1917, Value in Use and Value in Exchange

It is one of the first concepts to be taught in introductory economics – or it ought to be, at any rate. Value in use, and value in exchange, that is.

The concepts simply mean that any particular thing – “good”, as we economists call it – has potential value either because we use it, or because we are able to sell it. Water, the canonical example, has clear value in use, but as a general rule, not that much value in exchange. That’s debatable, but we’ll move on for now.

You can either consume a good, or sell a good to buy other goods. The first is value in use, and the latter is value in exchange.

Here is a short explainer.


One of the most powerful movies I saw this year was 1917. For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, it shows you a slice – and a rather uncomfortable one – of what life was like during the Great War, or WWI. Read the review I’ve linked to, but also please watch the movie.


What do the two things I’ve spoken about have to do with one another?

In the movie 1917, the two protagonists are talking about a medal that one of them received for bravery. The recipient speaks about how he sold it for a bottle of wine.

I can’t find a clip of this on YouTube at the moment, but here’s a description of the scene from Vulture.com:

“After they cross through the German trenches — a sequence that starts with the men staring at bags of shit and only gets more harrowing from there — Blake and Schofield arrive in the open countryside. It’s a view not often seen in World War I movies, which rarely venture beyond the trenches, and it provides an opportunity for the film to slow down and relax. The soldiers get into a debate about whether there’s any meaning to be found in the war. Blake, who, true to his name, is the romantic of the pair, has learned that Schofield traded his Somme medal for a bottle of wine, and berates him. “You should have taken it home,” Blake says. “You should have given it to your family. Men have died for that. If I’d got a medal I’d take it back home. Why didn’t you take it home?”

Schofield disagrees, with the bitterness of a war poet: “Look, it’s just a bit of bloody tin. It doesn’t make you special. It doesn’t make any difference to anyone.””

That excerpt is from an email I sent to Amit Varma. It was meant to be a pitch for a series that used to run on a website called ThinkPragati (no longer up and running as a magazine, alas). The series was called Housefull Economics, and it seems as if I ended up writing the last column to appear in that space.

But what can’t be written there can be written here! That clip, the one that is described in the excerpt above, is a great way to think about value-in-use and value-in-exchange. Of what use is a piece of metal to Schofield? In war torn France, no use at all – in use.

But in exchange? Why, it got him a bottle of wine!


There is another concept at play over here, that of signaling. Blake is clearly horrified at the idea that something as valuable as a medal could be exchanged for something as trivial (to him) as a bottle of wine. Blake is effectively saying that sure, there may not be much value-in-use of the medal right now, but it has tremendous value in terms of signaling.

About which we shall speak a lot more on the coming Thursday, for signaling is a very fascinating topic indeed. But in the meantime, please do read the rest of the columns from the Housefull Economics series – they’re a great way to learn about economics!