Archive for the 'Scarcity' Category

Aug 24 2015

The tragedy of the commons in the Arizona desert

A common access resource is one that is non-excludable but rivalrous: anyone can access it and use it but doing so reduces the benefits the resource can provide to others in society. Common examples are pastureland that is shared by cattlemen, fish in the open ocean and the atmosphere itself, which the more it is used as a sink for toxic air pollutants, the worse human health becomes.

In the American West, examples of common access resources abound, leading to several tragedies of the commons, the problems arising from individuals over-using a common resource for their own gain at the expense of others in society whose ability to benefit from the resource is diminished.

Lately farms have been popping up deep in the Arizona desert. Not because there is lots of water in the desert, which of course, there is not; rather because the water that lies under the desert floor is not managed by anyone and is a pure common access resource. Anyone is allowed to use as much of it as they want without any regulations regarding its use!

The story below from Marketplace sheds some more light on this story.

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Aug 24 2015

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!

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Feb 25 2015

Art, meet Economics

Here’s a great story about the importance of getting an education in both Art and Economics: ArtNet News – New York Times Exposes Peter Lik Photography SchemeGive it a read before reading the rest of this post.

Lik

There’s a lot of interesting Microeconomic applications of this story. Lik makes 995 prints of a photograph, sells them for cheap at first, but as they become more “scarce” the price rises. If the prints were, in fact, becoming “scarcer” then there might be a justification for their prices rising, and it is this illusion of increasing scarcity that tricks his (apparently un-art-educated and un-economics-educated) buyers into being willing to pay a much higher price for the final few prints than was paid for the first several prints sold.

In fact, the prints don’t become scarcer as more are sold, rather, the quantity supplied remains constant at 995. In most markets, to sell additional units of a product, the price typically has to decrease (since those who are willing to pay the most will buy first), but in the market for Lik’s photographs, those willing to pay most are the LAST buyers of the good. He has managed to reverse the rationale behind consumer behavior by creating an artificial sense of increasing scarcity, and thereby tricking his buyers into believing they are investing in an asset that increases in value over time rather purchasing a good that only loses value once it leaves the gallery.

Assuming demand for a particular print is fixed in a period of time, there really should be a single price as long as the quantity supplied does not change (which it doesn’t!!). But by making his buyers think the scarcity is increasing (by implying that the more are sold, the fewer the there are available to buy), demand actually rises as more prints are sold and the the price correspondingly increases. There is no actual change in the quantity supplied, only demand, and the reason demand is increasing is the belief that the rising price signals increasing scarcity, thus the ability to sell the art for an even higher price in the future. Art can be an investment, like gold, which people demand more of when the price is rising, because of the anticipation of future price increases (and thus the ability to make a profit on the purchase and future sale of the asset). As it turns out, the secondary market for Lik’s prints is tiny and few buyers have ever turned a profit on their purchase of a Lik print.

The fact that the prints’ prices are rising is evidence only of Lik’s monopolistic, price-making power, not a real increase in the market value of a Peter Lik print. Lik himself reveals this ruse when he says about his art, “”It’s like a Mercedes-Benz, you drive it off the lot, it loses half its value.”

The moral of this story: If you don’t study both ART and ECONOMICS in school, never pretend to be a skilled art collector, because you’re only being tricked by scam artists (and savvy businessmen!) like Peter Lik!

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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.

 

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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.

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