiums for services that the purchaser may never actually use because s/he can’t afford the co-pays and deductibles.  From the provider’s point of view, this is as good as it gets.  What the recipient is paying for is not health care services, but merely a remote possibility of access to such services.  Which is a lot cheaper to provide.

More on this later.

Jane Grey


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