Your love is such a thrill. But your love won’t pay my bills.
—Janie Bradford & Berry Gordy, Money
As I begin this post in early May 2023, the season-to-date snowfall reported at the Alta ski resort in the Rocky Mountains of the U.S. is measuring 903 inches or nearly 23 meters, with more snow on the way. At about two and a half times its seasonal average, the resort’s snowfall this year will likely double the output from the last time I skied there in 1973. The most interesting detail about Alta’s snow that season, to my memory at least, was not its volume, base depth, or even the trademark powdery composition of its slopes that attracts millions of skiers to Utah each year. Picture the image emblazoned on my retina these fifty years of a single American dollar bill, perfectly still, green ink side up as though printed by surrounding pines. It just lay there, asking to be rescued from the virgin patch of white powder 50 feet beneath the hundreds of skiers passing directly overhead on their somewhere else.
“Wow! Look at that!” exclaimed my ski mate Alan Stubbs as he and I glided by in the chairlift 50 feet above. “Someone must have dropped it.”
“Race you for it,” came my casual but competitive reply.
But after the lift deposited us atop the mountain and throughout our traditional race to the bottom, we didn’t give the money a second thought. At least until, on our return glide back up the same lift, we again passed the spot where we first spied the bill.
“Wow! Look at that!” exclaimed Alan as we passed overhead a second time. “Someone must have grabbed it.”
“Someone?” I retorted. “Looks like a hundred someones. Guess we weren’t the only ones with the same idea! There’s not a single snowflake untouched down there. Look at those boot prints. What if there was a fight?”
There certainly wasn’t a dollar.
I remember very little from business school. But some “truths” still get me by when trying to make sense of Jefferson’s twin pillars of peace and commerce.
There’s no such thing as a long-term, sustainable, competitive advantage.
The price elasticity of demand for certain products allows their cost to rise without negatively influencing their demand.
Corporate CEO’s tend to be an inch taller than their employees.
All important stuff—except the size and shape of the CEO. But one of the most useful truths I still use in making business and personal decisions is what economists call The Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility or DMU.
Suppose you and a friend are out on the boardwalk on a pleasant Saturday afternoon when you happen upon a kiosk selling frozen custard. Frozen custard is a cold dessert like ice cream or gelato infused with egg yolk and dispensed slowly from a machine that crenelates its edges and allows the server to spin the cup or cone receiving it.
You’ve been walking for a while, the weather is perfect for custard, you both love the stuff, and you can’t get it anywhere except the beach. So you stop. On finding the price to be one dollar per scoop, it’s a no-brainer for value: you order up a double each. One of your favorite desserts in hand, you then continue down the boardwalk, enjoying the treat and the view.
All boardwalks end, of course, and on your return trip, you come again to the ice cream kiosk.
“Didn’t that frozen custard just hit the spot? I got addicted when coming here as a kid.”
This would never be you, of course, but your friend’s just got to have another.
“And for only a dollar, what’s not to like?”
So you both double down and get another two scoops. But as you near the other end of the boardwalk, you encounter an extra delight, this time in the form not just of a kiosk but a full-blown ice cream shop. And if that weren’t enough, its economies of scale allow it to offer your favorite dessert at half price: only fifty cents a scoop.
“Well, I’ll be,” says your friend as he looks at the menu. “We must have missed this. You wanna make it three for three? Can’t beat the value!”
“You mean six for six,” you reply. “Don’t be absurd. I could barely stomach the fourth one!”
Diminishing Marginal Utility.
In the late 50s early 60s, my mother gave birth to four children across four consecutive Aprils. My younger brother Roger and younger sisters Andrea and Julia. And me. Mom was very clever about it, spacing out our birthdays the way she did, each roughly a week apart. But when we were old enough for formal parties, she put her foot down.
“If you think I’m hosting a different party every week this month, you’ve got another think coming.”
So she struck a bargain with us that Andrea and Julia each got a party in even-numbered years, Roger and me in odd years. Now that we’re older, the four of us pretend that during those early years, we aged half as fast as our solo birthday-month siblings, who never went without a party.
With (eventually) eight parties a year to manage, our clever mother devised ways to economize on her endless creativity by reusing winning activities across parties. Her greatest hit was called, innocuously enough, The Candy Game. But what a sinister neighborhood blockbuster it became!
Picture a pair of dice, a cornucopia of everyone’s favorites—from penny candy to 100 gram bars—and a dozen starry-eyed and sugar-crazed kids separated from a fistfight by only two rules.
Rule number one: If you roll doubles, pick your prize from the community bowl—and this is where the “fun” begins—or, if you prefer, take it from another child.
Rule number two: No hiding your candy from the other kids.
Over the years, The Candy Game became a neighborhood legend. It was fun. It was competitive. It was chance, greed, and sugar all rolled into a single half-hour so intense it brought out the worst of all comers.
The Game was not something you could practice at home on a regular basis. (In fact, in retrospect, it probably shouldn’t be tried at home at all.) The barriers to entry—unless you had nine siblings as I did—were just too high. But over the years, any regulars at a Knell children’s party, even if only every other April, evolved strategies for increasing the odds of winning—going home with the biggest stash of the biggest bars—sometimes at any cost. And while there was never any violence to speak of, its climactic finale, intensified by a shot-clock minute glass, occasionally ended with a boom.
Here’s my mother’s version:
“So you know the point of the game, right? It’s supposed to last a long time. That’s all I cared about. By the time all you kids came along, I was running low on ideas. The Candy Game WAS the party. That’s why I invented Rule Number Two. You can’t hide your candy. Otherwise, the game is over before it begins.”
She’s regaling a handful of us. And it’s not her first time.
“But then there was the time Matthew R_____ broke The Game. His mother never permitted any candy in the house. He’s been looking forward to this. On his first turn, he rolls doubles. Everyone cheers, and we’re off!”
But little Matthew knows exactly what he came for and goes straight for the one-dollar giant Mr. Goodbar. And I remember thinking, ‘Boy, is he in for it. It’ll be another 20 minutes before anyone reaches again for the bowl.'”
“But he’s thought this through. Remember Rule Number Two.”
“You can’t hide your candy,” we all groan in unison.
“But does he put his Mr. Goodbar on the table in front of him for all to see? Not even for a second. As soon as he gets his hands on that bar—which, in hindsight, seemed bigger than he was—and before anyone else has a chance to roll doubles after him, he jumps up from the table and walks straight out the door.”
“Matthew broke The Game. And we never played it again.”
This past month my family began what I call The Dollar Challenge. Launched by my son Timothy, whose practiced knack for holding himself accountable, has recently gone viral. He is lately known as the go-to governor for putting in place a simple contract between himself and any family member who finds it helpful to have someone hold her accountable for self-commitments.
A month earlier, Timothy explained his system as follows:
“Dad, is there a simple goal or objective you want to set for yourself that I can help you stick with? It can be just a toe-dipping, like ‘Every day this week, I will at least open the book I’m hoping to read. You don’t have to commit to reading it. Just to open it.”
“I can do that. You know I’m trying to regain my stamina after my recent you-now-what. I’d like to try for some kind of aerobic exercise each week.”
“How much and how often?”
“I don’t know. It varies.”
“Does it need to? What if you had to name the amount and number of days each week that you dit it?”
“Then I would shoot for 30 minutes a day, four days a week. Before my you-know-what, I’d usually try for 50. But let’s start with 30 and work up to 40.”
“That’s planning. Let’s stick with action. You’re committing to exercise 4 x 30. Not 120, but four different days.”
“I’ll commit to the same thing cuz I’m starting over myself. Every Saturday night, we text each other saying how many days we were successful.”
“And here’s the thing. If I fall short by, say, a single day, I pay you one dollar. Two days, two dollars. Same with you. Deal?”
“I can commit to that. I’m going to make you a wealthy man.”
“It’s not about the money, Dad. What’s a dollar, anyway? It’s about being accountable to someone.”
“Who else are you doing this with?”
“All of Rebecca’s” (his wife’s) “brothers.”
“So, if you fall short one week…”
“I owe each of them a dollar. Per shortfall.”
“I see where this is going. Do I have to pay them, too?”
“Your deal is just with me.”
“Then let’s do it.”
A month later, locked in a perfect, dollar-free stalemate, Timothy invites Kari, my four other children, and their spouses to join us. I hope, for all our sakes, that, for all his effort, he doesn’t make a single penny.
As college students working at The Graphic Shop, a design and printing service, Dave Cobbley, Walt Libby, and I sometimes got up to some crazy antics between customer orders. When we were not printing dissertations or business collateral of some sort, we were dart-gunning flies against the front window or spray-glue flame-throwing wasps in the rafters. But one customer’s requirements provided far more comic relief than all that. Seems this guy was willing to break several federal counterfeiting laws to drum up business for his budding financial planning service.
“Do you think you guys could print me up some dollar bills? It wouldn’t be illegal since the tails side would just be my business contact info.”
“And you want to hand these out to people?”
“I was thinking of scattering them along the sidewalk, face-up. You know, to get peoples’ attention.”
We compromised on printing the bills twice their official size lest there be any confusion, that is until the shop owner—my father—found out.
“I need you guys to give the nice man back his money and then destroy all photographs, plates, or copies you may have made. I should probably also report this to the FBI.”
The nice man wasn’t happy and probably took his business elsewhere. But as I reflect on his intended scheme, it got me thinking about a ski lift at Alta and of a brand new dollar bill laying on a pristine layer of powdery snow.
What if, instead of by accident, the passenger on the ski lift ahead of Alan and me all those years ago deliberately dropped that dollar onto the snowpack? What if she did so just for the commotion it might cause? I mean, think about it. For the measly cost of a dollar, it might have been the cheapest original entertainment ever produced. And completely free to watch for anyone following behind her.
Whoever you are, from 50 years in the future, and a very slow study, “Chapeau!”
To all the downhill racers whose skis crisscrossed to the bone that wooded clearing to seek their fortune, I hope it was worth the mess you made. And that nobody broke their neck racing to be first to the prize.
And to the winner still standing, who kicked off his skis to duke it out for the price of a good milk cow: Sonny, I hope the savvy financial services broker you were led to by the backside of that calling card she dropped gave you good value for money.