Friday, March 22, 2013

End the Engagment Ring Arms Race

As they said in Wargames, the only winning move is not to play.

Over at Priceonomics, they had an excellent piece recently with the arresting title 'Diamonds Are Bulls***'.

I challenge you to read through the whole thing and come to the end asserting that diamonds aren't in fact bulls***, but are actually worthy demonstrations of love and investments of money. The reasons for the Priceonomics headline include, but are not limited to, the fact that:
-The whole thing was started by a marketing campaign in 1938 by DeBeers to get people to buy more diamonds
-We could make flawless diamonds industrially for very little money
-They lose tons of value immediately after purchase, and
-Even experts barely know exactly how to value them.

The point the article doesn't answer, of course, is how this practice persists given that most men already know, either instinctively or by reading this stuff before, that this whole thing is an outrageous con. No man is genuinely, honest-to-god happy about spending thousands of dollars on an engagement ring. They might do it because they love the woman, and know she's excited about it. But they'd sure as hell wish that the woman would be equally excited to accept by way of a substitute a really nice restaurant meal, an expensive watch, or a trip to the Bahamas. All of which in combination you could probably buy for less than a mid-level engagement ring.

So we all agree this is an egregious scam perpetrated on us by DeBeers.  These monopolist turdbags have managed to convince women and men that this is something that you have to do, Serious You Guys, to show your love for a woman. The reason this works is that marrying someone is an important decision that many men are nervous about. DeBeers has found a way to capitalise on this by creating a perception that society all agrees that we need to buy diamonds to show our love. Just like in a strip club, when you don't quite know what you need to do and are afraid to ask, you'll spend money to make the problem go away.

This problem is particularly strong because proposing to someone is something that men don't generally talk about a great deal beforehand - not to their friends, and even less so to the future bride. So they don't really know what they should be spending, and are thus ripe targets to be scammed by salesmen and their own nervousness. And it's difficult to boycott, because at the point you're proposing to someone, you're meant to be declaring your love. Proposing, while simultaneously explaining why there's no ring because that's stupid, is likely to come across somewhat awkwardly, to say the least.

The other macabre genius of the plan is that it's difficult for couples to agree ahead of time not to do it, because to plan in advance 'Oh, when I propose to you, I'll do it in this way' ruins the surprise. As a consequence, even men who are 90% sure that their fiancee doesn't care much for an expensive ring will probably err on the safe side and spend the cash anyway, just to be sure. If they could have a conversation and confirm their hunch, they'd just skip it. But they can't. So DeBeers wins again.

Frankly, I find this immensely unsatisfactory. Not only is this wasteful, zero-sum arms race spending, but it's a scam perpetrated by the most successful cartel in the history of the world.

If there's one thing I hate, it's monopolists jacking up prices. Boy, do I hate monopolists. Nothing would please me more than to see those clowns reduced to being insurance salesmen or something actually productive.

So, how do we destroy DeBeers? How do we stop the arms race?

Here's the Shylock three step plan for how, as a society, we can stop flushing money down the toilet on worthless trinkets.

Step 1. Tell all future dates, well in advance of any proposal date, that you think expensive diamonds are a crock and a fraud, and that you won't be buying one, regardless of whom you marry.

Step 2. Follow through on it.

Step 3. There is no step 3.

Step 1 is the key part. What you need to do is make the conversation about the principle of the ring in the abstract, divorced from any implication about the girl in question. In other words, make it known that this isn't about the girl you're with, it isn't because this is on your mind since you're thinking of proposing soon. No, just as a moral stand, you're refusing to enrich a price-fixing cartel to satisfy an arbitrary demand about how romance should be.

The girl may object that she likes diamonds and finds them pretty. The immediate answer is that she likes them because the DeBeers corporation decided that she should like them. Why else would society just magically start liking them all of a sudden in 1938? And if you just like sparkly things, why not a cubic zirconium? Why not an artificial diamond? What on earth is the difference, other than burning money?

More to the point, the receptiveness of the girl to this argument is a great screening mechanism. Just like women who don't pine after massive weddings, the women who don't pine after expensive engagement rings are also, on average, the ones you actually want to be marrying. A girlfriend who agrees that this whole thing is a con and are happy with a cheap ring, a fake ring, or no ring at all is, paradoxically, the one worthy of the expensive ring. But thankfully, that's not even needed!

The real question is, do you go the hardcore route and insist on no ring at all, or do you just buy a small artificial diamond for a few hundred bucks, or a cubic zirconium for ten bucks?

The answer to that depends on how tolerant the other party is, and how much you feel like contributing positive externalities. Taking a stand to not buy any engagement ring (and just having the wedding ring) is risky, but decreases ever so slightly the societal expectation of having to spend money like this. It's providing a true public good. You won't be thanked by many people, but you'll always be an honorary member in exemplary standing around this humble corner of the internet.

Buying a fake ring will cost you not much more, but is implicitly acknowledges that you're catering to the societal demand by pretending you bought an expensive ring. And pretending is all it is, because it's unlikely anyone else will be able to tell the damn difference.

I can see the argument for the second one, if only to make the fiancee's life easier so that she doesn't have to explain to everyone why there's no ring at all. That's perhaps too big an ask in the short term. But even being willing to have a small ring is an improvement. Like all social attitudes, they change slowly.

One thing is for sure. If I decided to get married, DeBeers isn't getting a red cent out of me.

This may seem like an extreme position, but frankly if you've put up with the rest of the somewhat outrageous things I say, is this one really much worse?

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