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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book Review: Walden on Wheels

Walden on Wheels is Ken Ilgunas' story on how he ran up $32,000 in student debt getting an undergraduate degree and then paid it off by living frugally working at low-paying jobs, including stints in Alaska.  As happens with many young people, he started college by pretty much following social convention and then found it fulfilling only as he came close to graduating, whetting his appetite for graduate school.  The kicker is that he made up his mind to pay for graduate school (at Duke, no less) by not going back into debt - hence, living in a van (his Walden on Wheels) on the Duke campus.

Ilgunas is a really good writer who does a great job describing many interesting characters and experiences in his journey.  Readers who have run up student debt getting a degree that the market doesn't value will surely relate to his story. Others will find it amusing as well.  There are some heavy, thoughtful philosophical arguments made throughout that will get all readers to question their values and, if read with friends, will surely generate debate.

From my perspective as an economist, I do, however, always have to question people who put their value judgments on others.  It is fashionable today, as Ilgunas does, to assume that people working in a corporation are leading miserable lives and that fulfillment comes from living in a shack in Alaska. Here's some news for those who believe this:  IT ISN'T NECESSARILY TRUE!  Many who work for corporations are leading very satisfying lives!

Another point along these lines:  he takes some good pot shots at Duke graduates who migrate towards Wall Street and Goldman Sachs, etc. - another popular theme, especially given events of recent years. As in the recent hit movie The Wolf of Wall Street (I don't consider myself prudish, but I recommend not attending the movie with a date or any of your children), it is commonly accepted that buying and selling stocks creates no value.  Actually a casual understanding of history reveals that the "invention" of the joint stock company, whereby people could invest in risky ventures and participate and liquidate as they choose, was instrumental in creating material wealth.  Please understand that I am sympathetic to the view that the free market, capitalistic system has gone too far in creating material wealth and that some serious work needs to be done on reining in materialism.  But this is because Wall Street does too good a job at creating wealth--not because it doesn't.

Finally, those who have visited Walden Pond will surely enjoy Mr. Ilgunas' take on Thoreau.  All in all, this is an easy read that presents some interesting philosophical arguments - especially a great read for young people and those facing a long plane trip.


  1. Next time I'm on a plane, I'm going to pick this book up!

  2. My wife and I took both our 20+ year old children to Wolf of Wall Street. It was a great learning experience for them to see a different perspective of how some peoples wealth is created at the expense of others, something a majority of people with little or no connection to Wall Street understand.

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