The Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness – as applied to boots

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Kipling
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The Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness – as applied to boots

Post by Kipling » Wed May 08, 2019 11:40 am

There has been the occasional reference to the Vimes 'boots' theory (hereafter, the "Theory") in these forums over the past decade but there has not, I think, been an exploration of whether or not the Theory actually applies to boots.

You will recall the theory from Terry Pratchett's Men at Arms:

“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles. But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet. This was the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”

The Theory is often used as a shorthand for the received wisdom that if you can afford to spend your money on a consumer good in a way that saves you money later, you are much better off: more savings over time, better comfort, better performance, and fewer repairs. To put it another way, the Theory is partly about the actual cost of a good pair of boots but secondarily about access to the price of a good pair of boots. But this post is about the fact that the Theory is wrong - in our world - at least for boots and shoes*.

My initial instinct was that the Theory would apply to footwear up to a certain price level but not above that price level because, above the price level for 'well-made durable', more cost does not mean more durability**. That's fine, the Theory is not aimed at luxury footwear but at 'well-made durable' footwear.

But, does the Theory hold true for 'well-made durable' footwear as it is understood here on these forums? On investigation, my conclusion is that it does not. The problem is what resoling (which is a labour-intensive somewhat localised step) costs for goodyear-welted footwear.

Hanwag Grunten boots (which appear to be the ERE standard for footwear) cost about $360, E280, or £260. It is possible to buy a pair of superficially-optically-not-dissimilar work-type boots for about $50, E45, or £35. Properly resoling boots such as Hanwags costs approximately $100, E100, or £100. Dressy, premium or bespoke ranges of shoes and boots can be a multiple of this***. Plus, it is at least as time consuming to get shoes and boots resoled as it is to buy a new pair.

So, you can wear through two or three pairs of cheaper but nevertheless decent and reasonably durable boots for the price of one resole on one's Hanwags, and still be ahead of the game- as there is a much smaller upfront investment. My brother, who works outside, does this. He buys cheapish work boots, wears them out, then bins them.

I conjecture that the Theory may hold water (if you will forgive the pun) in a world where there is no efficient mass production of footwear. It is thus a reasonable socioeconomic theory for the feudal society in which it was posited. I quite accept the view prevalent on these forums that, having used up all the fossil fuels on transporting plastic shit around the world, we are heading back that way; but, for the next seventy-five years or so at least, my conclusion is that the Theory does not apply. The cost-optimal solution is to buy the cheapest pair of boots that fit comfortably and provide the required basic protection, and throw them away when they break.

Alternatively, I am making an error in assuming that Hanwag Grunten boots are not a luxury product.

Please do not think I am advocating that one not purchase goodyear-welted natural-material footwear if one can afford it, because buying natural-material footwear with a longer life span, and resoling with natural materials, is likely to be the more ecologically sound solution****. Having said which, commercial tanning can use some pretty nasty chemicals… Life involves compromise.

*There are other things for which the Theory might well hold true in our society, probably things that typically require a lot of hand labour to produce. Houses, I think it works for. Cars possibly, I don’t know, I've never owned one... I invite speculation on what other things it holds, or does not hold, for.

**To illustrate- I have a pair of bespoke shoes, made by a forty-years craftsman, with my own last etc. They cost £2,500. They look really good, even at six years old, and they are very comfortable. But, I can’t see them lasting longer than Church's 'Custom Grade' shoes at £500 a pair. And my experience is that the comfort gain is minimal if (i) the footwear is the right size***** and (ii) you wear the footwear with the right socks. So: my experience is that we can exclude 'luxury' footwear from the Theory.

***In the UK, resoling Crockett & Jones's shoes is £150; Church's Custom Grade £160; Church's premium range £290; and my bespoke shoes from £450...

****I buy good footwear, and have not always optimised for cost, although I have reined in the bespoke habit. I have experimented with all possible boot and shoe options passable in a professional environment****** over the past twenty-five years. I have at various times bought and worn (and worn out) footwear from all of the major Northampton makers- Barker, Cheaney, Church's, Crockett & Jones, Grenson, Loake, and Tricker; and occasionally from elsewhere (Timberland, RM Williams, Allen Edmonds). All this cost a fair bit of money, these shoes and boots typically run £300-£500 a pair today. I currently have five pairs of boots (walking boots, brogued country boots, three pairs of Chelsea boots) and four pairs of shoes (two pairs of black oxfords, one pair of docksiders, a pair of veltschoen). One pair dies (i.e. the upper, as opposed to the sole, wears out) approximately every two to three years. In addition, two normally require resoling, at £100 a time, in any one year- city streets are hard on shoe leather and I do a lot of miles. So, averaged out over a decade, annual shoe spend is now probably £400 annually. In my twenties, when I was 'building up the stock' so to speak, probably £600 annually*******.

*****Note: please get your feet re-measured properly, if you haven't had it done for a few years: if you are 40, your feet are not the same size they were when you were 20. Also, statement of the obvious, the lasts on which shoes and boots are constructed vary, meaning that how they feel when you put them on varies markedly even in the same maker's different products.

******Passing observation: thankfully, people these days are less likely to make decisions about whether to hire you based on your footwear. This was actually a thing back in the day.

*******I also have a three pairs of trainers and a pair of swimming shoes; they get recycled when they die which is at the rate of about one pair a year. As 'deliberately disposable' items, i.e. that break to save you breaking, I think trainers are exempt from the Theory********.

********Pratchett enjoyed a good nested footnote. He is sorely missed. I would have loved to have read his take on Brexit.

Jean
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Re: The Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness – as applied to boots

Post by Jean » Wed May 08, 2019 11:51 am

Cheap work shoes don't even last as the time between two reheeling on good boots (about 20-30$) if you use them for walking.
Using cheap shoes for working is cheaper, because your shoes will be exposed to paint, nails, being pinched between heavy stuff, which would destroy even expensives boots.
I still wear the Hanwag my dad bought 40 years ago. They cost an average of 20$ per year in maintenance. (a few stitches or a reheeling). For this price, you can wear cheap snickers half of the year, and be barefoot the other half.

prognastat
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Re: The Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness – as applied to boots

Post by prognastat » Wed May 08, 2019 1:08 pm

You are over on your fancy/durable boot related pricing in pretty much all places.

I managed to get a pair of Hanwags for $230 and that even included shipping them all the way from Germany to the US, a resole would cost me about $60 and I may need to resole once every 3-4 years. This means that the cost of resoling is effectively the same or lower than a cheap pair of boots and happens as frequent or less frequent than the cheap boots would need replacing.

As mentioned by Jean, you can't compare work use against casual use though as if you are regularly putting them in situations where they may receive excessive damage not just wear then having a durable more expensive set may not be worth it if accidental damage may occur more frequently than wear would.

ZAFCorrection
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Re: The Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness – as applied to boots

Post by ZAFCorrection » Wed May 08, 2019 1:10 pm

Edge case reporting in. I got on the good boots bandwagon back in the day when I first came across ERE. Going from sneakers (dry weather and city walking) to boots made it so I could clomp around in any weather and just about any terrain with no problem, so it was amazing. However, a knee malformation means I walk funny (duck walk; no, your non-surgical intervention is not going to fix it), so I wore out the soles at an accelerated rate (resole every 9 months at $70). In my case buying throwaways was a much better deal.

tonyedgecombe
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Re: The Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness – as applied to boots

Post by tonyedgecombe » Wed May 08, 2019 1:17 pm

I’ve always been a little sceptical about the arguments for expensive shoes (or anything else really). I’m quite happy to go with a cheap option and only change that if I find it isn’t working out.

Right now I have a pair of walking shoes that are probably about half way through their life after 18 months. I wear them everywhere, I don’t have a car so they get a lot of use. This is the third pair of the same type, they cost £40 including a spare pair of laces. Perhaps by luck rather than design they are very comfortable.

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Re: The Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness – as applied to boots

Post by 7Wannabe5 » Wed May 08, 2019 4:01 pm

Kipling wrote:I conjecture that the Theory may hold water (if you will forgive the pun) in a world where there is no efficient mass production of footwear. It is thus a reasonable socioeconomic theory for the feudal society in which it was posited. I quite accept the view prevalent on these forums that, having used up all the fossil fuels on transporting plastic shit around the world, we are heading back that way; but, for the next seventy-five years or so at least, my conclusion is that the Theory does not apply. The cost-optimal solution is to buy the cheapest pair of boots that fit comfortably and provide the required basic protection, and throw them away when they break.
Well, based on my reading, we are now in the Post-Peak-Affluence-Age-of-Stagnation-and-Increasing-Scarcity and heading towards the Scavenger Era. Therefore, the most cost optimal solution to acquiring footwear is to make the acquaintance of a Calorie King* (or 3)who spends at least 10X more money on shoes than you would, and then allow him the great pleasure of buying you a pair of shoes as needed. Cost = $0

Next least expensive option would be to just be in the habit of picking up a pair of very good boots whenever you spot them on your bi-weekly scan of local thrift store or garage sales. Cost =$1-$20 year.

Next least expensive strategy (Amy Dacyzyn of "Tightwad Gazette" strategy) would be to keep 3 pairs of similar shoes in rotation of "ratty", "passable", and "new-looking" condition, always choosing to wear the ratty pair when engaged in activity likely to cause damage, and reserving the "new-looking" pair for social occasions. Cost=$? =less than serial wearing of moderately expensive shoes method.

*Generally this will be somebody employed or drawing profits from enterprise such as suggested in "Efficiency", which makes sense since the Age of Stagnation is also the Age of Efficiency at the Margin.

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Re: The Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness – as applied to boots

Post by jacob » Thu May 09, 2019 3:02 pm

It's similar to buying tools (or services) in that it really depends on what you're using it for and how much you're using it. The key point is that the response/choice needs to be appropriate to the task. If someone only uses their power drill once (apparently the average lifetime use of the average drill purchased by the average person is less than 20 minutes :shock: ), it makes sense to choose the Harbor Freight model. If it's for professional use, it makes sense to buy Milwaukee. At no point does it make sense to buy a power drill with gold plating and silver inlays... at least not as far as utility is concerned.

The same holds for services. It would be a waste of money to pay a dentist to brush your teeth. It would be foolish to attempt your own root canal.

Fancy Hanwags are worth it if you walk several miles per day over any terrain. This being my preferred and almost exclusive footwear since I was 20, it took a long time for me to realize that one of the reasons that my colleagues never wanted to walk further than half a mile anywhere was the suckiness of doing that on rain soaked sidewalks wearing dress shoes.

Pricewise, one should therefore pick a tool, service, clothes, ... so the pricing is "economical" (rationally optimized) in terms of how often something is used relative to what it costs.

Where Vimes' theory enters is probably when the user has to engage in a given task but being limited in what they can afford. For example, you can certainly hike in patent leather boots, but this will be quite expensive in short order. And so are fancy hiking boots if they just serve to hedge the remote probability of a mountain suddenly springing up in the boardroom but otherwise only get to see the 50 yards between the door and the car.

PS: +1 to the price levels quoted. That must be London prices? I pay/paid about 60% of that (Chicago prices).

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