Cultural Econ.: The Weakness of the Trilogy

We just finished discussing the economic trilogy of scarcity, choice and cost. Resources are considered scarce when they have at least two alternative uses. Something is scarce because we can figure out more uses for an item than there are items. Our wants and desires are limitless, but resources are limited. Ultimately, we must make choices. And the costs of those choices are the forgoing of the next highest alternatives. When we say yes to one alternative, we say no to the other. That is the cost we experience. It is a lost opportunity cost that may or may not have anything to do with dollar amounts on price tags or bar codes. It has, however, everything to do with life.

There would be no such thing as the study of economics as we know it were it not for the trilogy of scarcity, choice, and cost. Economics is a discipline that recognizes and assumes the ultimate proposition that basically everything is scarce and we need formal mechanisms to help us make our choices by more clearly recognizing and accepting the lost opportunity costs incurred.

The trilogy of scarcity, choice and cost is the bedrock premise of economics as we know it.

Individuals are exposed to the basic principles of economics from the cradle. Mommy is the supplier of food; baby is the demander or consumer. Baby, however, is the supplier of peace and quiet and mommy is the demander of peace and quiet. Each learns quickly the terms of the barter. The young child even learns early on that price is the ratio of product values, and that credit for future favors can be purchased in the present and used later.

The scarcity, choice and cost situation pops up very early. “Do you want mommy to continue to rock you?” Baby nods yes . . . “then, stop crying.” “Do you want mommy to put you in your bed?” Baby emphatically shakes head no . . . “then, stop crying.” At a later stage mommy sets out two outfits of clothing on the bed and says, “Today, you get to choose which outfit you want to wear.” “Which toy do you want to take with us in the car?” “Do you want to go to the store with mommy or stay at home with grandma?”

Later on, we teach our kids how to play such games as Monopoly. A little later yet, someone else teaches our kids how to play poker. The games are based on scarcity, choice, and cost. There are only so many houses, so many hotels, and only so much money with the Monopoly game. There are only so many cards and so many options in Poker. One person wins . . . at the expense of the other.

Both games include a striking similarity: . . one player ends up with “more” only as another player ends up with “less.” They are “zero sum games.” The only way one can gain is at the expense of someone else. It is like an apple pie: if one person eats more another person gets less.

Over the years our culture has bought into the economic concept of scarcity, choice,and cost to such a degree that it has become an axiomatic factor of life. There is only so much and there is nothing more. We really have accepted that we live in a closed economy. If you have something it is because someone else does not. You took it away from someone else or you wouldn’t have more.

Throughout the years of being involved in the world of business and economics, and even in my writings about the subjects, there has repeatedly been a subtle gnawing in my subconscious that something was not fitting together correctly. Just because you can deal with the issue of scarcity, choice, and cost, doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no more available than we have chosen to see and utilize.

All scientific thought involves simplification of reality. The real world is far too complex for even the most sophisticated computers to handle, to say nothing of the human mind. So, scientists resort to using models instead. Models use simplified assumptions about some aspect of the real world. Those models, however, are always based on assumed conditions that are simpler than those of the real world, assumptions that are necessarily false. A model of the real world cannot be the real world. The trilogy of scarcity, choice, and cost is a wonderful mechanism to be used for what it was designed. But its assumptions are not veritable reality.

The study of economics as a formal discipline is relatively new. Adam Smith wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776, the same year our nation was founded. That’s pretty recent for a disciplinary science. But economic models and handy tools, like production possibility curves and other two dimensional graphs based on scarcity, choice, and cost, have been so helpful that, in my opinion, we have slipped over the edge in our thinking to believe that everything must fit the scarcity model. That is both sad and dangerous. Just because the rooster crows before the dawn does not mean the rooster wakes up the sun.

It becomes very easy to presume that the reason we have an abundance of poor people in the world is because we have a few other people who have grabbed a huge portion of the pie and left everyone else without. The assumption that everything is based on the concept of a closed economy, where all resources are deficient or depleted, will tend to promote the idea of a zero sum economy. That is a circular trap. That is a scary weakness.

If we allow the convenience of the neat model of, scarcity, choice, and cost to persuade us that the zero sum economic concept is true, then our later decisions will be adversely skewed. No longer will we employ creativity and imagination to discover new and additional resources for our problem solving, but, rather, spend all our efforts on trying to make do with only the limited resources with which we are familiar.

We will fall into the trap of thinking that all the gas, oil, and energy resources are owned and controlled by dubious charlatans in the Middle East, and one day in the future we will simply be without those resources. We will start trying to figure the cost to be experienced when the scarcity finally catches up with us, rather than becoming motivated and excited about the world’s largest deposits of potential energy actually having been deposited in basins bordering North Dakota. Or better yet, perhaps a whole new and different concept for energy is just around the corner of being discovered. If we live within the world of scarcity, choice, and cost alone, it will surely become a self-fulfilling prophecy and everything, indeed, will become truly scarce.

The net result of scarcity is poverty. The net result of poverty is dependency.

After traveling in over 150 countries of the world and observing the cultures and economies, I have come to believe that the problem of scarcity can be overcome and the cycle of poverty can be broken. One effective strategy has been the phenomenon of microcredit. In 2006, The Nobel Peace Prize went to Muhammad Yunus for his work providing microcredit to the poor.

The idea germinated in Bangladesh in 1976 with the Garmeen Bank delivering small loans at low interest rates to rural poor. The program became a popular tool for economic development throughout the third world, and sparked a revolution in micro-entrepreneurship. The newly created enterprises generated employment, and the efforts began to create and grow new and real wealth. Today seventy-five percent of all microcredit recipients worldwide are women who are now given a chance to establish a sustainable means of income. Growing the enterprises increases disposable income. That leads to more economic growth and development. The results of the model are just exactly opposite of the zero sum economic idea.

The new business owners of the micro enterprises don’t have more because someone else in the village has less. Others in the village, in fact, also end up with more. Everyone starts to become “better off.” What a glorious experience it is to see the power of debilitating poverty being reversed, and people who have been held down by governments and tradition being given an opportunity to become part of the solution rather than the problem.

The economic trilogy of scarcity, choice, and cost is a wonderful mechanism as long as its use is not allowed to slide into zero sum economic thinking.

Next Week: Supposin’ . . . What if?

(Research ideas from Dr. Jackson’s new writing project on Cultural Economics)

© Dr. James W. Jackson  

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