Saturday, January 10, 2009

There is still no free lunch

The phrase referring to no free lunch has become such a staple saying in our society that the whole phrase "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch," has become an acronym: TANSTAAFL (said tan-staffel). The phrase itself comes from Robert Heinlein's classic science fiction book, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The development of the concept of the lack of a "free lunch" has been attributed to the work of economist Milton Friedman. In the context of being prepared for hard times it is important to remember this principle, everything has an economic value. Just because we do not get paid (in cash or equivalents) for what we do, everything connected with our lives has a value or cost to the society.

If I chose to live on the street as a homeless person, with no belongings other than the clothes I was wearing, my life and existence would still impact the rest of society. Just one example, there are a multitude of public and private organizations and agencies that primarily monitor and assist the homeless. By being homeless, I create a need and a motivation for these organizations to exist

How I chose to spend my time and my resources will always have an economic impact on me, on my family and ultimately on everyone else in the world. There is no such thing as "free time." If I chose to watch television instead of working or if I chose to work instead of spending time with my family, in every decision there is always a cost associated with that decision. When I choose to spend my money on present gratification, rather than on food storage or some other method of being prepared, that choice will ultimately impact society as whole, especially, if I cannot support myself and my family and become a burden on the church or government's welfare system.

You may not be able to chose whether you are rich or poor, but you can chose how you allocate your resources. For example, the savings rate in China has been quoted as being as high as 50% in both the public and private sectors. Although some sources quote a much lower rate but in the U.S. the rate is less than 10%. There are likely many reasons for this difference, some cultural and others social, but it is undisputed that the higher standard of living in the U.S. does not result in a higher savings rate. It is also undeniable that by any standard in the U.S., the average Chinese standard of living would be considered very low.

Being prepared to face the challenges in the future implies a realistic knowledge of the cost of the various components of our economic life. Not only should we be aware of the cost of our food, shelter and transportation, we should also be aware of the cost of our decisions to spend our time in different ways. If we do make a decision to play a video game or watch a movie, we should do so knowing that the choice has an economic impact because there is no free lunch.

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