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What I Learned in Econ 111

570px-Profit_max_marginal_small.svg(Marie Lambert)– 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.

About Marie Lambert

Amherst's own Hazel Weatherfield, girl detective.

7 comments on “What I Learned in Econ 111

  1. Lolade (Lola) Fadulu
    April 29, 2014

    Nice post, Marie! I really enjoyed reading this from your perspective as an English major. I’ve been thinking about majoring in English and am taking Intro to Econ this fall. Would love to talk with you more about your experience!

  2. Louie Zuniga
    April 29, 2014

    You obviously didn’t take intro with Barbezat

    • Marie Lambert
      April 29, 2014

      I actually do have Barbezat, who has been great. He actively tries to add a humanizing element to the subject, which I’ve really appreciated this semester.

  3. Alvaro Morales
    April 29, 2014

    Hi Marie,

    Cheers on a great article. Prof. Barbezat is “the hardest professor in the economics department” according to the professor that everyone thinks is the hardest professor in the economics department. I applaud you for taking a course that is perhaps out of your comfort zone, and I guarantee it will be a rewarding experience.

    I ask that you reconsider what “maximizing utility” is. In Econ 111, this is pretty simple: firms want profit and profit is easily measured. Utility gets complicated if you are not a profit-maximizing firm. Utility is not a concept humans can measure, and we have to decide for ourselves what it even means (taking into account constraints, etc. etc.).

    Prof. Barbezat has helped me think about the concept of utility many times and in many contexts, and I encourage you to speak with him in office hours or to take his “Consumption and Happiness” course. Perhaps skipping class because you are sick, or even because you just don’t feel like it, is not irrational. From what you wrote in the article, I’m not convinced you are actually “hyperaware of your own utility.” But then again, my whole point is that I will never know if you are actually maximizing utility or using all of your resources in the most efficient manner.

    I’m not sure what my own utility is, but I know the concept vaguely enough to realize that the marginal utility from spending spring break in the Smoky Mountains with my best friends was greater than the marginal utility from spending an extra week working on my economics thesis. Anyone that claims my actions were irrational probably misunderstands what utility maximizing means.

    I’ll leave you with what economist William Stanley Jevons, who spent his life trying to define and measure utility so that economics could become a real science, wrote about utility in 1888:

    My principal work now lies in tracing out the exact nature and conditions of utility. It seems strange indeed that economists have not bestowed more minute attention on a subject which doubtless furnishes the true key to the problem of Economics.
    In the first place, utility, though a quality of things, is no inherent quality. It is better described as a circumstance of things arising out of their relation to man’s requirements. As Senior most accurately says, “Utility denotes no intrinsic quality in the things which we call useful; it merely expresses their relations to the pains and pleasures of mankind.” We can never, therefore, say absolutely that some objects have utility and others have not.

    • Marie Lambert
      April 29, 2014

      Thanks for your comment, Alvaro. You’re right, I am operating from a very limited and literal understanding of utility. Granted, as you said, it seems to be the greatest depth of understanding that Econ 111 can provide, and I’m sure that further study on the subject would give me a more dynamic concept of how complicated utility can be. As it stands, the way I present utility was intended to be more of a rhetorical device (as Barbezat is fond of saying) for conveying my academic struggle this semester. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment; you’ve given me a lot to think about, especially with that last quote.

  4. Jenny Xiao
    May 8, 2014

    Hi Marie,

    I am impressed with your drive to take Economics as your fifth course. As someone has struggled twice with cramming 5.5 courses into my schedule, I know exactly how demanding it is. All powers to you!

    However, I do have a few things to say regarding your stand on ‘utility maximizing’. For starters, I am a bit uncomfortable at the idea of analyzing our every single behavior from the perspective of ‘utility’ – funny for me to say that since I am a die-hard Econ major. However, as much as I enjoy learning the useful – and powerful- economic models, I am also becoming increasingly aware that it is not applicable to everything in life; it is in fact dangerous to tackle everything using cost-benefit analysis and maximizing utility. Economics offers us one perspective, not necessarily the correct one, but one that is thought-provoking, your article being the prime example.

    We shouldn’t equate utility with productivity. Your definition of utility, based on my limited understanding, is what could result in achievements that our society rewards – sacrificing sleep to gain a higher grade, sacrificing time with friends to attend another meeting that looks good on the resume. However, why isn’t sleeping part of our utility? Why isn’t sitting down at Val and having a nice long meal with a group of friends and feeling validated and fulfilled afterwards part of our utility? My answer is that they are – the activities that make us human should also be calculated as part of our utility, if we so choose to work under the framework of ‘utility maximizing’. Ultimately, we all have our own utility function, prioritizing things that we hold dearest to us.

    I also have a lot of problem with the claim of ‘rationality’ in Economics in general. If we define rationality to mean ‘acting out one’s preference’, then wouldn’t following your heart also be rational? But then the definition becomes meaningless because duh we always act out our preferences.

    Hope your reading period and finals period goes well, and that you will maximize your utility both as a student and as a human being who deserves sleep and relaxing.

  5. Anonymous
    May 14, 2014

    Rational Fools, Amartya Sen.

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This entry was posted on April 29, 2014 by in Academic, Amherst College Losses, Amherst College Victories and tagged , , , .
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