Costs

As I’ve gotten older, working in different jobs, discussing various industries with friends, and watching the news with more than passing interest, it’s become increasingly clear that we are subject to the choices of a few powerful individuals, rather than the drivers of decisions. In some cases, this is necessary. The iPhone couldn’t have been demanded by a consumer, few had any idea of the possibilities at the time and the ways such a technology could impact our lives. But it’s a convenient example to defend the consumer’s role, pushing all decision making and understanding onto someone else. Often times, the decision to pursue one path or another comes down to cost, frequently represented by a dollar sign. Unfortunately, these cost decisions are increasingly made before products reach the shelves, before we as consumers can weigh in with our wallets. As progress continues forward, will the majority of us question the decisions that are made to lower costs, or are we all sold on the idea that low prices are better?

Specific decisions in the past were clearly mistakes, ones that we have paid dearly for. Cigarettes were once endorsed by doctors, asbestos was a crucial building material, and lead was painted onto the walls of homes. These decisions were made to increase profits and lower costs, as most are. While I’m sure there were skeptics with regard to each, the immediate repercussions were not negative enough and discovering long term effects was too costly. Looking back, there’s little question that more should have been done. And, as history so frequently repeats itself, it’s easy to wonder what similar mistakes we’re currently missing. At a deeper level, however, we ought to look at the principle of profit maximization that led to these societal failures. Is more money actually the goal?

Thinking about these questions, my first thought turns to the costs we pay. Clearly, the price of goods and services is an obvious starting point, but perhaps we should take a longer term view. Time, the one resource we all share equally, is a principal driver in decision making. We attend a two hour movie to avoid reading the book, take a cab to avoid the long walk, or put lead in our paint to avoid waiting for it to dry. Alternative decisions can have a high cost of time, a cost we can often trade for dollars to get what’s needed quicker. Rather than looking at these time costs as strictly negative, though, we ought to appreciate the reason and benefit that comes from paying this temporal price.

When I walk to the store it takes more time than riding a bike, which takes more time than getting a cab. Walking requires the most energy from me and takes the longest, clearly the highest cost. With cabs so cheap these days, it’s almost no question. But walking has many benefits, particularly when compared with other options. I don’t need to purchase a bicycle, built with energy intensive processes and likely shipped from some other part of the world. I don’t need a rack to place my bike, or to worry about how crowded and congested the roads are. I don’t need to take someone else’s time to come pick me up, or a car which requires similar, but bigger, manufacturing and shipping processes as a bike. And obviously, I don’t need to burn gasoline.

Looking at the technologies and startups that are changing our lives, it’s becoming clearer that we’re buying time by paying in different ways. Google Maps and Waze make it simple to bypass traffic incidents, giving us the latest information about congestion and accidents. As many may know, this information is improved by a synergy with Alphabet’s Android operating system. As the most popular operating system in the world, frequently publishing the location of its user, Android knows our locations and how quickly we may be moving. We can easily turn off location sharing, but if we all took such a step, we’d probably spend a lot more time in traffic. So there’s the cost. We pay with location information, we receive time. For most, this isn’t a conscious choice we made at some point or another, it was made for us. We can always change our ways, but how many have even discussed the possibility, analyzed whether the location-time transaction is best.

The crux of the issue, what seems to drive the trade offs, is a desire for more. Uber gives me more time and money. Google gives me more information and answers. Fantasy football gives me more action and excitement. Short term, these are wins that marketing teams highlight and most consumers enjoy. No surprise there. But who is looking after the cost that’s not monetary? Increased pollution, decreased control, dwindling fanhood. Important aspects of society are are being decimated without much of a fight. When getting more, specifically time and money, is motivating all of our decisions, who is sticking up for the expensive options?

We often assess costs when we’re being forced to pay them. At the farmer’s market, when charged $2 for an apple, we question the cost (I know I do). When someone proposes biking or walking and we know the energy and time it requires, we wonder who would opt against an Uber. When we pick up an 800 page book that’s already been made into a 2 hour movie, giving us 80% of the story with 20% of the work, we’re thankful we don’t need to read.

But shouldn’t we question the lower costs a little more? Why is that vegetable so cheap, that cab ride so quick, that movie so short? The better things, from a better meal leading to a healthy body, or a better society leading to healthier people, all come with costs. We applaud when price go down, but is it really a good sign?

I don’t believe more expensive choices, whether buying a Prius or an organic apple, is the answer to our problems. But in a way, the openness to paying more, in both time and money, feels like a sign of maturity that hasn’t been reached by most. Many of us have the maturity to avoid the quick fixes of fast food, YouTube clips, and trashy, morning newspapers. We pay a bit more for a better product. This compromise, in a mature society, should go beyond individual meals and reading material, asking us to pay more time and money in return for a better world.

I wouldn’t consider myself a socialist, I don’t want the government telling me what to eat and limiting my potential success in order to keep society fair. That said, I’m not sure if we’re avoiding an analysis of the costs or if we just don’t have all the information. Few people sit down and discuss the future, what life will look like in twenty years if we keep lowering the quality of our food and sharing all of our data. But even if we wanted to have this conversation, could we?

When I consider my identity I think of my priorities. I’ve sacrificed weekend nights to wake up and write; comfy, well-paid jobs to have more impact; one night stands to have an amazing relationship. So, when we think about our collective identity, I don’t believe we should look at suddenly cheap goods and technological progress. It’s what we’re willing to pay a premium for, through time and money, that truly defines us.