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 Water and Diamond Paradox

How can we know the true value of a thing? This has been a philosophical question that dates back to the times of Aristoteles. Philosopher throughout the ages have asked themselves why water which is vital for all life is cheap while diamonds are expensive even though we can easily do without them?

Diminishing Marginal Utility

The solution to the Water-Diamond Paradox is the economic law of diminishing utility. This can be defined as the economic law which states that when there is an input in the production of a community while the other factors are fixed, it is going to get to a point whereby any addition of the good to the consumer of the good is going to lead to low satisfaction with the diminishing increases in the output.

Supply and Demand

A case study is that assuming you are hungry and you find one apple then it is going to precious to you and you are going to eat it to satisfy your hunger and to stay alive. Then if you go for a walk and you see two more apples then you can eat one just for the fun of it and keep the second one till when you are hungry.

If you then happen to see an orchard with lots of apple fruit and you decide to stay close to the orchard, it will come to a time when you will grow tired of eating an apple as it will be nauseating to you. You can then trade some apple for some other commodities that other people will find it to be valuable to them while it is invaluable to you.

This case study shows that each additional value of a given good satisfies a less important need. You can see this as the first apple that you take is mainly for the appraisal of your hunger so as to survive while the second apple fills you up and the third apple was kept for later so as not to be hungry in the future.

This also implies that the first apple that you saw was priceless as you need it to avoid starvation while the second one was just a pleasurable snack while the value of other apples that you find keeps decreasing.

There is no such Thing as Fixed Value

The example above shows that no good has a fixed value. A good will always be considered valuable when people value them. For example, imagine that your parents would buy a sculpture which they really love. Later, once they once they are passed on, you inherit the sculpture. However, you have never liked the sculpture and you feel like it is taking up space.

You mean to throw it away but you’re reluctant to do so because of the sentimental value your parents attached to the sculpture. When discussing your predicament at a party, you discover to your amazement that there is an art collector in town that has been looking for this exact sculpture for years. Suddenly your perceived value of the sculpture has gone up and you are not willing to part with it unless the art collector submits a reasonable bid for the artwork.

In the context of the Water-Diamond Paradox:

  • During a drought, people would value water more than rare diamonds as they need it to survive.
  • As soon as there is enough water, they will tend to value diamonds more as they have the essential needs to satisfy their hunger and thirst then people try to satisfy their sophisticated needs.
  • This theory applies to all the needs in human lives.