Appreciating those things in our state money can’t buy

  • Dick Startz / University of Washington Economist
  • Saturday, December 25, 2004 9:00pm
  • Opinion

It’s the holiday season and we all have a great deal to be grateful for. (If you’re not grateful, well then, “bah, humbug” to you.) It’s a time to appreciate the things that make life good, and not just the things we buy.

You’ve heard (over, and over, and over by now) the ad with the tagline, “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s Mastercard.” To an economist, things that you can buy at the supermarket or on the Internet aren’t nearly so interesting as “things money can’t buy.”

That’s because economists more or less understand how goods are bought and sold in markets, but still have a lot to learn about those things that we really value but that markets don’t provide.

So I want you, the reader, to make a list of things that are really important to you but that you can’t buy or sell. While you’re getting out your pencil, let me lay down a couple of ground rules. First, no clichs. We all know that family, good health and so forth are going to be top ranked. Nonetheless, listing them is boring. Try to be original. In fact, try to avoid the cosmic.

Concentrate on the things that, although small, make you feel good over the course of the year.

Second, pick things that are special about being in Washington; things you figure you’d miss out on if you lived in another state. Or maybe even more local things that you get from your city or neighborhood.

To start things off, I’ll give you my list.

I’m grateful for the view of our mountain about one day out of three. I haven’t quite puzzled out where they keep the mountain on the other two days.

I’m grateful to the guys who pick up our garbage. In my 20 years here, I don’t think they’ve ever left a scrap of litter or banged a can loudly early in the morning. I’ve lived on the East Coast and let me tell you – it’s different there.

I’m grateful to all the state and local government employees who act like neighbors rather than bureaucrats. Boy, are these folks ever better than officials in other parts of the country.

Since grousing about the motor vehicle bureau is a national sport, I want to share an “only in Washington” Department of Licensing story. This summer I took my daughter to the DOL to take her driver’s test. While filling out the paperwork for an intermediate license, the lady behind the counter turns to Meredith, puts on a straight face, and proceeds to lecture her.

“You understand your parents can yank your license any time they want. Your parents will receive in the mail a copy of any ticket you get.

“And you better bring the car home with a full gas tank.

“Take out the garbage too! And about your grungy boyfriend…”

At this point all three of us are trying hard not to crack up laughing. I’m sure there are good natured state workers everywhere, but I’m grateful that we in Washington have lots and lots of them.

The Washington thing that I’m most grateful for (at least it ties with the mountain) is Washington college students. Washington college students work hard without being neurotic about their studies. They make teaching fun. Classes I’ve taught elsewhere always have a strong sprinkling of grade-grubbers. No matter what you do there’s a set of whiners.

Washington students don’t whine. Sure, college students here worry about grades. The difference is that compared to students in other places I’ve taught, most students here think that their grade is their responsibility, not the prof’s. Another way to say this is that Washington college students are grown-ups, and mostly secure, confident and happy grown-ups at that.

I’m not sure whether I should direct my gratitude to the students or to their parents or to their K-12 teachers. But unlike things you can buy at the supermarket or on the Internet, gratitude doesn’t get used up when you give it away. So thanks to the students and to their parents and to their teachers.

Now, about your list. If you’ve got something really interesting, and funny, maybe you’d be nice enough to e-mail it to me.

Happy holidays.

Dick Startz is Castor Professor of Economics and Davis Distinguished Scholar at the University of Washington. He can be reached at

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