Start Up: A Drive in the Country
Suppose you decide to take a drive. For purposes of this example, we will assume that you have a car available, that the weather is pleasant, and that there is an area nearby that will be perfect for your drive.
Your decision to take this drive is a choice. Since economics deals with choices, we can put economics to work in thinking about it. Economists assume that people make choices that maximize the value of some objective. You are a consumer; we assume that taking a drive is a choice that maximizes your utility—the satisfaction you obtain from your use of goods and services and from the activities you pursue.
You certainly plan to enjoy the drive; that enjoyment is the benefit you expect from it. But you will give up some things as well. Your drive will take some time, time you could have spent doing something else. It will take some gasoline; what you spend for the gasoline could have been used for something else. The drive will also generate some wear and tear on your car. That will cost you the price of repair and maintenance and reduced resale value of your car. The opportunity cost of your drive will thus include the value of the best other use of your time and the value of the best other use of the funds your drive will require. To maximize utility you will weigh the benefits of the drive against the cost of the drive and maximize the difference between those benefits and costs.
This chapter introduces the method through which maximizing choices can be made. This method applies not just to your decision to take a drive, but also to Wal-Mart’s decision to hire extra workers and to USX Corporation’s to produce extra steel. The method we will learn can be applied to the analysis of any choice; we will use it throughout our investigation of microeconomics.
We will also see how maximizing choices by individuals and by firms can lead to an allocation of resources that generates the greatest gains possible for the economy as a whole. In this analysis, we will put a new item in our toolkit, the method through which individuals and firms maximize, together with demand and supply analysis, to see how the marketplace can guide resources to their best uses.
We will also examine cases in which maximizing choices do not guide resources to their best uses. That possibility is suggested by another aspect of your choice to take a drive. In addition to the costs you will consider, there will be costs imposed on others. Your drive will pollute the air, so part of the opportunity cost of the drive will be the value of the slightly cleaner air people in your area might have had. Resources such as the air we breathe will almost certainly be misallocated as the result of maximizing choices. We will see just how misallocation of an economy’s resources can occur and how this misallocation could be fixed.