Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do

By Eduardo Porter

Portfolio/Penguin. 296 pp. $27.95

Did you get a good deal on your wife? If the answer's no - perhaps because you're not part of a society that forces brides' families to pay dowries - congrats. If the answer's yes, well . . . a good bargain is a good bargain. Either way, you're part of a complex web of culture and market forces that, according to New York Times business writer Eduardo Porter, sets "The Price of Everything."

"Every choice we make is shaped by the prices of the options laid out before us - what we assess to be their relative costs - measured up against their benefits," Porter writes. "The prices we face as individuals and societies . . . provide a powerful vantage point upon the unfolding of history." This obvious observation isn't sturdy enough to hang an economic theory on, but Porter is more interested in the sheer weirdness that the price system fosters.

"The Church became too expensive for believers and provided too little of its core services in return," he writes of the Catholicism's decline in the 16th century. "This encouraged the entry of a rival into the market: Protestant Christianity, which came to offer believers direct access to God at a better price." Salvation's cost is only one of many intriguing side alleys Porter plunges down in a Freakonomics-like narrative that also asks why the price of American slaves went flat before the Civil War and whether rising corn prices prove that mass starvation is in Earth's near future. These alleys may not add up to a comprehensive map of our global economy, but they are pretty fascinating in their own right.

- Justin Moyer