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Love, Money, and Valentine’s Day

Reposted from the Winnipeg Free Press.

Valentine’s Day is the second-busiest day of the year next to Mother’s Day for florists like the family owned Winnipeg business McDiarmid Flowers.

But when the holiday of romance falls on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, there seems to be a lot more love to give — at least when measuring the volume of flower sales.

“Flowers sell much better on those days, because when people have Valentine’s on Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday, they tend to go to the lake, get a theme hotel, go across the border or go for a big meal at a fancy restaurant,” says Gayle Sidney, co-owner with her mother, Marion Shewchuk, of the River Heights shop.

On average, people spend between $75 and $100 on flowers when Valentine’s falls in the middle of the week, compared to $40 or $50 when it falls closer to weekends.

Still, flowers are the most popular purchase on Valentine’s Day, according to a recent American Express-sponsored survey. The U.S. poll found consumers estimate they’ll spend about eight per cent more this year than last year — or about $200.

The credit card firm’s survey states the increase is part of an overall up-trend in consumer spending.

One could suppose the better we feel about the economy, the more love we feel emanating from our wallets.

That Valentine’s Day spending is connected with the health of the economy is hardly surprising, says an expert on the history of the holiday.

Over hundreds of years, Valentine’s Day has evolved from a Christian celebration of martyrdom into a celebration of romantic love. And its popularity in the modern context is intertwined with the rise of industrialization and finance about 150 years ago, says English literature professor Heather Evans at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

Ironically, this period of tremendous change, which deeply shaped society today, also marked a shift in how we ‘love’.

“The same period that saw the development of Valentine’s Day as a commercial venture is the same period that saw a shift in the construction of marriage from one that is primarily for the purpose of transferring money and other forms of power to one being based on love,” Evans says.

Today’s typical Valentine’s Day fare — the box of chocolates, the cards, the heart-shaped decor and even flowers — were a new phenomenon during the 19th century, only made possible by the advances in printing, marketing, textiles and other modernizing innovations of the day, she says.

Increases in industrial production allowed for greater distribution of goods and, in turn, wealth, which led to an expansion of the middle class. By the mid-1860s, Valentine’s Day became more popular because a large portion of the population had the disposable income to spend on consumer goods that were not necessities for survival.

Romantic love, like most other things in a free-market society, became affordable. Or at least those items that represented its spectacle — chocolates, cards and other gifts — could be produced in large enough supply to meet a growing demand, partially created by a newly emerging advertising biz.

Love could be commoditized, packaged and priced, while marriage was becoming less about transferring wealth and solidifying economic status and increasingly more about the freedom of choice among the middle class to pursue relationships on mutual romantic interest.

That is not to say money and marriage today are not deeply connected. Instead, Evans says, love, marriage and Valentine’s Day are like most everything else in our free-market civilization. Their value is often measured in dollars.

So while we love ‘love’, we love money, too.

“We love it in so many ways,” Evans says with a laugh. And whether we like it or not, money is a fundamental common denominator, even in affairs of the heart. Still, calling Valentine’s Day a ‘Hallmark Holiday’ — a means for retailers to boost sales of their products — is a little too cynical, in Evans’ view.

“It’s very difficult to point fingers at Valentine’s Day without thinking of it in that larger context,” she says. “It simply says something about who we are.”

Somewhat oddly, though, our market system on the one hand puts a price on love as measured by how much we spend on the holiday, or how much we spend on engagement rings or marriage.

But on the other, it also largely excludes aspects of civilization that are often most associated with love, such as nurturing and co-operating, says a renowned U.S.-based economic theorist.

Hazel Henderson is an acclaimed futurist, recently named by Wired UK as one of the Top 50 people most like to change the world, who coined the term the ‘love economy’ decades ago. She concluded modern-day economic indicators — like gross domestic product (GDP) — largely ignore unpaid work that goes on in homes and communities, such as raising children, volunteering and housework.

She says economists like to refer to GDP as a pie with two layers, the free markets and the underneath, the public sector that supports it.

But Henderson says that excludes all that goes on in the home and community that is largely unpaid.

“I began to wonder what was wrong with economics, and why did we not count this?” says the president of Ethical Markets Media, who is also a pioneer in socially responsible investing. The answer, she concluded, was that the fundamentals of modern economics developed alongside the Industrial Revolution, the growth of the middle class and many of the holidays that are widely commercialized today, including Valentine’s Day.

“It was all about competition and individual maximizing of your own self-interest,” she says.

But Henderson says human nature also includes nurturing and co-operation.

“That’s what I meant by the ‘love economy,’ ” she says.

“If you don’t acknowledge that — whether you’re a government in Ottawa, Washington or wherever — you’re playing with a map of only half the territory.”

When put into dollar figures, the love economy is worth tens of trillions of dollars in GDP every year, she says.

Yet, it’s almost entirely excluded from the equation in modern economics, even though the ‘economy’ can’t survive without it.

“While all these competitors go out there and earn money in the cash economy, there is somebody back home who is keeping home fires burning, taking care of the kids and binding up the wounds of the competitors when they come back home.”

Henderson says we fail to factor the ‘love economy’ into the marketplace, often to our peril.

“Part of the whole problem that most of the economies are in now after the whole Wall Street debacle is we’re not recognizing the extent to which all industrial societies — not to mention developing countries — rely on creative goods and services and production that are unpaid.”

Greed is validated as a motivator of competition, yet the lust for profit has led to financial crisis after crisis, while the ‘loving’ aspects of our human nature often get trampled as a result.

Still, Henderson says, nothing is wrong with free-market enterprise in and of itself. It’s that we’ve chosen to exclude aspects of our lives that are equally important from our economic calculations.

So, while we can buy our loved ones tokens of our love this Valentine’s Day, the product of our romantic love — a family — largely remains off the balance sheet.

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