Recently, I watched a documentary of Ralph Steadman. He’s an infamous cartoonist whose work graced the covers and pages of Hunter S. Thompson’s rowdy reads. Steadman has a natural ability to start with a splash of paint and envision the result. Sometimes what starts as a mean dragon, turns into a wicked politician. It’s a beautiful form of art.
The other day I set out to write a brief update on how much biking is saving me. But something larger was calling. What I realized in crafting my next article was that biking was part of a grander picture. This article is about life, partitioned; perhaps more catchily titled, “The Partitioned Life.”
The specialized workforce we never wanted
The separated, divided, specialized life is largely due to our strict capitalistic culture. Adam Smith, writer of Wealth of Nations and oft-cited theorist about the “invisible hand” of markets, suggested that capitalism would succeed via economic specialization. Essentially, with professional expertise emphasized, we could separate the economy into different vocations. These vocations would enable society to produce at faster rates, because time would simply be spent on one’s expert area.
Lawyers, doctors, and teachers all take distinctly different directions to accomplish their career goals. Most go to graduate school and receive mind-numbing didactic training. But each is partitioned and specialized.
The days of da Vinci are gone. Leonardo da Vinci was a polymath — a man with various skills. This painter, sculptor, philosopher, and anatomist was responsible for early explanation of medicine, astronomy, art, and more. Without his versatile background, each would suffer. He was the antithesis of singular specialization. But our economic interests have destroyed this path. The generalist is less valued compared to the highly-specialized “expert.”
We are partitioned beyond our wages
With disparate workforces, specialized employees are needed for a variety of tasks. Now we need a secretary, assistant, web designer, etc. But each of those three jobs could be accomplished by one person. This is the conundrum and false growth that’s associated with Adam Smith’s legacy. The more specialization associated with our jobs, the more employees that are needed for administrative needs.
Now, we need to partition even further. Picture your local city. What do you see? I see a series of shops, restaurants, bars, research parks, industry, fast food, and gyms. Break it down even further, and I see the burger flipper, salt and pepper shaker, and checkout representative. I see management, accountants, lawyers, bosses on bosses on bosses. We are operating within this highly specialized economy that works beyond vocational structure — it fundamentally affects how we shop.
The following is highly dependent upon your age, demographic, socioeconomic status, and personal interests, but the partitioned life also affects your monthly costs. Last time I flew into New York City, I asked a Millennial what she recommended I do in the city. She talked to me about the bars, restaurants, and museums. Then, she asked if I liked exercise. I do! She suggested Soulcycle.
When I landed, I Googled the name and found the chain was all over the city. Soulcycle has developed a sort of cult following. It intrigued me until I saw the price: $39 for one class. I’m always ballin’ on a budget, and $39 for a bike class was senseless. Needless to say, I didn’t go.
That price, class, and exercise studio impacted me. Here we have an economy so separated and partitioned that people decide to work all day, go home, and then go to a workout class. This Kubrickian hallway seems to be an endless procession of work on work — working to work out.
Crush the divides for creativity, clarity, and savings
Buying and riding a bike 90% of the time has changed my relationship with our economy. Every day I choose my bike, I feel a minor pang of anarchy. I’m doing my own thing to contribute to the collective — not contributing to climate change, capitalistic malignancies, and health problems that are affecting us all.
As mentioned, I started this article with the desire to focus on a number — the true savings associated with riding a bike. Instead, I’ve decided to talk about the bigger economic effect of our partitioned lives. But let me briefly entertain some calculations. With a bike, I pay for my gym membership ($0) and fuel up with food ($0 in gasoline). If you were to analyze your car-less savings, you’d need to immediately start with a couple hundred dollars every month.
Over the last 30 days, I’ve biked about 200 miles. There have been no parking fees, maintenance costs, or police to worry about. If I drove those 200 miles, AAA estimates that that would cost me $156.60 per month. But the savings goes beyond this and works to break the traditional partitions that our economy has parcelled off for us.
Recognizing and appreciating the generalist in all of us
We currently live in one of the most unequal times in American history. We have followed the wizened advice of economic thinkers like Adam Smith, and it’s led us astray. The “invisible hand” and free market principles have led to broken roads, broken budgets, and broken families. We are a country of financial elite and impoverished masses.
Economic specialization is no longer working. We must recognize the generalist is more powerful. Knowing how to repair a bike, being fit, planting your own garden, collectivising, and democratizing are our last hope. It’s our world’s last hope.
We must create an economy and emphasize the power of the generalist. We deserve to give ourselves the opportunity to be radicalized and empowered by the next da Vinci, don’t we?