Row, row, row your boat — On the law of comparative advantage

According to the economic law of comparative advantage two parties are economically better off if they both focus on their advantage and trade for everything else. For instance, if Adam can make 4 widgets/hour or 3 gadgets/hour while Bob can make 1 widget/hour but 2 gadgets/hour, Adam should focus solely on making widgets, while Bob should focus on making gadgets. Adam can then obtain his gadgets by trading his widgets with Bob and vice-a-versa. This is the case even when Adam is faster at making gadgets than Bob.

This is why we buy cheap clothing and cars from far away countries and make advanced technology, movies, and weapons here. On an individual basis it is also the reason why a person for instance works as a plumber while hiring a tax preparer, an electrician, etc. for other necessities.

Now, last Sunday, DW and I went fishing. DW got a fishing rod the day before and so we drove up to the nearest park/lake and rented a row boat. Then we spent a few hours where I frantically tried to keep a crappy dinghy with mismatched oars from being blown ashore while DW frantically tried to keep from losing the bait in the weeds (and trees).

My God! Why did we not adhere to the law of comparative advantage and indirectly hire the crew of a professional fishing trawler which would surely be able to catch fish much cheaper than we were(*)? Because we had fun! Yes, that’s right, we had fun. DW had fun trying to catch a fish and learning how to operate a spinning reel from a boat (first time in twenty years) and I had fun rowing the dinghy around.

(*) Figure in our opportunity cost, cost of boat rental, and cost of fishing pole and permits, and the fact that we didn’t catch anything.

Living is not just about maximizing economic profit and achieving quantifiable goals. It is about engaging in the world around us. It so happens that the row boat was the cheapest option available. The lady in charge seemed slightly surprised that we went for the row boat sporting a mild “are you nuts?”-expression on her face. Same reaction from the guy at the pier(*).
However, I did not select the row boat because it was cheap. I selected it because I could. It was not hard to learn. Even with one oar longer than the other and one turned the wrong way by 30 degrees, I eventually go the hang of pulling slightly harder on the “broken” one and moving the boat around. So now I know what it really means to physically move a boat around on a lake.

(*) He even came out in his motorboat offering to tow us back since we had to go about 1.5 miles against the wind-driven current. We declined. Death before dishonor! ?

I guess the nuts in the row boat were somewhat of a curiosity in a lake filled with motorboats with their engines and their ice coolers, but what do they know? It is quite possible that they cared little for the physical aspect of boating and wanted to focus on fishing. It is also possible that they were not physically capable of rowing. (I must have been pulling oars almost constantly for 2 hours.)

Never stop exploring. If you’re not constantly pushing yourself, you’re leading a numb existence.

Dean Karnazes

I do prefer to get the full experience though. In terms of exploring, I absolutely detest being a tourist. Tourism is a very passive way of experiencing life. It is typically prepackaged. Go there. Look at that. Eat this. Take the tour. Participate in such and such activity. Bah humbug! That is the shrink wrapped version. That is not living life to the fullest. Note how the natives NEVER do what the tourists do no matter where you go.

I get the same feeling from airline travel, the house I live in, driving a car, having a job, watching TV, … In fact, modern life is much like tourism, prepackaged. Little of it is real and most of it is manufactured and pre-made by comparably advantaged experts. It may be economically effective, but I think a lot about what it means to be human has been lost.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein

This is why I picked a row boat. This is why I did my own taxes (as far as possible). This is why I’d rather walk than take the car. This is why I refuse to depend on a single specialized job to compensate for a lack of most other skills even though it is comparatively economically disadvantageous.

Economically speaking, it means that Heinlein’s insects that work and spend accordingly as part of a large economic system or ahive. Heinlein’s humans, on the other hand, are significantly more self-reliant and thus can get much the same results without paying nearly as much.

What is the point of working all your life having done/produced only one thing and essentially having consumed everything else? It may maximize GDP, income, net worth, … but I don’t think that that is what life is all about.

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Originally posted 2008-04-08 07:26:46.