The Value of the Road Not Taken

In 1916 Robert Frost published his poem The Road Not Taken. It is a narrative poem, where the narrator describes a moment when he comes to a fork in the road while taking a walk through a forest. After mulling it over, the narrator decides to take the road that seems to be less travelled.

The poem is by many regarded as one of the most misunderstood poems in history. It is often quoted when expressing views of individualism and not conforming to general convention.

 

At the end of the poem, the narrator sighs as he tells the reader that he took the road less taken and that it made all the difference. But the sigh is left open to interpretation by Frost, as the reader does not know if the sigh is from relief or regret.

The Misinterpreted Message

You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem — very tricky,” Frost is known to have said about the poem. The story has it that he wrote it to tease a friend of his, Edward Thomas, who often had problems with coming to a decision over choices that were offered to him. Frost describes him as a person who, “whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other”.

An economist would tell you that the problem that Edward Thomas – just as the narrator in the poem – was battling with was the Opportunity Cost of the choices that he had.

Opportunity Cost

The Opportunity Cost of a decision basically equals the benefit of the best alternative option that you have to choose from. This means also means that the opportunity cost is dependent on the situation that you find yourself in at any given time. Furthermore, it means that your opportunity cost is not the same as my opportunity cost.

The concept of opportunity cost is well known in economics and finance, where it is relatively easier to measure the potential outcomes. The Opportunity Cost of Capital, for example, is the rate of return that could have been earned by putting the same money into a different investment with equal risk.

Mistakes of Omission

In The Road Less Taken, the narrator has two choices. Therefore, his opportunity cost is whichever road that he will not take. If he picks the wrong road, he will have made a Mistake of Omission. When asked about their biggest mistakes at the Berkshire Hathaway 2011 annual meeting, the legendary investors Warren Buffett and Charles Munger highlighted specifically about their Mistakes of Omission.


The Road Less Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


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The Peltzman Effect & Risk Compensation

Peltzman effect is a theory which states that people tend to increasingly engage in risky behaviours once a security measure has been mandated. This effect is named after Sam Peltzman, an economist who postulated the theory with the use of seatbelts in automobiles.

The original context of the theory was the regulation of risk as the government tries to make things safer by issuing new regulations. Peltzman used auto safety as a case study, where the government made people wear seatbelts and also regulated various other features in the manufacturing of automobiles, such as pop-out windshields and other protective devices which are meant to make us safer.

The Economics of Risk

According to economic theory, when you make things cheaper then you will get more of them.  This is what led to Peltzman postulating that when you make a car safer in this way, drives will adjust their behaviour in response to the perceived level of risk.

In other words, if driving becomes safer, the drivers will become riskier when driving. Hence, the increase in safety measures will be compensated by riskier behaviour. This is what economists call Risk Compensation. In the case of auto safety, Peltzman predicted that the increase in risk behaviour would lead to more accidents, that would partly or completely offset the safety benefits of the regulation.

Later, Peltzman performed a study to see what the effects of the first generation of automobile safety regulations were auto-related accidents. The study did not focus on the first order effect (driver safety) but on the global effect (did more people survive on the road or did the automobile death rate goes down).

Risk Homeostasis

The conclusion of the study was that there was no effect on the death rate but there was a reduction in the probability that you would die in an accident which is the main purpose of the device. However, this benefit was completely offset by more accidents and many accidents involve people who weren’t in cars that are protected.

The Peltzman effect shows that people tend to drive recklessly and with less attention since they felt safer in the car which leads to more accidents than when these safety devices came out. The ratio of fatalities in accident went down but there was an increase in the accident which offset the decreased fatality rate.

He then concluded that if government regulates risk or anything, there is going to be an incentive created for behaviours that offset some part of what the government is trying to regulate and it could be a complete, partial, or more than complete offset. And the main thing that this regulation does is that it makes the consequences of an accident less severe.

Examples of Risk Compensation

Although the Peltzman study used the auto safety regulations as an example of risk compensation, this phenomenon has been observed in a range of activities. A few examples would be:

  • The use of helmets in skiing, snowboarding and rollerblades has been observed to increase risky behaviour.
  • A popular aphorism amongst skydivers, named Booth’s rule nr. 2 states that the safer skydiving gear becomes, the more chances skydivers will take constant