Sunday, July 08, 2007

Dubious return on "investment"

While I was gone last week (yes, I’ll get back to the “Where were we?” puzzle after a few more folks have had a chance to guess), I nibbled away at my summer reading pile.

Particularly compelling was a little tome titled “How to Live Well Without Owning a Car” by Chris Balish.

Not that I’m about to rush out and sell my 1999 RAV4, but Balish makes a strong case for why I at least should consider it. He talks a lot about alternative transportation — two forms of which reside in my garage, a motor scooter and a folding bicycle. Another two are at the ends of my legs.

This summer I’m making a point of using them and leaving the RAV4 at home.

One barrier to selling the old sheet metal is the “love affair” that we (I?) have with the automobile. Balish notes that the romance is sheer Madison Avenue fabrication.

Do I “love” my RAV4? No, but it gets me from point X to point Y reliably. But there must be more going on than that, reasons Balish, because there are far cheaper, more environmentally sound ways to make the X-to-Y journey.

So what sort of Madison Avenue myth-making is feeding our (my?) auto lust?

At one point I picked up a newspaper after finishing Balish’s book. I immediately spotted a large ad whose copy read in part: “A dream come true. How’s that for a return on investment?” In smaller print, it read, “Few things in life are more gratifying than the responsive nature of the….(blank 1)”

I’ll give you “blank 1” in a second. But, keep in mind that we are now in the realm of the “few things in life more gratifying than” this mysterious blank. Let’s see, blank 1 must rank right up there with playing a piano sonata, nurturing a child, discovering a truth, helping someone in need, planting a tree or building a community.

Read on: “Translating your every instinct into action with its (blank 2)....” Hey, wait, I thought WE were responsible for “translating our every instinct into action.” What happened to good old self-reliance, creativity, team work and sacrifice?

Enough. It’s time to find out about this greatly gratifying, dream-achieving Translator.

The thing in life among the “most gratifying” is a Porsche Cayman (depicted in the ad as speeding away at warp speed). And the great Translator is its “245-horsepower, 2.7-litre, mid-mounted flat-six engine.”

Got that? So should you (or I?) go in hock for $69,600 (base price) for such gratification—or, as the ad puts it—“return on investment”? A rapidly depreciating investment at that.

First: Balish suggests we dispense with the dream/translation/investment/gratification bit.

Second: Want to get from X to Y? Try walking, biking or taking the bus.

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