Saturday, January 22, 2011

Wine, Fast Food, Rusty Cars, and Progress

Conventional wisdom (which I can glean from reading hundreds of standardized test essays) is that the world is in a state of perpetual decline. Things are always getting worse. "Nowadays" families don't function as well as they did in the past, morals are worse than ever before, violence and crime are always increasing, and the economy is freefalling.

In the short term all of the above trends are cyclical, but in the long term view of history there is no doubt that such cynicism is misappropriated. There is no doubt that the world has been progressing, that given a choice as to when to be born, the best bet would be to request to be born right here and now. According to this highly entertaining British guy, the last 200 years have seen tremendous gains in life expectancy and wealth:

So why aren't we celebrating and patting ourselves on the back? Or at least acknowledging that things aren't always going backwards? Perhaps we delude ourselves in the same way we delude ourselves about wine--out of necessity.

A few years back Freakonomics economist Steve Leavitt wrote a column about wine tasting. He argued that there is sufficient data to show that the cost of wine has no correlation to how good it tastes. (This argument was updated and extended in a podcast last month for those who are skeptical that a $15 bottle of wine, stripped of it's label, tastes just as good as a $150 bottle).

In that podcast, something Leavitt said about food stuck with me. "It's a wonderful, wonderful gift to like cheap food...if you are just by chance born loving cheap food, then you can eat everything that you love." He cites KFC, burgers, and chipotle as among his favorite fare. I can completely identify with this quote. I'll be content with pretty much anything set in front of me, no matter the cost. But what if everyone was like me?

If everyone had the same spending habits that I did, the world would be a radically different place. A few years back I drove a rusty 1991 Ford Taurus (which has since been replaced by a non-rusty 1991 Ford Taurus). While walking to my car with a friend one day, a teen-ager on a bike rode by and mocked my car. As we were driving away, my friend was more anguished by my behavior than I was: "Why did he have to make fun of your car?" he lamented. After all, in a game of chicken my car could easily take down his bike (not to mention that I could cover a lot more ground at less exertion than he could, rust or not). But while it's easy enough to dismiss this young person as a punk kid, I think his mockery was motivated by a realization, probably unconsciously, that I represented a threat to his lifestyle. If everybody was content to drive around rusty old cars, the car market would absolutely collapse, sending ripples through the rest of the economy. Likewise, if it was ever truly acknowledged that cheap wine was just as good as expensive wine, it wouldn't be long before all wines would be cheap, and paradoxically, I would suspect that it would be at this point that cheap wines would really start tasting like they were cheap.

And if we every truly acknowledged that society was an a continuous upswing, we would lose all motivation to keep it that way. We need self-delusion. So everybody needs to walk around in a state of misconception or progress will cease and regression will begin. Only a few elite among us are allowed to see things as they are--and these elites can perhaps be recognized by their willingness to view fast food as a delicacy, cheap wine as luxurious, and rusty cars as an acceptable means of transportation.


Blogger Teecycle Tim said...

Ha. How many times has your car broken down, and how much would repairs cost if you had to pay market value for them? And subsisting off of cheap fast food probably isn't a good long term economic solution, either. Angioplasties don't come cheap. These are what economists call negative externalities, or hidden costs that don't show up in the initial price tag.

Anyway, I couldn't agree more with your larger point, that we live in an incredible time, and you don't have to spend a lot on expensive wine to appreciate that. I don't think anyone puts it better than Louis C.K.

12:16 PM  

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