Tag: Ben Franklin

Ben Franklin and the Virtues and Ills of Pursuing Luxury

In a letter written in 1784 to his friend Benjamin Vaughan, Ben Franklin has a very interesting cogitation on the aggregate effect of the pursuit of luxuries beyond our needs.

Franklin displays a mastery of rational, balanced thought, and a deep understanding of human nature. Is the pursuit of luxury a net benefit or detriment to a country? Why do we pursue it?

The salient passages are below. (You can find his full writings here.) The last paragraph, in particular, is a gem, but taking 10 minutes to read it through is worth the time.

I have not, indeed yet thought of a Remedy for Luxury  I am not sure, that in a great State it is capable of a Remedy. Nor that the Evil is in itself always so great as it is represented.  Suppose we include in the Definition of Luxury all unnecessary Expence, and then let us consider whether Laws to prevent such Expence are possible to be executed in a great Country, and whether, if they could be executed, our People generally would be happier, or even richer. Is not the Hope of one day being able to purchase and enjoy Luxuries a great Spur to Labour and Industry? May not Luxury, therefore, produce more than it consumes, if without such a Spur People would be, as they are naturally enough inclined to be, lazy and indolent?

[…]

In our Commercial Towns upon the Seacoast, Fortunes will occasionally be made. Some of those who grow rich will be prudent, live within Bounds, and preserve what they have gained for their Posterity ; others, fond of showing their  Wealth, will be extravagant and ruin themselves. Laws  cannot prevent this; and perhaps it is not always an evil to the Publick. A Shilling spent idly by a Fool, may be picked up by a Wiser Person, who knows better what to do with it.  It is therefore not lost. A vain, silly Fellow builds a fine House, furnishes it richly, lives in it expensively, and in few years ruins himself; but the Masons, Carpenters, Smiths, and other honest Tradesmen have been by his Employ assisted in maintaining and raising their Families ; the Farmer has been paid for his labour, and encouraged, and the Estate is now in better Hands. In some Cases, indeed, certain Modes of Luxury may be a publick Evil, in the same Manner as it is a Private one. If there be a Nation, for Instance, that exports its Beef and Linnen, to pay for its Importation of Claret and Porter, while a great Part of its People live upon Potatoes, and wear no Shirts, wherein does it differ from the Sot, who lets his Family starve, and sells his Clothes to buy Drink? Our American Commerce is, I confess, a little in this way. We sell our Victuals to your Islands for Rum and Sugar; the substantial Necessaries of Life for Superfluities. But we have Plenty, and live well nevertheless, tho' by being soberer, we might be richer.

[…]

It has been computed by some Political Arithmetician, that, if every Man and Woman would work for four Hours each Day on something useful, that Labour would produce sufficient to procure all the Necessaries and Comforts of Life, Want and Misery would be banished out of the World, and the rest of the 24 hours might be Leisure and Pleasure.

What occasions then so much Want and Misery? It is the Employment of Men and Women in Works, that produce neither the Necessaries nor Conveniences of Life, who, [along] with those who do nothing, consume the Necessaries raised by the Laborious.

To explain this.

The first Elements of Wealth are obtained by Labour, from the Earth and Waters. I have Land, and raise Corn. With this, if I feed a Family that does nothing, my Corn will be consum'd, and at the end of the Year I shall be no richer than I was at the beginning. But if, while I feed them, I employ them, some in Spinning, others in hewing Timber and sawing Boards, others in making Bricks, &c. for Building, the Value of my Corn will be arrested and remain with me, and at the end of the Year we may all be better clothed and better lodged. And if, instead of employing a Man I feed in making Bricks, I employ him in fiddling for me, the Corn he eats is gone, and no Part of his Manufacture remains to augment the Wealth and Convenience of the family; I shall therefore be the poorer for this fiddling Man, unless the rest of my Family work more, or eat less, to make up the Deficiency he occasions.

Look round the World and see the Millions employ'd in doing nothing, or in something that amounts to nothing, when the Necessaries and Conveniences of Life are in question. What is the Bulk of Commerce, for which we fight and destroy each other, but the Toil of Millions for Superfluities, to the great Hazard and Loss of many Lives by the constant Dangers of the Sea? How much labour is spent in Building and fitting great Ships, to go to China and Arabia for Tea and Coffee, to the West Indies for Sugar, to America for Tobacco! These things cannot be called the Necessaries of Life, for our Ancestors lived very comfortably without them.

A Question may be asked; Could all these People, now employed in raising, making, or carrying Superfluities, be subsisted by raising Necessaries? I think they might. The World is large, and a great Part of it still uncultivated. Many hundred Millions of Acres in Asia, Africa, and America are still Forest, and a great Deal even in Europe. On 100 Acres of this Forest a Man might become a substantial Farmer, and 100,000 Men, employed in clearing each his 100 Acres, would hardly brighten a Spot big enough to be Visible from the Moon, unless with HerschelTs Telescope ; so vast are the Regions still in Wood unimproved.

‘Tis however, some Comfort to reflect, that, upon the whole, the Quantity of Industry and Prudence among Mankind exceeds the Quantity of Idleness and Folly. Hence the Increase of good Buildings, Farms cultivated, and populous Cities filled with Wealth, all over Europe, which a few Ages since were only to be found on the Coasts of the Mediterranean; and this, notwithstanding the mad Wars continually raging, by which are often destroyed in one year the Works of many Years' Peace. So that we may hope the Luxury of a few Merchants on the Seacoast will not be the Ruin of America.

One reflection more, and I will end this long, rambling Letter. Almost all the Parts of our Bodies require some Expence. The Feet demand Shoes; the Legs, Stockings; the rest of the Body, Clothing; and the Belly, a good deal of Victuals. Our Eyes, tho' exceedingly useful, ask, when reasonable, only the cheap Assistance of Spectacles, which could not much impair our Finances. But the Eyes of other People are the Eyes that ruin us. If all but myself were blind, I should want neither fine Clothes, fine Houses, nor fine Furniture.

Adieu, my dear Friend, I am

Yours ever
B. FRANKLIN.

***

Still Interested? Check out Franklin's Rule for Decision Making, and check out the excellent book The Way to Wealth and Other Writings on Finance for an edited and condensed look at Franklin's various essays on economics, business, and finance.

 

A Brief History of the To-Do List

to-do-list
The to-do list is something I talked about in my webinar on productivity, specifically, I argued that to-do lists were evil from a productivity perspective. This is something New York Times science writer John Tierney and psychologist Roy F. Baumeister expand upon in “A brief history of the to-do list,” the third chapter of their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

Our failure rate keeps climbing as the lists keep getting longer. At any one time, a person typically has at least 150 different tasks to be done, and fresh items never stop appearing on our screens. How do we decide what goes on the list and what to do next?

“The first step in self-control is to set a clear goal.”

The technical term researchers use for self-control is self-regulation, and the “regulation” part highlights the importance of a goal. Regulating means changing, but only a particular kind of intentional, meaningful changing. To regulate is to guide toward a specific goal or standard: the speed limit for cars on a highway, the maximum height for an office building. Self-control without goals and other standards would be nothing more than aimless change, like trying to diet without any idea of which foods are fattening.

The problem isn't a lack of goals, however, it's too many of them.

We make daily to-do lists that couldn’t be accomplished even if there were no interruptions during the day, which there always are. By the time the weekend arrives, there are more unfinished tasks than ever, but we keep deferring them and expecting to get through them with miraculous speed. That’s why, as productivity experts have found, an executive’s daily to-do list for Monday often contains more work than could be done the entire week.

Even the great Ben Franklin fell victim to having too many goals.

Franklin tried a divide-and-conquer approach. He drew up a list of virtues and wrote a brief goal for each one, like this one for Order: ‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.’ There were a dozen more virtues on his list— Temperance, Silence, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility— but he recognized his limits. “I judg’d it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once,” Franklin explained, “but to fix it on one of them at a time.” The result was what he called a “course,” and what today would be marketed as 13 Weeks to Total Virtue.

But the virtues were often in conflict with one another.

When, as a young journeyman printer, he tried to practice Order by drawing up a rigid daily work schedule, he kept getting interrupted by unexpected demands from his clients— and Industry required him to ignore the schedule and meet with them. If he practiced Frugality (“ Waste nothing”) by always mending his own clothes and preparing all his own meals, there’d be less time available for Industry at his job— or for side projects like flying a kite in a thunderstorm or editing the Declaration of Independence. If he promised to spend an evening with his friends but then fell behind his schedule for work, he’d have to make a choice that would violate his virtue of Resolution: “Perform without fail what you resolve.”

“The result of conflicting goals is unhappiness instead of action,” Tierney and Baumeister write, arguing the byproduct of this is that you worry more, get less done, and your physical health suffers.

The takeaway? Skip the to-do list and schedule your time. If you must have a to-do list, keep it short.

Benjamin Franklin’s Rule for Making Decisions

In a letter to Joesph Preistley, Benjamin Franklin wrote:

… To get over this, my Way is, to divide half a Sheet of Paper by a Line into two Columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then during three or four Days Consideration I put down under the different Heads short Hints of the different Motives that at different Times occur to me for or against the Measure. When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavour to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies; and if after a Day or two of farther Consideration nothing new that is of Importance occurs on either side, I come to a Determination accordingly.

And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra.

The Ben Franklin Effect

Ben Franklin discovered that a person who has done someone a favor is more likely to do that person another favor than they would be had they received a favor. Or, as Franklin put it: “He that has once done you a Kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

This can be exploited to gain your favor or used against others to indebt them to you.

But first, let's explore a little about why this works.

Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, beliefs, attitudes, or opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent.

Dissonance produces an uncomfortable mental state the mind needs to resolve. In resolving dissonance our minds trend towards self-justification which makes it hard to admit mistakes.

Dissonance is a very powerful effect. In the case of the Ben Franklin effect, the dissonance is caused by the subjects' negative attitude to the other person contrasted with the knowledge they did that person a favor. The easiest way to rationalize why we did someone a favor is to say “that person is not so bad after all.”

In his autobiography, Franklin explains how he curried favor by manipulating a rival legislator when he served in the Pennsylvania legislature in the 18th century:

“Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return'd it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.”

Still curious? Read more about The Reciprocation Bias.