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.

• 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.

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.

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.

• 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.

Sep 02 2010

## “Guns vs. Butter” – The PPC and tradeoffs in the real world

School kids feel the bite of high food prices – May. 5, 2008

A classic method of teaching the basic economic concept of the production possibilities curve is to illustrate the relationship between a nation's decision to invest in military goods versus civilian goods. The model typically includes two “products” that a nation can choose to invest in: guns and butter. The specific goods themselves are not so important, rather what they are meant to represent: the tradeoff any nation faces between allocating more of its scarce resources towards national defense versus goods and services that benefit the nation's consumers.

Today the United States faces a very real version of the old “guns vs. butter” model. Rising global food prices have put public school districts in a bind: how to feed kids nutritious meals as the prices ingredients has risen at unprecedented rates:

Rising food prices are making it harder for schools to cook up ways to give kids the nutrition they need.

Right now, they're taking shortcuts and shuffling ingredients to make up the difference, but that's only a short-term solution with long-term consequences on the horizon.

“I've been in school service for 27 years and this is the worst it's ever been,” said Sara Gasiorowski, food service director for Wayne Township Schools in Indianapolis. “I have never seen food prices jump up so far…”

Food prices nationwide have risen 4.5% between March 2007 and March 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index, with flour and eggs rising even more dramatically than milk. Grumbles said milk prices in her district are up 22% from last year, which means an increase of 3.5 cents for each of the federally required 16,000 half-pints she provides every day.

“For every penny on a carton of milk, it costs me \$30,000 a year,” she said. “That's \$105,000 extra on my food bill.”

Flour prices have roughly doubled over the last year, according to Grumbles, to \$19 per 50-pound bag. To make up for the difference, she substitutes canned peaches for fresh apples “to save a couple pennies” per meal, or she uses ground beef in place of chicken.

Unfortunately, federal funding for school lunches has increased at a much slower rate than cost to districts of providing those meals:

Federal reimbursement programs cover all or part of school districts' lunch tabs. Congress lifts reimbursement rates every year, but Gasiorowski said it hasn't been enough: “We need to be looking at an increase of 12% to 15%, instead of our usual annual increase of 2 or 3%.”

The current federal reimbursement program is based on household incomes; the poorest American students receive \$2.47 of federal funding towards their “free lunches”, while students from the highest income bracket only receive \$0.23 per meal. The problem is, the average school lunch now costs \$3.10, so these days no one is actually receiving a “free lunch”, not even the poorest American students.

This article struck me in that is truly does illustrate the concept of tradeoffs as illustrated in the production possibilities curve. Society must allocate its scarce resources towards the goods and services it deems most desirable based on the needs of its citizens. Complications arise in this basic model, however, when government is involved.

The commitment to subsidizing school lunches is based on the idea that if the responsibility of feeding American school children were left to the free market, resources would surely be underallocated towards nutritious meals, representing a market failure. School lunches are a merit good, meaning they would be underprovided by the free market, since without public provision and support, millions of American children would come to school every day without nutritious meals to get them through the day.

National defense is another service that governments find it necessary to provide.  If it were left completely up to the free market, national defense would probably not be provided at all. Instead, only individuals who could afford it would hire private security forces to protect their property. To protect a whole nation, however, government provision of defense is a necessity.

Clearly, both “guns” and “butter” create benefits for society. Among the countless other goods and services the government provides or supports the provision of, the United States faces a tradeoff arising from the scarce resources at the government's disposal. Currently, the US government spends far more on  its military (\$660 billion in 2010!) than it does on lunches for American school children. Clearly, military spending is necessary, but it may be that in the tradeoff between these two important services more resources should be allocated towards “butter” at a period in the US economy when low income households are finding it harder than ever to provide their children with one of life's most basic necessities, nutritious food.

Discussion Questions:

1. What do “guns and butter” represent on the PPC above? Why have economists found it useful to use these two goods on their analysis of the tradeoffs faced by nations?
2. Why doesn't the United States just make all school lunches FREE for all American school children? Wouldn't that make sense? Give an economic argument against this suggestion.
3. Why does the government feel it necessary to allocate any resources towards school lunches? Shouldn't the government just let American families provide their own children with lunch?
4. Say the US government decided to increase its provision of both national defense and school lunches, without reducing its provision of some other good or service. How would it do this? Why wouldn't the government do this?

I have to say that your “guns and butter” diagram is “interesting.” I am not clear on why the United States should spend vastly more on school lunches than on defending the free world While government provided school lunches may have a place, most Americans feed their own children and do not depend on Federal financing.

Where did you get the notion that feeding our children would be “under-provided by the free market”

Here was my reply to this reader. I'm posting it here because I want to make it clear the the diagram above is not meant to make any political statement about US military spending:

Hello,

Actually, the PPC was included simply to illustrate the basic tradeoff that society faces when it chooses how to allocate its scarce resources.

Having taught at least for a short while in public schools, I can say that nutritious lunches are definitely “underprovided” by the free market, that is, many students in poor communities in America depend on the “free and reduced” lunches that are provided through federal and state funding programs… I once volunteer taught in a poor Elementary School in Spokane, Washington where 40% of the students ate only two meals a day, both provided free by the school district: one at 8 in the morning, one at noon. Many of these children had parents who were poor, unemployed, often addicted to drugs, who failed to put any food on the table whatsoever.

In other words, I do think that nutritious meals are a “merit good” which by definition is one that is underprovided by the free market, therefore requires subsidies from the government. Otherwise, why would the government offer such subsidies at all, if these meals were something the free market could adequately provide on its own?

Again, I was not making any political statement with the graph, only pointing out the basic economic concept of tradeoffs and the idea that society must allocate its scarce resources towards an “optimal” combination of goods and services. The article indicates that in this time of rising food prices, not enough of America's resources are going towards providing nutritious meals for school children, indicating that a movement along the PPC might be in order. The degree of such a move is irrelevant, only the fact that a movement must occur if nutritious meals are to continue to be provided. In fact, the x-axis could have represented any other public good the government provides for society, I chose “military spending” so that the current example was consistent with the classic example of “guns vs. butter”.

Hope that clears things up… Best regards,

Jason

Sep 15 2009

## Guns and Butter – a dangerous combination

Indexed » Blog Archive » Resources were not allocated efficiently

Econ students and teachers alike should appreciate this Venn Diagram. What happens when a nation chooses a point on its production possibilities curve somewhere between “guns” and “butter”? Answer, “Accidental shooting”… GET IT?

The punchline: “Resources were not allocated efficiently”

Aug 23 2009

## Rational behavior, opportunity cost, marginal analysis – An intro to the Economic way of thinking

Freakonomics – Laid-Back Labor – New York Times

If you've spent much time on this blog, you know that I'm a fan of the boys at Freakonomics, the book that so aptly applies economic theory to the seemingly benign happenings of everyday life. In the article above the Freakonomists examine the difference between labor and leisure. I thought this article did a good job of introducing some of the basic concepts behind how economists think about the world.

As this year's AP students begin to delve into the world of economics, one of the early topics they study will be the concept of humans as rational beings engaged in the constant pursuit of utility (the economist's word for happiness). According to our text, “Economics assumes that human behavior reflects 'rational self-interest.' Individuals look for and pursue opportunities to increase their utility.”

If, as economists say, the purpose of life it the pursuit of utility, then presumably work is only a tedious but necessary means to an end, which we assume to be leisure. So why, as pointed out in the article above, do so many people willingly choose to spend so much time and money doing things like cooking, knitting, gardening, working in the yard, and other tasks that appear to be work, when they could easily pay others to do these menial chores for them, thus giving them more time for leisure? As the authors say, “Isn't it puzzling that so many middle-aged Americans are spending so much of their time and money performing menial labors when they don't have to?”

Where exists the line between work and leisure? This seems like an apt question to explore from an economic perspective. Here's the author's view:

“Economists have been trying for decades to measure how much leisure time people have and how they spend it, but there has been precious little consensus. This is in part because it's hard to say what constitutes leisure and in part because measurements of leisure over the years have not been very consistent.

Economists typically separate our daily activities into three categories: market work (which produces income), home production (unpaid chores) and pure leisure. How, then, are we to categorize knitting, gardening and cooking? While preparing meals at home can certainly be much cheaper than dining out and therefore viewed as home production, what about the 'cooking for fun' factor?”

Why a professional (let's say a lawyer) who spends 50 hours a week in his office, earning somewhere in the range of \$100 an hour for his labor, would choose to spend two hours mowing his lawn on a Saturday, rather than hiring the neighbor boy to do it for him, truly poses an economic paradox.

Let's see why: If this man's labor is worth \$100 and hour, then we can calculate the opportunity cost of mowing his own lawn as \$200 plus the value to this man of the leisure he could have enjoyed by not mowing his lawn. The man probably could have hired the neighbor boy to mow his lawn for \$20, which would have then freed him up to pursue his own leisure activities (reading, working out, watching a movie, etc.) during those two hours, and compared to the \$200 value of his own labor the \$20 seems like a bargain. So is a lawyer who mows his own lawn acting irrationally?

It would seem the line separating leisure from work has blurred in modern times. A hundred years ago an activity such as sewing or caring for a lawn would certainly have been viewed as work, but today the behavior of millions of Americans would indicate otherwise. As a science rooted in the belief that humans are rational pursuers of their own happiness and leisure, the paradox of the lawn mowing lawyer poses several interesting questions for students of economics.

Discussion Questions:

According to chapter one of our text (McConnell and Brue's Economics, 17th Edition), “Purposeful (rational) behavior does not assume that people and institutions are immune from faulty logic and therefore are perfect decision makers. They sometimes make mistakes.”

1. Is the lawyer who mows his own lawn defying a fundamental rule of economics, that people act rationally? Is he making a mistake by not hiring the neighbor boy to do it for him?
2. What is meant by opportunity cost? Give an example of a decision you have made recently that involved an opportunity cost.
3. How is the lawyer's decision whether or not to mow his lawn rooted in marginal analysis? Describe a choice you've made recently that involved marginal analysis.

May 26 2008

## It may not be a recession, but it sure feels like one…

FT.com / Columnists / Wolfgang Munchau – Inflation and the lessons of the 1970s

It seem that everyone's speculating about the US economy today. Recession or no recession, that is the question. The economy has even surpassed the Iraq War as the number one issue in the US presidential race! John McCain, who has publicly admitted that economics is not his strong suit, may just find himself in trouble in a general election where the most important concern among voters is the economic situation.

So what IS that situation, anyway? Is the US in a recession? In other words, has real gross domestic, or total output in the US economy, actually declined over the last six months? Technically, the answer is no. My fellow blogger, Steve Latter, explains this clearly here. What is true, on the other hand, is that the current situation shares many similarities to the global economic slowdown that did occur in the 1970s.

In 1973 OPEC, the newly formed oil cartel consisting at the time of only Arab states, reduced its output of oil and cut off exports to the United States in response to US support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, in which the Israelis officially occupied the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza and seized the Golan Heights from the sovereign nation of Syria. To punish the US for its position on this conflict, OPEC cut off supplies of oil to the west, driving gas and energy prices upwards by 70%, triggering a supply shock characterized by a decline in total output and an increase in both unemployment and inflation, a phenomenon known as stagflation: a macroeconomic policy maker's worst nightmare.

Recently the world has seen a similar (albeit of a different cause) rise in the price of oil and energy prices. Today the rise in energy prices is driven primarily by rising demand, rather than reduced supply (since the 1970s the OPEC cartel has grown to include many non-Arab nations, making it harder to achieve collusion to restrict output and drive up oil prices). Global demand for oil has risen steadily, driven ever higher due to rapid growth in China and other developing nations, and exacerbated by the falling value of the dollar, the currency in which oil prices are denominated.

The supply shocks of today have combined with falling aggregate demand in the US due to weak consumer spending to slow real growth rates to nearlry 0%. So technically, the US has avoided a recession, but the effect on American workers and consumers may be just as painful as the real recession of the 1970s. In order to prevent the “r” word from becoming a reality today, central banks (including the US Fed) have eased money supplies, lowering interest rates, fueling even greater increases in the price level.

…the global weighted average inflation rate will be 5.4 per cent this year, while the global money market interest rate is currently only 4.3 per cent. This means that global short-term real interest rates are negative – at a time when inflation is rapidly accelerating. As monetary policy has been excessively accommodating for more than a decade, inflationary pressures have built up in the global economy.

Central bankers like Ben Bernanke have to make tough decisions sometimes, weighing the trade-off between unemployment and inflation, and determining their monetary policies based on whatever they deem to be the “lesser of two evils”. Rising energy prices have forced firms to cut either cut back their production and raise the price of their products, both actions that result in less overall spending and output in the economy. Falling house prices have led consumers to cut back their own spending, further reducing demand for firms' output. These factors have all pushed the unemployment rate from around 4.8% a year ago to 5.1% today, which combined with an estimated additional 3-5% of American workers having dropped out of the workforce, (referred to by the Department of Labor as “discouraged workers”) paints a pretty ugly picture of the reality for the American worker today.

The harsh reality of the weak labor market has led Mr. Bernanke and the Fed to pursue an expansionary monetary policy aimed at avoiding further increases in the unemployment rate and decreases in the GDP growth rate. Expansionary monetary policy means lower interest rates, with the goal being increased consumption and investment, both factors that could worsen the inflation problem already experienced thanks to the global supply shock. Evidence indicates that the inflation problem, even in the US where slow growth usually leads to lower price levels, is not going away:

In the US, a survey-based measure of inflationary expectations recently showed an increase to more than 5 per cent. I would estimate there are now several hundred basis points of difference between the current Fed funds rate and an interest rate that would be consistent with price stability in the medium term.

…meaning the Fed, in its attempt to avoid recession and rising unemployment, has created a condition where real interest rates are actually negative, a highly inflationary condition. All this wouldn't be so bad if wages in the US were rising along with the price level. This however, does not appear to be happening:

The main difference between the situation in the 1970s and now is today’s absence of wage inflation, which explains why absolute inflation rates are a little more moderate. I guess this is probably because of some combination of deregulated labour markets and globalisation. But the lack of wage-push inflation is not necessarily good news. Falling real wages mean falling disposable income and tighter credit conditions mean less borrowing for consumption.

Rising prices for energy, transportation and food have put American households in a tough situation. In the past, periods of inflation have often been characterized by rising wages, meaning the full brunt of nominal price level increases was not entirely born by the American worker. Today, on the other hand, a recession has thus far been avoided, but the combination of record numbers of “discouraged workers”, rising unemployment and inflation may make the pain of our current economic situation just as real as recessions of the past.

In the words of billionaire investor and economic sage Warren Buffett just today:

“I believe that we are already in a recession… Perhaps not in the sense as defined by economists. … But people are already feeling the effects of a recession.”

“It will be deeper and longer than what many think,” he added.

Discussion Questions:

1. What is the difference between nominal and real GDP? Which must decline in order for the economy to be in a recession?
2. What impact do rising energy prices have on the behavior of individual firms?
3. Why are low interest rates likely to make the inflation problem even worse?

Sep 11 2007

## The opportunity cost of sex

From the Undercover Economist:

FT.com / Weekend columnists / Tim Harford – Dear Economist

Is there a relationship between a student's decision of whether to have sex and his/her performance in school? Tim Harford finds there just might be.

There is little doubt that virgins achieve better grades. Yet is this because sex kills brain cells, or because kids who are already bored at school look harder for ways to amuse themselves?

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