Breaking Bad is over, and fans are left to haggle over whether Walter White indeed redeemed himself.
In many ways, the former High School chemistry teacher sold his soul for a meth empire.
Which brings us to an interesting question – how much is a soul actually worth?
Clearly, there isn’t exactly a sticker price on something that may or may not exist. But we can still survey the market, given the popularity of Faustian Bargains in the corpus of Western literature.
Here’s how the legendary transaction works. You’ve got a soul. The devil’s got stuff you want.
You make the switch, and then a couple years down the road you do your best to get out of the arrangement. Sometimes it flies, sometimes it doesn’t.
So by analysing some of these transactions we can get a sense of how much a human soul is worth.
Take, for instance, the song “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” by The Charlie Daniels Band.
Released in 1979, the Devil bets a fiddle of gold against Johnny’s soul. Johnny accepts.
So how much is a fiddle of gold worth?
As an estimation, we’ll just average these and suppose that the average density of the material of a violin is 0.515g/cm3.
If the violin weighs 450g and has a density of 0.515g/cm3, that means that the volume of the wood of the violin is 873.8cm3.
Our hypothetical golden prize had gold in lieu of wood. So 873.8cm3 of gold weighs 16.9kg, or 543.3 troy ounces.
In 1979, gold was going for $US307.50 per troy ounce. This means that Johnny bet his soul for roughly $US167,000.
Some serious dough.
How about some other bargains?
In “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet, a man Jabez Stone sells his soul to the devil for 10 years of “prosperity.”
Had that taken place today — say, someone spending 10 years in the 95th income percentile from 2003 to 2012 — would have made a total of $US1,745,926, according to U.S. Census data.
There’s also the story of blues man Robert Johnson, the musician who — according to the legend — sold his soul at the crossroads in exchange for guitar skills.
His career lasted six years, from 1932 until his death in 1938.
Given that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, the median income of a working musician was $US37,380 in 2003, increasing 3% annually, the net financial gain from this hypothetical transaction would be $US241,789 for a career extending from 2003 to 2009.
In The Twilight Zone episode “Escape Clause,” a man exchanges his soul for immortality.
Sounds pretty cool since the debt would have no collection date. Needless to say, it being the Twilight Zone, things don’t go as planned for our protagonist.
Anyway, “immortality” is a little difficult to put a price tag on. The best we can is use the U.S. Government’s creepiest published statistic, the VSL.
Developed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the VSL — or Value of a Statistical Life — is an estimate used by the government when conducting cost-benefit analyses of new policies that could save lives.
For our purposes — since selling one’s soul is perhaps the most iconic cost-benefit analysis question in literature — we’ll just use the full VSL.
The current VSL is $US7.4 million in 2006 dollars, which is about $US8.6 million in 2013 dollars.
So what we’ve found is that the market rate for a soul — in 2013 dollars — is anywhere from $US540,000 to $US8.6 million. It’s almost as if the market participants aren’t rational actors.
But still, it’s also worth taking a look at some extreme examples.
On the low end, take one Homer Simpson, who sold his soul to Devil Flanders for a doughnut (MSRP ~$1.00 at Dunkin Doughnuts).
On the other hand, take Jesus Christ, who was allegedly offered “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.”
Now needless to say, poaching the soul of the guy who sources claim was the son of God would be a rather good get.
The price evaluation of that today comes down to what is meant by kingdoms. If kingdoms are interpreted as governments, the world GDP is $US71.7 trillion per year.
If kingdoms are interpreted literally, as monarchies, that number decreases a bit to a wimpy $US16.6 trillion.
If we learn anything from the finer points of contract negotiation with the devil, it’s probably the latter.
So ignoring the extreme cases of $US1.00 and $US16.6 trillion, we have four examples where the soul was evaluated at $US540,600, $US1,745,926, $US241,789 and $US8,600,000 in 2013 dollars.
While the sample size is admittedly small — if only people kept better records when they sell their souls — the average here is $US2.8 million for a soul.
So if you’re offered a golden instrument in exchange for your immortal soul, let’s hope you play at least the cello.
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