Archive for the 'Scarcity' Category

Aug 18 2014

Welcome all new Econ students! Time to start thinking like economists

One of the questions I like to ask my student during the first week of class every year is “What is Economics?” The answers are always interesting to read, because unlike many other high school classes, Econ is one of those subjects students sometimes have no idea what it’s all about when they sign up for the class. Below are some of the definitions of “Economics” students shared in their first day survey this week:
  • “Economics is the study of money flow between either countries or individual companies.”
  • “My definition of Economics is the control of money by a person, organization or nation.”
  • “Economics is a complex system that determines and justifies global prices, currency values, and ultimately the success of a nation.”
  • “I’d say Economics is the study of how humans use resources including income, investments, taxes and the economy.”
  • “I think economics is the study of investments and money. Especially income and outcome, and taxes in the government.”
  • “The study of the distribution of wealth and how human beings tend to handle wealth.”
  • “A bunch of old men moaning about all of the potentially free lunch oppurtunities they had missed in their youth, passed off as the behaviour of markets.”

As you can see, most students do not yet have a clear definition of the subject in their heads when they start the course, which is perfectly understandable! So I thought I’d start the year off by sharing my definition of economics. Please read the following introduction to Economics then answer the discussion question that follows.

So what IS Economics, anyway? Well, look around you. What do you see? From here in my classroom at Zurich International School, I see five new condominium buildings being built. I can count eight yellow cranes swinging their arms hauling construction materials around their respective sites. Beyond the cranes I see a beautiful forest stretching up a hillside with green sheep pastures and quaint farm houses scattered here and there. I see a church steeple and the rooftops of the businesses down in the village below school. I can just see the tops of cars racing along the A3 highway to and from Zurich and the other cities of central and eastern Switzerland.

Now ask yourself, how did things get to be this way? Why are new condos going up in the midst of Europe’s deepest recession in decades? Why are farmers still able to graze sheep on hillsides when 100 square meter condos are selling for a million francs just below their fields? Why are the ancient forests of the Sihlwald still standing even as development has encroached into most of the region’s  forests and natural ecosystems? How do normal people make enough money to live comfortably in this expensive country? Where do the things we buy come from? Who built this computer I’m typing on and what will I be doing for a living in twenty years?

One of my favorite quotes that to me sums up what economics is all about comes not from an economist, but from the civil rights leader Martin Luther King. In 1967 King wrote:

Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality.

Economics is about all the questions I posed above and it’s about all the interactions King describes. Economics is about solving one major problem faced by all human societies going back thousands of years. Economics is about the problem of scarcity. Scarcity is the natural phenomenon arising from the fact that all the world’s resources are physically limited in quantity.

Limited resources alone would not pose a problem if it were not for one characteristics of human beings that makes us truly unique in the animal kingdom. The fact that we have desires and wants beyond our basic physical needs. In the face of humans’ practically unlimited desires and wants, the limited nature of the earth’s limited natural resources gives rise to conflicts regarding the allocation of those resources. Economics is the social science that deals with the allocation of earth’s scarce resources among the competing wants and needs of society. Economists provides society with various tools and techniques for efficiently allocating our scarce resources.

Discussion question:

  1. Scarcity of resources has given rise to countless conflicts among and between societies throughout history. Identify one conflict from the past or present that you think the problem of scarcity gave rise to.
  2. Some say that many of the environmental problems our world faces to day can be solved by economics. If that’s the case, then they must have to do with scarcity. Identify one environmental problem and explain how it relates to scarcity.
  3. Time is one of the scarcest resources. Explain how the decisions you make regarding your limited time in and out of school can be considered economic decisions.

 

94 responses so far

Aug 21 2012

Introduction to Basic Economic Concepts – the Economics of Zoo Keeping

Introduction: This activity can be done individually or in small groups. It may be completed as a homework assignment or as an in-class activity. Divide the class into small groups (3 or 4 people). Each group is in charge of building a zoo.

Materials needed: Several A3 pieces of paper, scissors, tape or glue, and the images of animals available here.

Instructions for students: You and your teammates are the manager of a new business that has decided to open a zoo. Your zoo is a private, profit-seeking business that will charge admission to visitors. The purpose of the zoo , as with any business, is to earn a profit.

Your task is as follows:

  • You have to decide which animals to include in your zoo, but space is limited.
  • You have 25 acres on which to build your zoo.
  • Each type of animal requires a different amount of space, so you must choose which animals to put in your zoo. Remember, you need at least one male and one female of each animal so they can reproduce.
  • With your business partners, choose which animals you will put in your zoo.

Below each animal is the number of acres just one of the animals requires. For example, one lion requires 2 acres of land. If you want four lions, therefore, you must use 8 of your 25 acres for lions.

Take a large piece of paper (at least A3) and using a marker, design the layout of your zoo. The paper represents the 25 acres you have for animals. Once you have decided which animals to include, how many of each animal, and calculated how many acres are to be used for each animal, cut out the animals you have chosen and paste each animal into its dedicated enclosure.

Once you have completed construction of your zoo, answer the discussion questions that follow.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Did every animal make it into your zoo? Why or why not?
  2. Did you include a turkey or a cow in your zoo? Why or why not?
  3. Why didn’t you have a zoo with only monkeys?
  4. Which type of elephant did you choose? Why did you choose the type you did and not the other?
  5. What is the last animal to make the cut for your zoo?
  6. What is the animal that just missed the cut for your zoo?
  7. Did everyone in your group agree to include the the same animals?
  8. Would everyone in your group have made the same choices if they did it alone?

Once you have answered the discussion questions, view this presentation, which provides answers to the above questions for discussion as a class.

No responses yet

Aug 14 2012

My first Economics lesson – Scarce Chairs!!

The following lesson is a great way to start an IB or AP Economics class for the year. I just tried it this morning for the first time and it went great!

Instructions:

  • Before your Econ students arrive for their first full class meeting, remove chairs until there are only half as many as you will have students. I stuck mine in the library, well out of view of the students coming to my class.
  • Tell students that the custodian removed the chairs for repairs, or they were taken to another room for a presentation or something. Anyway, you don’t know when they’ll come back and it may be a couple of weeks.
  • For now, we are stuck with this many chairs, and we have to figure out a way to resolve this problem!
  • Tell the students it’s up to them to decide how our limited number of chairs will be allocated. Have them brainstorm solutions out loud while you write their suggestions on the board.
  • Try to come up with 6-10 possible solutions, then have the students vote on the one they would like to see enacted. They can only vote once! Write the tallies next to each option on the board.
  • If there is a tie for #1, have the whole class vote between the two or three options you’ve narrowed it down to until there is one clear winner.
The Economist’s Solution:
  • Once the students have voted on their favorite solution, share with them the economist’s favorite solution. It is known as a sealed-bid auction.
  • Give each student a slip of scrap paper and have him write two things: 1) His name, and 2) the maximum price he would be willing and able to pay each class period to have a chair to sit on.
  • Collect the results, and in front of the students, organize their bids from highest to lowest. If there is a tie on the margin, have the students whose bids were identical bid again, writing their highest price on the back of the same slip of paper, then re-rank.
  • The students with the highest bids will get a chair! For example, I had 17 students, and only 8 chairs. The highest bid was $10, while three students were not willing to pay anything. Four kids were willing to pay $1, but there were only two chair left at that point. When they re-bid, one was willing to pay $2, one $1.75, $1.25 and $1.20. Therefore, the two remaining chairs went to the students willing to pay $2 and $1.75.
  • Finally, tell the winners that they can take a seat, and that everyone else must stand! At this point, of course, you can send the lowest bidders out to fetch the missing chairs and begin your debrief.
Economic concepts illustrated by the Scarce Chairs exercise:

Scarcity exists:

  • When something is limited in supply and in demand, it is scarce.
  • Everyone wants to sit, but the chairs were missing… chairs were scarce.
  • Scarcity is a function of both demand and supply. The greater the demand relative to supply, the more scarce something is.

Choices must be made:

  • Because scarcity exists, we must make choices about how to allocate our scarce resources
  • We had to choose between competing systems for allocating the chairs

Rationing systems:

  • When faced with scarcity, a system must be decided upon to ration the scarce items.
  • The systems we decided upon ranged from a lottery to first come first serve to a merit-based system.

Something that is scarce has value:

  • Everyone wanted a chair, yet they were limited. Because the chairs provide us with benefit, we value them, and are therefore willing to pay to have one.
  • Value is a function of scarcity. The scarcer something is, the more valuable it becomes (gold), while less scarce items are less valuable (drinking water).

Consumer surplus:

  • Consumer surplus is the difference between what you are willing to pay and what the price is.
  • Sofia would have had lots of consumer surplus if she only had to pay $2 , because she was willing to pay up to $10.

Equity versus Efficiency:

  • Equity means fairness, while efficiency requires that resources go towards their most socially optimal use, so that those who value something most end up getting that which they value. 
  • The tradeoff between equity and efficiency is a major theme of the IB Economics course.
  • What is most efficient (an auction to determine who is willing to pay the most for the chairs) may not be equitable (or fair).
  • When the richest students end up in the chairs, those with lesser ability to pay feel that they’ve been treated unfairly.
  • A lottery in which names would be drawn from a hat to determine who gets a chair is certainly more equitable, but is actually less efficient, since those who get the chairs may not be those who place the greatest value on having a chair.
  • Auctioning the chairs assures that those who value them the most will end up getting them, therefore resources are allocated most efficiently.

 

19 responses so far

Jan 11 2012

The Tragedy of the Commons as a Market Failure

Over the last few weeks in our IB Economics class, we have been studying cases in which markets fail to achieve an efficient, socially optimal level of production and consumption when the private buyers and sellers are left to interact in a free market. Markets fail in many ways; sometimes they produce too much of a good, and sometimes too little is produced. There are some things society would benefit from having more of, while other things society would be better off with less than what is produced by the free market.

When the free market fails to achieve a socially optimal level of output, at which the costs and benefits not just of the individual consumers and producers are accounted for, but all social, environmental and health costs and benefits are weighed as well, the government may be able to improve on the free market outcome by intervening in some way. For example, certain goods deemed beneficial for society are simply under-provided by private firms: Education, infrastructure, public transportation, security, health care… these are all markets in which government often intervenes to increase the provision of the good to society. In other cases, government intervenes to decrease the amount of a good consumed: Cigarettes, alcohol, reckless driving, polluting factories, violence on TV, child pornography, dangerous drugs… in each of these cases governments tend to use taxes, regulation or legislation to reduce the amount of the harmful good available on the market.

Besides the merit (beneficial) goods and the demerit (harmful) goods described above, markets may fail in other ways as well. One notable form of market failure arises due to a phenomenon first articulated by American ecologist Garrett Hardin, who warned of the Tragedy of the Commons. In his 1968 essay, Hardin explained that when there exist common resources, for which there is no private owner, the incentive among rational users of that resources is to exploit it to the fullest potential in order to maximize their own self gain before the resource is depleted. The tragedy of the commons, therefore, is that common resources will inevitably be depleted due to humans’ self-interested behavior, leaving us with shortages in key resources essential to human survival.

Each of the videos below illustrates a different example of the tragedy of the commons. Watch the videos and think about how each applies Hardin’s concept.

Example 1: Thousands of fishermen empty lake in minutes:

Example 2 – Dr. Suess’s The Lorax
YouTube Preview Image

Example 3 – Tuna fishing

In each of the videos above, there is a common resource (fish and trees) over which no ownership has previously been established. The resource users (the Malian fishermen, the Once-ler and his family and the tuna boat), all have a strong incentive to maximize their own short term gain by extracting and exploiting the resource as quickly as possible.

  • In the Mali fishing hole, the outcome is observable: within minutes the resource is depleted and there are no more fish for for future fisherman to enjoy.
  • In The Lorax the result of the Once-ler’s exploitation of the forest is foretold in the beginning of the story when the young boy comes upon the desolate outskirts of his town.
  • The tragedy of the commons acts as a warning to the tuna fishing industry, in which there are still tuna surviving in the world’s oceans, but at the rates industrial fishing boats such as the Albatun Tres exploit the resource, it will not be around much longer.
In each instance above, a market failure occurs. Due to the lack of private ownership over valuable resources, self-interested individuals stand to gain by exploiting them to the fullest extent possible while they still exist. The unfortunate outcome is that over time the resources are exploited unsustainably until they are ultimately depleted. As in the case of merit and demerit goods, the market failure of common resources provides an opportunity for government to intervene to achieve a more socially optimal allocation of resources. In the interview below, Garrett Hardin suggests that there are only two possible solutions to the tragedy of the commons. Watch the video and then respond to the discussion questions that follow.

Garret Hardin – the Tragedy of the Commons

Discussion Questions:

  1. Hardin refers to Karl Marx’s adage “from each according to his abilities, to each according to this needs.” What does Hardin have against this socialist idea?
  2. How does Hardin’s example of a “common pasture” illustrate the tragedy of the commons? How is a common pasture similar to the three examples in the videos above?
  3. According to Hardin, what are the only two solutions to the common pasture problem? Which of these solutions do you think would be most socially desirable?
  4. Explain Hardin’s claim that “the unmanaged commons cannot possibly work once the population gets above a certain size”. Of the world’s common resources today, what are some examples of common resources that remain unmanaged?
  5. Whose responsibility should it be to decide how common resources should be dealt with?
  6. Do you agree with Hardin’s claim that “the world cannot possibly live at the American standard of living at its present population size”? Which of his predictions do you think is most likely to occur: Will the American (and Western European) standard of living have to go down or will the number of people in the world have to be reduced? Or is there a third possibility? Discuss.

5 responses so far

Aug 21 2011

Thoughts on Scarcity and the big questions of Economics

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!

No responses yet

Next »