Road A or Road B?


The title I used for yesterday's post, which I had originally posted last Thursday, was "Looking forward or backward?", and my initial thought was to discuss the evolution of country roads and how their improvement has not necessarily brought prosperity. As it were, the little dirt path through the woods reminded me of some of the country roads I grew up with and I wondered whether that simple design would soon be making a comeback. In the title I was alluding to the notion that this was a country road one might expect to see a few decades ago (looking backward), but it might also be one we would anticipate running across in the future (looking forward). The circle of life as applied to our transportation system.

As the answers rolled in a different line of thinking started to form in my mind. What is prosperity? How do we measure it? And in particular, how much of it is real?

The answer to the original question, Road A or Road B, is obviously Road B as prosperity is measured within our current framework. The community with Road B has the available funds - or access to sufficient credit - to be able to at least construct Road B. We say that the Romans were more "prosperous" than other civilizations because we can see the stuff they built. These things are the fruits of their prosperity.

But is this really the right way to measure prosperity? After all, the Roman Empire collapsed, rather spectacularly in fact. There is certainly a legacy there for humanity, but is it one of prosperity or did they simply peak higher and broader than any other modern civilization prior to ours? Is such a path the inevitable, making prosperity merely a fleeting interval of time?

There is a modern analogy that I would like to apply here. Look at the following two cars and ask yourself the same question as you did with the roads in yesterday's posting. Which of these cars would suggest prosperity to you and why?

Car A

Car B

The first car is a newer model Chevy Avalanche while the second is a car I found doing a search for "old rusty Volvo". The Chevy is a rather expansive vehicle while the old Volvo would not be and so you could make the case that the person driving the Chevy is more prosperous. In fact, we're kind of predisposed to do so, aren't we? This is the automatic reaction that car industry marketing is built around. What you drive says something about you, and in this case the Chevy is going to say prosperity more than the old, rusty Volvo.

I used these two cars specifically because they both have a story for me. One of the contractors here in town drives a Chevy Avalanche. He not only just lost his big house on the big lot, his contracting business and his real estate holdings but got divorced and is reported to be fleeing the state. His vehicle might say prosperity, but so would expensive suits, neither of which he could actually afford. He is less than a decade from retirement age and is starting over (with a Chevy Avalanche, unless the bank is getting that back too).

The father of one of my friends growing up drove an old, rusty Volvo. We would tease him about it because it smoked a little and you were never quite sure if it would make it through the winter. This was a family that lived really modestly on a small lot in town. They ate their meals together, laughed and joked together and being at their home was about the happiest place I could have been at age 13. My friend's dad was a successful doctor and about the only thing that seemed to be rough about their life was that he had to make the occasional emergency trip to the hospital. The occasional emergency trip in his old, rusty Volvo that is, to help save someone's life. My friend and his two siblings went through college and he is quite successful with a family of his own.

I don't want to be too philosophical here - I am part engineer after all - but there is something about our framework that is messed up. We look at the guy driving the Chevy Avalanche and we think prosperity, even though he owns none of his world, hangs on to it very tenuously and must go to sleep every night knowing that any day it will all blow up in his face. We see the guy driving the Volvo and we think he is less prosperous, perhaps even destitute, even though he is financially secure many times over, has the will and the means to care for those he loves and is working to make the world a better place.

We see a newly paved road and we think progress. Prosperity! We really have very little understanding of how tenuous it all is, how the Ponzi scheme of growth we have created for ourselves is not financially real and how out of touch with it we are. Conversely, when someone suggests we rescale our communities to fit our budgets, people cringe, as if living at a scale we can sustain would automatically be less prosperous.

I became acquainted with the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the Black Swan, after reading about him and famed hedge fund manager Victor Niederhoffer in Malcolm Gladwell's article "Blowing Up" (a highly recommended read). Taleb developed a trading strategy based on resilience and the idea that the most important thing was to avoid "blowing up", losing everything in a cataclysmic chain of events. The article was utterly fascinating in how it juxtaposed Niederhoffer - who really represents the aspirations of everyone in pursuit of growth and prosperity in modern America - with the philosophy of Taleb. In the end, only one is real, while the other rises to faux-prosperity and collapses, repeating again and again and again. (We wrote a little bit about this in our posts Passe Frugalism and More on Frugality).

I bring up Taleb because he has been posting a series of sayings on his Twitter feed that came across my wire as I was pondering the Road A/Road B question. Here are a couple selections:

The fastest way to become rich is to socialize with the poor. The fastest way to become poor is to socialize with the rich.

A definition of truly rich is someone who displays much less than he needs to.

What does the framework we use for measuring prosperity say about us as a people? To me that is perhaps a more important question. I think if we honestly look at the ways in which we measure prosperity in our towns and neighborhoods, we will find that we have it all wrong. And that is true even if we stick to only financial criteria. The prosperity we cling to is no longer reality.

Reality left us quite a ways back.

As a side note, the little dirt path that runs through the woods in Monday's "Road A" photo - the less prosperous road - actually provides access to a handful of valuable shoreline properties. Any one of them is worth many times what my house is.

That's okay, because my driveway is paved.

 

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