Freeman

PERSPECTIVE

All the World's a Classroom

Economics Is Everywhere

AUGUST 01, 1998 by SHELDON RICHMAN

Filed Under : Scarcity

Economic education can happen any time, any place, at any age. Economics is the study of action and its implications for production and exchange. As such, it is accessible to children from an early age. Since every child acts, chooses, and exchanges, nothing is more within the reach of children than the basics of economics properly conceived. It’s simply a matter of making the implicit explicit.

One of the offenses that the modern economics profession should have to answer for is rendering the discipline dull, dismal, and mostly irrelevant. Had my first contact with the subject been Econ 101 at Temple University, I’d have written it off as useless right there. (On the other hand, had former Temple econ prof Walter Williams been there during my stint, things would have been entirely different.)

No surprise that we find economics lessons wherever we look. Choice is everywhere. It’s made necessary by scarcity, which itself is the result of valuation. Something becomes scarce only when human beings find a use for it. Crude oil was all too abundant until a Yale University chemist distilled kerosene from it in the nineteenth century. Before that, a dirt farmer who found oil would pay someone to take it away. After that, he moved to Beverly . . . Hills, that is. This doesn’t work in reverse: rare things are not necessarily valuable—smallpox, for example.

My daughters, son (ages 14, 12, and 10), and I recently saw a commercial offering lottery winners whose cash would be paid out over 20 years a lump sum right now. “Why would that company or a lottery winner be interested in that deal?” I asked the kids. There ensued a lively discussion of exchange, time, and interest. They had no trouble understanding why someone might trade a million dollars payable at $50,000 over 20 years for something less than a million dollars today. They couldn’t say how much less they would accept, but they got the principle. Actually, we had discussed “time preference” on an earlier occasion, when I asked them to choose between having one candy bar today or two next week. That provoked a good discussion.

Economics is everywhere because alternatives are everywhere. To be is to act. To look around is to find oneself in the best economics classroom.

* * *

People who don’t like industrial society often complain that technology makes us no happier than our forebears were. Perhaps. But does that mean modern gadgetry is not worth having? Allan Levite isn’t so sure.

We continue our observance of the 100th anniversary of FEE founder Leonard E. Read’s birth with his article on libertarian methodology, “How to Get Action.”

The environmental movement undercuts its own stated goals whenever it proposes measures that would stifle industrial progress in the developing world. That’s because, as Calvin Beisner writes, a healthful environment requires affluence.

Many government services have been candidates for privatization. But what about something as complex as a zoo? Keith Wade tells of two Pittsburgh animal parks that are doing quite well in private hands.

The image of Russia today is one of a land writhing under a crude embryonic capitalism dominated by organized crime. Gary Dempsey and Aaron Lukas look deeper and see, instead, a land suffering the vestiges of Bolshevism.

But despite its problems, life improves for Russians, at least those who are open to the changes and uncertainties of civil society. So writes Grigory Shishatsky in his “Letter from Russia.”

There was no Great Depression. But there was a Great, Great, Great, Great Depression, courtesy of foolhardy policies from both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Lawrence Reed, taking a break from his monthly column, explains.

Anti-capitalists are apt to pin every possible charge on the free market, even when the charges contradict each other. Business people put profits before people. What’s more, they gladly forgo money in order to discriminate against workers and customers on the basis of irrelevant attributes. John Hood shows how charge number one cancels out charge number two.

Leave it to government to get even old adages wrong. George Leef considers the case of preventions and cures.

Feminism is nearly monopolized today by women who want to use government to build a society according to their vision of justice and equality. It wasn’t always so. Wendy McElroy honors the nineteenth century’s forgotten classical-liberal feminists.

Our columnists this month once again find topics to delight liberty lovers and vex the statists. Doug Bandow examines ways to solve the problem of underage drinking. Dwight Lee explains how we grow richer, thanks to that form of cooperation known as the division of labor. Mark Skousen reports on the publication of a fancy new edition of The Communist Manifesto. And Charles Baird discusses new evidence that even union workers are harmed by strikes.

Our reviewers have perused worthwhile books on race, the common law and the environment, property rights, civility, economist Jean-Baptiste Say, and on how children learn—and don’t learn—to read.

And now for something new. Turn the page for the debut of “It Just Ain’t So!”—a lively feature that exposes flaws and fallacies of popular economic journalism.

—Sheldon Richman

ASSOCIATED ISSUE

August 1998

ABOUT

SHELDON RICHMAN

Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and TheFreemanOnline.org, and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families.

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