Alis volat propriis


I had dinner with a former colleague, Ben, last month at a charity golf tournament. I was the event photographer, so I arrived near the end of the tournament for a quick tour of the course, portraits, and dinner photos.

Ben’s second wife, Mary, has a daughter that lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and several children. Between them, Mary’s daughter and her spouse have seven degrees. When Ben first met them, the couple were both working in the university system but rapidly moving to a frontier lifestyle. Now, they’re fully off the grid and teaching others the ways of self-sufficient living that extend to making their own mayonnaise.

“What does homemade mayonnaise taste like?”

“Terrible,” Ben reported and then listed a litany of labor intensive things the pair only make themselves.

“There is no bartering. No trading of services? No one they know that makes better mayo?” I asked.

“No, they make it themselves. I bought some at a store, but they threw it away,” Ben noted.

I think what confounds Ben is that the pair have made such an investment in their education only to spend their hours doing things that are more easily and expertly completed by others.  It’s the sunk cost that irritates him.

I tend to think of division of labor as one of the most wonderful things about modern society because each of us is endowed with different talents and interests. Currency allows us to trade services so that I can give you my labor in exchange for money or for equivalent labor in a field that I do not excel at like masonry, medicine, or mayonnaise making. We both gets things of value completed by experts in their field, and the time spent not learning to poorly build a brick wall can be better spent in leisure or another pursuit of interest. Everyone wins.

But here is another school of thought that says, I can do it better myself no matter what. I don’t understand it, but I don’t have to. I’ll continue to learn new things but rely on experts for those pursuits I have no interest in but still require. Like mayonnaise. I do like a good mayonnaise.

In writing this post, I looked up the state motto of Oregon. It is Alis volat propriis, “She flies with her own wings.” Portlandia, indeed.