Chapter 2: Confronting Scarcity: Choices in Production

Start Up: Tightening Security at the World’s Airports

Do you want safer air travel or not? While that question is seldom asked so bluntly, any person who travels by air can tell you that our collective answer has been “yes,” and it has been accompanied by increases in security and its associated costs at airports all over the world. Why? In short, “9/11.” Terrorists hijacked four U.S. commercial airliners on September 11, 2001, and the tragic results that followed led to a sharp tightening in airport security.

In an effort to prevent similar disasters, airport security officials scrutinize luggage and passengers more carefully than ever before. In the months following 9/11, delays of as much as three hours were common as agents tried to assure that no weapons or bombs could be smuggled onto another plane.

“What to produce?” is a fundamental economic question. Every economy must answer this question. Should it produce more education, better health care, improved transportation, a cleaner environment? There are limits to what a nation can produce; deciding to produce more of one thing inevitably means producing less of something else. Individuals in much of the world, after the tragedy of 9/11, clearly were willing to give up time, and a fair amount of individual privacy, in an effort to obtain greater security. Nations and individual cities also devoted additional resources to police and other forms of protection in an effort to prevent tragedies such as 9/11. People all over the world chose to produce less of other goods in order to devote more resources to the production of greater security. And, as of early 2009, the choice to devote more resources to security had paid off; there had been no similar hijackings in the United States.

In this chapter we use our first model, the production possibilities model, to examine the nature of choices to produce more of some goods and less of others. As its name suggests, the production possibilities model shows the goods and services that an economy is capable of producing—its possibilities—given the factors of production and the technology it has available. The model specifies what it means to use resources fully and efficiently and suggests some important implications for international trade. We can also use the model to illustrate economic growth, a process that expands the set of production possibilities available to an economy.

We then turn to an examination of the type of economic system in which choices are made. An economic system is the set of rules that define how an economy’s resources are to be owned and how decisions about their use are to be made. We will see that economic systems differ in terms of how they answer the fundamental economic questions. Many of the world’s economic systems, including the systems that prevail in North America, Europe, and much of Asia and Central and South America, rely on individuals operating in a market economy to make those choices. Other economic systems, including those of Cuba and North Korea today and historically those of the former Soviet Union, Soviet bloc countries, and China, rely—or relied—on government to make these choices. Different economic systems result in different sets of choices and thus different outcomes; the fact that market economies generally outperform the others when it comes to providing more of the things that people want helps to explain the dramatic shift from government-dominated toward market-dominated economic systems that has occurred throughout the world in the past 25 years. The chapter concludes with an examination of the role of government in an economy that relies chiefly on markets to allocate goods and services.

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