Sunk Costs on the Road to Tel Aviv

by Brian on November 3, 2011

in Only in Israel

Traffic along the Ayalon Highway

The evening was intended to be a gala celebration of the partnership between Tel Aviv and Los Angeles. 400 Angelenos, in Israel on a Federation mission, along with another several hundred local Anglos of Angeleno-descent, filled the Smolarz Hall on the Tel Aviv University campus. There was a program planned with glamorous entertainment: opera, performance art, modern dance and drumming, all emcee’d by the aging master of kitsch Haim Topol who, without any coaching, it was rumored would be belting out “Sunrise Sunset” in full Tevye voice.

My wife Jody, who grew up from Los Angeles, scored us a pair of tickets. It sounded like a worthwhile way to spend a few hours. But the traffic gods deemed otherwise.

The event had a 5:00 PM starting time, which is already pushing it, throwing commuters into the worst of the Tel Aviv rush hour. But our back up started even earlier: just getting out of Jerusalem took us close to an hour.

But sometimes, long rides can be serendipitous. At about 40 minutes into the ride, the radio program we were listening (Freakonomics) to began a discussion on “The Upside of Quitting.” The host’s talking point was that, when evaluating a situation – whether it’s a job, a marriage, or in our case the traffic – there are both “sunk costs” and “opportunity costs,” and both play a big role in when and whether to call it quits.

A quick economics lesson: “sunk costs” are the time, money, and more intangible commitments we’ve made to a particular project that keep us from wanting to abandon it…even if we know in our hearts it’s not the right thing. “Opportunity costs” are those things you could be doing with your time if you weren’t sinking it into the wrong activity.

I have experience with both – in 2001, for example, I took a job at a large hi-tech company. My position was esoteric and brand new; only the CEO really knew what was expected of me. He quit two days after I started. I intuitively knew I should too, but I had already accepted the job, turned down other offers, received a company car. Mentally I was “sunk.” As expected, without my patron, the job became a never-ending hell and I wound up, entirely through my fault, losing almost three years in “opportunity costs.”

Jody and I turned to each other as we listened to the program. We had sunk costs now of just under an hour. We had another hour (at least) until we got to Tel Aviv, plus a similar amount of time back. Was now the time to quit?

But we didn’t. We were too far committed. And the “opportunity” was too intangible (another night of catching up on emails?)

We arrived in Tel Aviv two and a quarter hours after we set out. We missed the reception (and what looked on the other participants’ plates to have been some very yummy food) and got the cheap seats for the show. Haim Topol seemed to be running on autopilot, exuding the enthusiasm of peasant who’d delivered way too much milk. The opera singers were proficient (and sexy, as seems to be the requirement for 21st century classical performers), but neither Jody nor I like opera much. The drumming, which included synchronized banging on steel drums with flaming baton sticks, was excellent, however.

In his introductory words to the event, Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai lauded the partnership between his city and Los Angeles. It was logical that the two cities were twinned, he said. Both have an emphasis on the entertainment industry; there are stellar beaches; and probably about as many Israelis in both cities. But the biggest commonality? The traffic, he quipped.

With sunk costs like those, who needs opportunities?

This post appeared last week on Israelity.

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