Aug 21 2011

Thoughts on Scarcity and the big questions of Economics

Published by at 11:00 am under Basic Economic Question,Efficiency,Scarcity

What is scarcity? In Economics, we say that scarcity is the basic economic problem. Because there are only limited resources available in the world, but humans’ wants and needs are practically infinite, we run into a problem, how to:

  • decide what will be produced, 
  • how it will be produced, and 
  • who will get the stuff that’s produced.

Any economic system must answer these three simple questions. Today I started off a new year of AP and IB Economics with a lesson in scarcity (the full lesson plan can be viewed here). Students were faced with a classroom with only half as many chairs as there were students. In the face of the scarcity of chairs, students had to decide who would get a chair and who wouldn’t. The suggestions from this morning’s class ranged from rock, paper, scissors, to musical chairs, to first come, first serve, to a Hunger Games style fight to the death. Ultimately, students decided that I, the teacher, should create a rotating schedule of who would get the chairs, to assure that they would be allocated fairly and no particular student would get to sit in a chair more often than any other.

It was of great interest to me that the students settled on this solution. Sure, it seems fair if a schedule is set by the teacher. But why was this their preferred solution? I asked them if this is how seats in movie theaters are allocated, or seats in top universities, or beds in hospitals? They agreed that, in fact, other scarce chairs are rarely allocated in the manner they settled on, a rotating schedule assigning seats to different people on different days in a way that assure everyone gets to have the chairs equal numbers of times throughout the year.

Of course, this is NOT how seats at top universities are allocated, nor in movie theaters. Upon reflection, we determined that university spots are typically allocated in the following manner:

  1. By merit (based on academic achievements in secondary school), and
  2. By price (based on who is able to afford tuition at the best universities).

Of course, in many cases, those who may be most qualified to attend the top universities may not be able to afford the tuition, so ultimately, university spots are allocated by price.

Once we had decided that price was an important factor in allocating the scarce chairs out there in the real world, we decided to try out a price system in the classroom. Each student was asked to write down on a piece of paper (confidentially, of course), the price they would be willing to pay each day to have a seat in my class. Once I collected the “bids” I organized them from highest to lowest, and those who were willing to pay the most ended up getting chairs, while those willing to pay the least had to stand.

Is the price system fair? During our debrief I asked students whether they believed our price system for determining chair allocation was fair. Instinctively, they said it was NOT fair. Their reasons were that those who could afford to pay the most (e.g. the richest students) ended up getting chairs, while the students with less disposable income ended up standing. But what makes this unfair?

Upon further discussion, some students pointed out that in the real world, those who are able to pay the most for scarce goods (university spots, high quality health care, nice cars, big houses), have probably worked the hardest and therefore earned higher incomes than those who cannot afford these nice things. In this regard,the price system makes sure that those who work hardest and are most productive end up enjoying a higher standard of living since they can afford to consume more and nicer products.

Or is the price system unfair? On the other hand, those who cannot afford to pay the prices of lots of nice things may not be able to do so because they have not worked hard enough (either in school or in the labor market). But how, then do we explain the fact that many factory workers, miners, fishermen, farmers and others who obviously work incredibly hard, cannot afford to buy lots of nice things (and get their kids into the best universities).

The questions we struggled with today in class are some of the most fundamental questions that the field of Economics deals with, and which we will study in great detail in my classes over the next two years:

  • What is scarcity and why does it exist?
  • What are some scarce resources in the world outside of school?
  • How should scarce resources be allocated between competing wants and needs?
  • Who should get the stuff that scarce resources go towards producing?
  • What is fair? And what is efficient?
  • What kind of system for allocating scarce resources is both efficient and fair?
These and many other questions form the basis of the field of Economics. In the coming months my students will explore the answers to these questions in  their Economics classes!

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