A reflection on Econ 1

Dec. 1, 2016, 12:45 a.m.

Econ 1 is taking over my life. I’m not even referring to the anxiety over exams or the weekly grinding through problem sets, although those have been prominent fixtures of this quarter. More importantly, Econ 1 has given me a new lens through which to see the world. It has opened Pandora’s box of useful tools that underpin so many of my everyday decisions.  

I should offer a disclaimer before I continue: I am struggling in Econ 1. I’ll preemptively apologize for the oversimplified, although hopefully accurate, definitions and descriptions that I give. If you notice that I use any vocabulary terms improperly, do not hesitate to send me an email or approach me in person. I’m sure I’ll appreciate the clarification when I take my final exam.

Although my grades might not suggest it, I am always talking about Econ. It all started on Tuesday night of Week 1. We had our first lecture that morning, and I decided to get ahead and read the chapters that were due on Thursday. I felt enthusiastic about chapter one, learning and registering a new concept from every page. By the time I was halfway through chapter two, it was getting late, and my notes were mostly filled with question marks. Somewhere in those first three chapters, I ran into a phrase that explained my decline in understanding: the law of diminishing returns. Initially I benefited significantly from reading a page, but the additional benefit per page gradually decreased as I progressed through the book. At some point, I even experienced negative returns – I would have been better served by sleeping than by continuing to plow through the 80-page assignment. Amused by the comparison and satisfied that I understood something well enough to make a joke about it, I texted a friend: “Does the law of diminishing returns apply to every page of the book that I read?” Since then, I’ve sometimes felt like I’m playing a social sciences version of Pokémon Go, using a new filter to detect the economic concepts hiding in plain sight around me. Out-of-context Econ references became a running joke among some of my classmates.

But in my first quarter at Stanford, applying Econ to daily life has served purposes beyond the comedic. Although you won’t see me pulling out a calculator at the gym, when I am on the elliptical, I am often thinking about the benefits of working out more versus heading back to my dorm and working on something else. In effect, I am comparing marginal utilities – what do I gain from one more minute of exercise versus one extra minute of working on my column for The Stanford Daily? A key concept in economics is that we live in a world of scarcity and have to budget our resources accordingly. Time often seems to be our scarcest resource at Stanford, and with so much to balance in a limited number of hours per day, economics provides a framework for making the most of it.

Even if you have never pondered the concept of marginal utility on the elliptical, an economic way of thinking probably seeps into your daily life. In economics, productivity refers to output per hour, based on factors such as input of physical resources and investment in training. We ubiquitously use the term “productivity” to describe the amount of time, say, wholeheartedly devoted to completing an assignment as opposed to getting distracted by YouTube videos. The economic approach implicitly dominates the thought process of Stanford students seeking to accomplish as much as possible. We grapple with the question of productive efficiency – how to maximize output given the tradeoff between producing one good, in the economic example, versus another – when we consider whether enrolling in one more unit or joining one more student group would detract from our pre-existing obligations. (Personally, whenever I doubt that I am taking advantage of every possible opportunity, I remember that any extra time should be allocated to studying for that dreaded Econ final.)

Although ideas from Econ 1 have made me more effective in my first quarter at Stanford, I have also begun to question the paradigm of an economic worldview. As we noted on the first day of class, economic principles are only one set of guidelines for looking at the world. Discussing our time in terms of productivity implies that doing as much as possible is the purpose of the Stanford experience. Clearly there are equally, if not more, important priorities, which would be inappropriate to describe with economic vocabulary. The concepts of marginal returns and marginal utility have no place in 1 a.m. runs to The Axe and Palm or spontaneous “Hamilton” jam sessions. Much more than efficiency and productivity determine the value of the Stanford experience, and despite its merits, the economic framework should not be held supreme.


Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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