I remember exactly three things about the economics class I took in high school almost three decades ago: One is my teacher Mr. Bogue, who should have been granted sainthood for putting up with my nonsense while I was his pupil. Two, the Playboy centerfold I affixed to the projector screen in Mr. Bogue’s classroom that was revealed, in all its glory, to an unsuspecting roomful of teenagers when Mr. Bogue pulled-down the screen as he prepared to use his overhead projector during a lesson. And three, a principle of economics called the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility.
The first definition of this law, written by a German economist named Gossen in 1854, states: “As a consumer consumes more and more units of a specific commodity, the utility from the successive units goes on diminishing.” In simpler terms, as one acquires and/or uses more and more of something, the benefits to that person become less and less. In much simpler terms, the more Travis (insert random vice/hobby here), the less Travis enjoys it.
The Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility is more than an economic principle—it’s the story of my life. I was reminded of this fact by two prime examples that became apparent to me while I attended the Roots ’N’ Blues ’N’ BBQ festival in Columbia last weekend.
In all the years I have attended the popular music festival, this was the first time I had done so as a recovering alcoholic. Initially, I was concerned that I would get a little thirsty being surrounded by so many people who were drinking. Thankfully, that worry quickly proved to be unwarranted. I am happy to tell you that at no time was I ever the least bit tempted to drink. In fact, seeing people around me who were extremely intoxicated (and passed-out in a couple instances) made me feel quite happy to be sober.
While listening to Margo Price’s performance on Sunday, nine months to the day since my last sip of alcohol, I did some reflecting about my decision to quit drinking. I recalled that no matter how much I drank, I wasn’t getting any more pleasure out of the habit. And from a purely economic standpoint, despite spending more and more money on booze, I derived less and less of a return on my investment. At last year’s festival, for example, I spent over $200 on beer alone—in just one weekend—and all I had to show for it were a pair of wicked hangovers.
The other truth that was revealed to me at this year’s festival was in regards to my enjoyment of the festival itself. Having attended the annual three-day event year after year, I’ve come to realize that being surrounded by thousands upon thousands of people for six to ten hours per day for three straight days is not terribly appealing to me anymore. Sitting in the hot sun, spending too much money on food and drinks, and inhaling the secondhand smoke from scores of partygoers for an entire weekend just to listen to some live music is becoming less enjoyable.
I am willing to concede that my sobriety could be partly to blame for the diminishing marginal utility I got out of this year’s festival. Despite having some great friends to go to Roots ‘N’ Blues with and despite being surrounded by thousands of other happy revelers, there were times during the course of last weekend when I felt extremely anxious and very much alone. In a former life, I used to try to drown those feelings with alcohol, but sobriety forces me to confront them head-on these days. That’s not a particularly pleasant process.
On Sunday, I found relief from that unpleasantness when my dear friend Troy (sober since 1993) and I discovered a hidden gem at the festival: The Sober Tent. This was an alcohol-free oasis in the middle of a sea of booze. There we met and visited with a handful of people who knew exactly what it was like to attend a three-day, beer-soaked party as a recovering alcoholic. A friendly fellow named Brian (I think) manned the tent and offered folks who stopped by free, ice-cold iced tea and light conversation. After our brief visit, I felt much more at ease within my surroundings, and I enjoyed the rest of the evening quite thoroughly.
From alcohol to music festivals, I’ve learned that being exposed to too much of something will almost always result in getting less enjoyment out of it. The Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility is therefore proven beyond any doubt to be correct—except, of course, in the case of frequent and repeated exposure to the brilliant and insightful offerings of a certain local newspaper columnist. I ask you who, besides a high school economics teacher, could ever grow weary of Travis Naughton?
PS: Sorry about the centerfold, Mr. Bogue. (And thanks for giving it back at the end of the school year!)