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Friday, June 13, 2008

Choice and responsibility: self-help or just good economics?

On the first day of every class I teach, I ask students to write down how they complete the sentence: Economics is the study of _______. The answers rarely surprise me - money, the economy, supply and demand, maybe scarcity or trade-offs from someone who has taken an econ class before. Then I tell them my answer: Economics is the study of choices. I follow that with "And since life is a series of choices, economics is really the study of life." There are always a few snickers at that and I acknowledge I'm being a little melodramatic but I also tell them that even if it seems an exaggeration, I hope they will come to see the ways in which it is true.

I was reminded of this when I saw a post on Zen Habits about taking responsibility. The post points out how many people fail to take responsibility for their lives; everything is someone else's fault. As a teacher, I see this all the time in my students (the excuses are generally more creative than 'the dog ate my homework' but they are excuses nonetheless). But what I try to get across to my students is that economists simply don't believe one can ever say, "I had no choice". Some decisions are so trivial (do you get up when the alarm goes off or hit snooze?) or so easy (your money or your life) that we may not think twice about them but they are still choices, and choices have consequences. Usually when someone says they "had no choice", it just means that the consequence of the alternative was so awful that the choice was easy but although it may be horrible to consider disappointing your parents or losing your job or even dying, that doesn't mean you have no choice about going to college or working overtime or handing over your wallet.

These may seem like bizarre examples - I'm certainly not advocating that students drop out of school or employees tell their bosses to jump in a lake. My point is that when you realize that all your actions are choices, it's harder to play the victim, to avoid taking at least a little responsibility. At the same time, it means you have more control, over the good AND the bad. Making good decisions requires being clear about the costs and benefits of your options but first you have to recognize that you HAVE options. I often think that if I can just get this one idea across to my students, to get them to REALLY believe it, then I will not only have taught them some economics but I will have helped them to become better people.


  1. I'm going to steal your opening-day question...I suspect, however, that many of my intro econ students would have no answer, even though most of them will have taken "economics" (and, yes, I think the quotes are necessary) in high school.

  2. Yep, one reason I ask the question is precisely because many of them have taken a class that was called "economics" in high school and I want to make them consciously aware of what they THINK economics is - and then hopefully they will see that economics is actually something different from what they thought! It also usually leads nicely into a discussion of macro versus micro because there's always a lot of students who equate economics only with macro stuff.


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