What I Learned in Econ 111

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Because I have learned—I promise. Every day, I walk around campus and look at it with the eyes of an economist, albeit a somewhat myopic one. I may be an English major, but the spirit of Gregory Mankiw is in my bones. I know all about scarcity: of money, of energy, of patience, of time. I know all about the importance of allocation, maximizing utility, the marginal cost of goods.

Economics 111 is my fifth class this semester—a sentence that indicates where it ranks on my list of academic priorities. This class is the reason for the hardest semester of my life, as well as, paradoxically, the means of surviving said semester.

You see, I understand the nature of economics, if not the specific mathematics of the field. The concepts come easily—it’s the technical practice that’s the problem. As a humanities major who has avoided math since graduating high school, I am unused to thinking in the language of graphs and shifting variables. My mind moves slowly over this familiar but rocky path, stumbling and falling behind where others sprint ahead. Nonetheless, the fundamental concepts of Mankiw’s Ten Principles of Economics have taken root in my life.

I have become hyperaware of my own utility. There is an intense rationality in the study of economics—not a cold rationality, but a frank one. It’s all about practicality: these are the resources you have, what can you do with them? My days are organized around maximizing the amount of work I can do, balancing my supply of time with the demand of the tasks I need to accomplish and the places I need to be.

Every moment can be utilized: every minute at dinner that I’m not eating I can be sending emails, every minute I get to class early is an extra minute I have to finish the reading, every minute that I lie awake waiting to fall asleep is a minute I could be writing, so I might as well get up and do it. Ideally, nothing is wasted. Especially not time.

I’m sorry if I seem antsy when I’m in line behind you in Val, when you stop to talk to me outside Frost, when the clock hits 11:30 and our professor is not done talking but class is supposed to be over—its just that economics has taught me the essential value of each second that passes, so much so that each one that I feel like I am not fully using becomes a strike against me. Each wasted moment must be reallocated to something else useful to make up for it.

I don’t like who I am when I look at the world this way, from the exacting viewpoint of the economist. Each action and decision can be broken down into smaller pieces and measured in terms of its value. How can I maximize utility by sending emails while I sit with friends in Keefe? What is the marginal benefit of attending class when I’m sick? I feel mechanical: a being that merely runs along the grooves of life because I have worn over them so many times before.

But there is such satisfaction in a life that runs like clockwork, in which nothing goes to waste. I dream of the efficiency of consumer and producer surplus triangles that fit together snug under the boundaries of supply and demand—the beauty that occurs when all resources are being maximized. It is oddly inspiring, and some mornings I wake up and, depending on my level of sleep deprivation, am filled with an intense reparative drive: I will make a schedule and I will be productive and I will eliminate deadweight loss from my life.

However, I am not the ideal economist—in the end, I am too irrational. Around the middle of February, when campus is blanketed in snow and late-winter despair, a friend tries to convince me to drop the class. I am struggling to balance the work of five classes, and when it comes to allocating time, ironically it is Econ that always seems to receive the least. I am falling hopelessly behind, but I refuse to drop: if I do, what was the point of it all? What was the point of the sleepless nights, the dinners in Frost, the weeks of canceled plans?

“But those are sunk costs, Marie. Do you know what sunk costs are?” He tries to reason with me. Yes, I do know what sunk costs are. Economically speaking, these are costs that have been incurred in the past and cannot be recovered. You are not supposed to take them into account when making future decisions. Economically speaking, I should drop Econ 111. My quality of life would rise; I would be happier. I would definitely sleep more.

But I’m still irrational at heart; I disregard my sunk costs. They only look at the present, at the future. It’s very compelling, very rational, but I am an English major and I don’t study rationality, per se. I want to keep looking at the past.

I am afraid of who I might become under a life shaped by economic models. Such a life is not sustainable, not for me, not this semester, or ever in the future, hopefully. I have learned enough about economics to assert that. I eat, breathe, and (sometimes) sleep economics here at Amherst, for better or for worse. And while I may not be able to convincingly do the math to prove it, I get it. I really do (I’m taking to you, now, Professor). This is me showing that to you in the best way I know how: not in graphs and equations, but in words, in my very life.

So please, please don’t fail me.