Applying the Economic Way of Thinking
Certain global environmental issues, such as global warming and biodiversity, spill over national borders and will need to be addressed with some form of international agreement.
Depending on their different income levels and political preferences, countries are likely to make different choices about allocative efficiency—that is, the choice between economic output and environmental protection along the production possibility frontier. However, all countries should prefer to make a choice that shows productive efficiency—that is, the choice is somewhere on the production possibility frontier rather than inside it.
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First Objection: People, Firms, and Society Do Not Act Like This!
The economic approach to decision-making seems to require more information than most individuals possess and more careful decision-making than most individuals actually display. After all, do you or any of your friends draw a budget constraint and mutter to yourself about maximizing utility before you head to the shopping mall? Do members of the U.S. Congress contemplate production possibilities frontiers before they vote on the annual budget? The messy ways in which people and societies operate somehow doesn’t look much like neat budget constraints or smoothly curving production possibilities frontiers.
However, the economics approach can be a useful way to analyze and understand the tradeoffs of economic decisions even so. To appreciate this point, imagine for a moment that you are playing basketball, dribbling to the right, and throwing a bounce-pass to the left to a teammate who is running toward the basket. A physicist or engineer could work out the correct speed and trajectory for the pass, given the different movements involved and the weight and bounciness of the ball. But when you are playing basketball, you do not perform any of these calculations. You just pass the ball, and if you are a good player, you will do so with high accuracy.
Someone might argue: “The scientist’s formula of the bounce-pass requires a far greater knowledge of physics and far more specific information about speeds of movement and weights than the basketball player actually has, so it must be an unrealistic description of how basketball passes are actually made.” This reaction would be wrongheaded. The fact that a good player can throw the ball accurately because of practice and skill, without making a physics calculation, does not mean that the physics calculation is wrong.
Similarly, from an economic point of view, someone who goes shopping for groceries every week has a great deal of practice with how to purchase the combination of goods that will provide that person with utility, even if the shopper does not phrase decisions in terms of a budget constraint. Government institutions may work imperfectly and slowly, but in general, a democratic form of government feels pressure from voters and social institutions to make the choices that are most widely preferred by people in that society. So, when thinking about the economic actions of groups of people, firms, and society, it is reasonable, as a first approximation, to analyze them with the tools of economic analysis.
Second Objection: People, Firms, and Society Should Not Act This Way
The economics approach portrays people as self-interested. For some critics of this approach, even if self-interest is an accurate description of how people behave, these behaviors are not moral. Instead, the critics argue that people should be taught to care more deeply about others. Economists offer several answers to these concerns.
First, economics is not a form of moral instruction. Rather, it seeks to describe economic behavior as it actually exists. Philosophers draw a distinction between positive statements, which describe the world as it is, and normative statements, which describe how the world should be. For example, an economist could analyze a proposed subway system in a certain city. If the expected benefits exceed the costs, he concludes that the project is worth doing—an example of positive analysis. Another economist argues for extended unemployment compensation during the Great Depression because a rich country like the United States should take care of its less fortunate citizens—an example of normative analysis.
Even if the line between positive and normative statements is not always crystal clear, economic analysis does try to remain rooted in the study of the actual people who inhabit the actual economy. Fortunately however, the assumption that individuals are purely self-interested is a simplification about human nature. In fact, we need to look no further than to Adam Smith, the very father of modern economics to find evidence of this. The opening sentence of his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, puts it very clearly: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” Clearly, individuals are both self-interested and altruistic.
Second, self-interested behavior and profit-seeking can be labeled with other names, such as personal choice and freedom. The ability to make personal choices about buying, working, and saving is an important personal freedom. Some people may choose high-pressure, high-paying jobs so that they can earn and spend a lot of money on themselves. Others may earn a lot of money and give it to charity or spend it on their friends and family. Others may devote themselves to a career that can require a great deal of time, energy, and expertise but does not offer high financial rewards, like being an elementary school teacher or a social worker. Still others may choose a job that does not take lots of their time or provide a high level of income, but still leaves time for family, friends, and contemplation. Some people may prefer to work for a large company; others might want to start their own business. People’s freedom to make their own economic choices has a moral value worth respecting.
Third, self-interested behavior can lead to positive social results. For example, when people work hard to make a living, they create economic output. Consumers who are looking for the best deals will encourage businesses to offer goods and services that meet their needs. Adam Smith, writing in The Wealth of Nations, christened this property the invisible hand. In describing how consumers and producers interact in a market economy, Smith wrote:
Every individual…generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain. And he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention…By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.
The metaphor of the invisible hand suggests the remarkable possibility that broader social good can emerge from selfish individual actions.
Fourth, even people who focus on their own self-interest in the economic part of their life often set aside their own narrow self-interest in other parts of life. For example, you might focus on your own self-interest when asking your employer for a raise or negotiating to buy a car. But then you might turn around and focus on other people when you volunteer to read stories at the local library, help a friend move to a new apartment, or donate money to a charity. Self-interest is a reasonable starting point for analyzing many economic decisions, without needing to imply that people never do anything that is not in their own immediate self-interest.
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Classroom Activity Options
- Distribute 3 x 5 cards and have the participants write complete definitions of economics on the card. Ask several people to read their definitions. Share the definitions and insights of Smith, Keynes, Heyne, and Reinke as a point of comparison. Ask the students to revise their definitions as the course continues.
- Distribute the list of “mysteries” that economic reasoning can be solved with economic reasoning. Discuss a few. Challenge students to keep the remaining mysteries in mind as they accumulate economic reasoning tools.
- Distribute “Things Are the Way They Are for a Reason,” to demonstrate that the power of economic reasoning is not limited to the discipline of economics.
- Distribute the “Economic Reasoning Principles” handout. Discuss each principle and include a current event, headline, or mystery as an example. Ask students to generate or collect their own examples.
- Distribute and ask each student to take the Economic Reasoning Quiz. Discuss the answers, emphasizing how economic reasoning was used.
- Distribute and discuss the handout, “Identifying an Economically Literate Person.” Assign students’ the task of reading the complete description as homework and determining whether they are currently “economically literate.”
- Assign individual students or small student groups to use economic reasoning to identify and solve a “real life” mystery.