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Non Sequitur

Years ago when a large earthquake struck southern California I was working for a company which had a large supply warehouse there at the epicenter. Soon after the quake, the company president sent out an e-mail message proudly declaring that no warehouse employees were in the stocking isles at the time and therefore there were no injuries. I remember being quietly horrified at myself when my first thought was,

“Why not? It happened during business hours. There should have been employees on the floor! There should have been injuries.”

That anecdote has nothing to do with the following blog post. I only share it to admit that I don’t necessarily follow the same thought processes that others do.

I therefore appreciate ideas and concepts which establish patterns for clear reasoning. One of those is the idea of opportunity costs.

The Beginning of My Fascination with the Concept

Back in college, both my roommate and I were Communications majors and so we took Communications 101 at the same time.  It was hellaciously inane to me and seemed to be a random stream of the obvious.  But my roommate thought it was the best thing since Joseph Smith.  He’d come home declaring, “Communication is a two-way street! Isn’t that brilliant?”

Really?  Someone had to tell you that?

It wasn’t until years later when I was taking an Economics course at the graduate level that I understood his enthusiasm over hearing a professor describe something which many people probably just got intuitively but which was mind-blowing to me to hear. I remember getting a rush over the concept of “Opportunity Costs.”

I still love the concept and believe it’s overlooked too often when people make life-altering decisions.

Most of the time when people are making a big choice they make a list of the pros and cons. Maybe they write it down in a list with 2 columns or maybe they just do it as a mental exercise. In any case, weighing the outcome is a significant step in making choices. There’s usually a failure, however, to even consider opportunity costs.

Explanation

Simply put, opportunity cost refers to “The cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action.” Economically speaking, if I were choosing to buy a house, the opportunity costs of that choice would be the next best thing I could be doing with that mortgage, tax and maintenance money instead. Perhaps I could be taking an extra vacation each year, saving for my children’s college or my own retirement. Perhaps the convenience of renting and merely picking up the phone when I have plumbing problems is an opportunity cost to consider. Often, the costs of a choice such as buying a home are seen as worth the investment since a home can sometimes be a part of a retirement strategy, sometimes not.

Each individual case is different.

Application

The concept works very well outside economics too.

Back when I was still married and still Mormon but starting to figure things out, I joined a program called, Team in Training. I trained for about 5 months with a team of cyclists to do a century ride (100 miles). In the meantime we also raised money in support of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I’d highly recommend it to anyone. Of course, this sort of thing is pretty popular now for all kinds of charities but back then it wasn’t such a ubiquitous activity. I really had to step outside my comfort zone and hit up friends and family for donations. In one such call with my big sister she gushed,

“Oh I’d LOVE to do something like that. I’ve tried, but then I never can do it because the events are almost always on Sundays.”

Funny, because I hadn’t even realized until then that my particular  ride was indeed going to be on a Sunday.  This is a perfect example of an opportunity cost of being Mormon, the cost of not participating in worthwhile activities and doing some real charity work such as this. When the day of the ride came and I was riding around Lake Tahoe in a purple jersey next to a teammate with one leg also doing the 100 mile trek I was euphoric! It was an awesome, heady experience.  I cried at the finish line believe it or not. I was probably the only Mormon there that day. It was a life experience I would have missed had I been following Mormon teachings exactly.

Considering  opportunity costs later played a huge role in my decisions to leave the LDS Church, to come out as gay, and to divorce among others. Other individuals in similar situations might make different choices because perhaps their opportunity costs aren’t as great.

Critical Thinking

The opportunity cost answer also  seems to be the best response to the Pascale’s Wager defense that is so often proposed by apologists…

“Well, even if it isn’t true, there’s no better way I know of to raise a family and so what’s the harm in staying?”

With that way of thinking, you’re never going to discover if there even is a “better way” because by staying in, you are giving up the opportunity of looking around for it.

I think of people I know who, like me, disbelieve the doctrine and foundational stories of Mormonism and yet they decide to stick with it nonetheless. Some of them maintain a fantasy that they can “change things from within,” but what I find lacking in their reasoning is any consideration of the opportunity cost of sticking around. Either that, or their opportunity costs aren’t as great as mine were.

Some Proposed Opportunity Costs

Some random opportunity costs for anyone to consider are:

  • The cost of actually finding and living a true religion out there if one believes it can even exist…
  • The cost of the good that one could do with 10% of your income – such as personal investments, donating it to a legitimate charity that actually publishes financial reports, etc…
  • The cost of many hours weekly that could be spent with family, friends on worthy pursuits instead of in church meetings.
  • The cost of genuine friendships with people without muddying the relationship with religion.
  • The cost of an entire Sunday each week…of doubling your weekend!
  • The cost of finding a spiritual path that actually does bring you peace without any “yeah, buts.”
  • The cost of being able to openly teach your children what you truly believe.
  • The cost of being able to express personal thoughts and ideas openly and freely.
  • The costs of pleasurable life experiences only experienced by breaking Mormon commandments.

And for a gay man such as myself, additional opportunity costs were:

  • The cost of true, unadulterated personal acceptance.
  • The cost of ever experiencing romantic love with someone.
  • The cost of living outwardly in a manner consistent with my inward life.
  • The cost of ever having a sexual experience that was natural and unforced and not guilt-ridden.
  • The cost of setting an example for my children to live as a man whose actions and words are consistent with the truth.
  • The cost of giving my children an example of “To thine own self be true”
  • The cost of openly and freely accepting and loving everyone.

Some ideas for Family Home Evening Discussions

  1. What big decisions are you now facing?  What are some of the opportunity costs of your decisions?
  2. What are the opportunity costs of being Mormon? Of being Ex-Mormon?
  3. What are the opportunity costs of coming out of the closest? Of staying in?
  4. What are the opportunity costs of staying in your marriage?  Of divorce?
  5. If a natural disaster struck at work, what would you be caught doing?
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