EconomicsA social science that examines how people choose among the alternatives available to them. is a social science that examines how people choose among the alternatives available to them. It is social because it involves people and their behavior. It is a science because it uses, as much as possible, a scientific approach in its investigation of choices.
All choices mean that one alternative is selected over another. Selecting among alternatives involves three ideas central to economics: scarcity, choice, and opportunity cost.
Our resources are limited. At any one time, we have only so much land, so many factories, so much oil, so many people. But our wants, our desires for the things that we can produce with those resources, are unlimited. We would always like more and better housing, more and better education—more and better of practically everything.
If our resources were also unlimited, we could say yes to each of our wants—and there would be no economics. Because our resources are limited, we cannot say yes to everything. To say yes to one thing requires that we say no to another. Whether we like it or not, we must make choices.
Our unlimited wants are continually colliding with the limits of our resources, forcing us to pick some activities and to reject others. ScarcityThe condition of having to choose among alternatives. is the condition of having to choose among alternatives. A scarce goodA good for which the choice of one alternative requires that another be given up. is one for which the choice of one alternative requires that another be given up.
Consider a parcel of land. The parcel presents us with several alternative uses. We could build a house on it. We could put a gas station on it. We could create a small park on it. We could leave the land undeveloped in order to be able to make a decision later as to how it should be used.
Suppose we have decided the land should be used for housing. Should it be a large and expensive house or several modest ones? Suppose it is to be a large and expensive house. Who should live in the house? If the Lees live in it, the Nguyens cannot. There are alternative uses of the land both in the sense of the type of use and also in the sense of who gets to use it. The fact that land is scarce means that society must make choices concerning its use.
Virtually everything is scarce. Consider the air we breathe, which is available in huge quantity at no charge to us. Could it possibly be scarce?
The test of whether air is scarce is whether it has alternative uses. What uses can we make of the air? We breathe it. We pollute it when we drive our cars, heat our houses, or operate our factories. In effect, one use of the air is as a garbage dump. We certainly need the air to breathe. But just as certainly, we choose to dump garbage in it. Those two uses are clearly alternatives to each other. The more garbage we dump in the air, the less desirable—and healthy—it will be to breathe. If we decide we want to breathe cleaner air, we must limit the activities that generate pollution. Air is a scarce good because it has alternative uses.
Not all goods, however, confront us with such choices. A free goodA good for which the choice of one use does not require that another be given up. is one for which the choice of one use does not require that we give up another. One example of a free good is gravity. The fact that gravity is holding you to the earth does not mean that your neighbor is forced to drift up into space! One person’s use of gravity is not an alternative to another person’s use.
There are not many free goods. Outer space, for example, was a free good when the only use we made of it was to gaze at it. But now, our use of space has reached the point where one use can be an alternative to another. Conflicts have already arisen over the allocation of orbital slots for communications satellites. Thus, even parts of outer space are scarce. Space will surely become more scarce as we find new ways to use it. Scarcity characterizes virtually everything. Consequently, the scope of economics is wide indeed.
The choices we confront as a result of scarcity raise three sets of issues. Every economy must answer the following questions:
Every economy must determine what should be produced, how it should be produced, and for whom it should be produced. We shall return to these questions again and again.
It is within the context of scarcity that economists define what is perhaps the most important concept in all of economics, the concept of opportunity cost. Opportunity costThe value of the best alternative forgone in making any choice. is the value of the best alternative forgone in making any choice.
The opportunity cost to you of reading the remainder of this chapter will be the value of the best other use to which you could have put your time. If you choose to spend $20 on a potted plant, you have simultaneously chosen to give up the benefits of spending the $20 on pizzas or a paperback book or a night at the movies. If the book is the most valuable of those alternatives, then the opportunity cost of the plant is the value of the enjoyment you otherwise expected to receive from the book.
The concept of opportunity cost must not be confused with the purchase price of an item. Consider the cost of a college or university education. That includes the value of the best alternative use of money spent for tuition, fees, and books. But the most important cost of a college education is the value of the forgone alternative uses of time spent studying and attending class instead of using the time in some other endeavor. Students sacrifice that time in hopes of even greater earnings in the future or because they place a value on the opportunity to learn. Or consider the cost of going to the doctor. Part of that cost is the value of the best alternative use of the money required to see the doctor. But, the cost also includes the value of the best alternative use of the time required to see the doctor. The essential thing to see in the concept of opportunity cost is found in the name of the concept. Opportunity cost is the value of the best opportunity forgone in a particular choice. It is not simply the amount spent on that choice.
The concepts of scarcity, choice, and opportunity cost are at the heart of economics. A good is scarce if the choice of one alternative requires that another be given up. The existence of alternative uses forces us to make choices. The opportunity cost of any choice is the value of the best alternative forgone in making it.
Identify the elements of scarcity, choice, and opportunity cost in each of the following:
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Oil is an exhaustible resource. The oil we burn today will not be available for use in the future. Part of the opportunity cost of our consumption of goods such as gasoline that are produced from oil includes the value people in the future might have placed on oil we use today.
It appears that the cost of our use of oil may be rising. We have been using “light crude,” the oil found in the ground in deposits that can be readily tapped. As light crude becomes more scarce, the world may need to turn to so-called “heavy crude,” the crude oil that is found in the sandy soil of places such as Canada and Venezuela. That oil exists in such abundance that it propels Venezuela to the top of the world list of available oil. Saudi Arabia moves to the second position; Canada is third.
The difficulty with the oil mixed in the sand is that extracting it is far more costly than light crude, both in terms of the expenditures required and in terms of the environmental damage that mining it creates. Northern Alberta, in Canada, boasts a Florida-sized area whose sandy soils are rich in crude oil. Some of that oil is 1,200 feet underground. Extracting it requires pumping steam into the oily sand and then pumping up the resultant oily syrup. That syrup is then placed into huge, industrial-sized washing machines that separate crude oil. What is left over is toxic and will be placed in huge lakes that are being created by digging pits in the ground 200 feet deep. The oil produced from these sands has become important—Alberta is the largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States.
Sands that are closer to the surface are removed by bulldozers and giant cranes; the forest over it is cleared away. The oily sand is then hauled off in two-story dump trucks which, when filled, weigh more than a Boeing 747. Total SA, a French company, is leading the race to develop Canada’s oil. Jean Luc-Guiziou, the president of Total SA’s Canadian operations, says that the extraordinarily costly process of extracting heavy crude is something the world is going to have to get used to. “The light crude undiscovered today is getting scarcer and scarcer,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “We have to accept the reality of geoscience, which is that the next generation of oil resources will be heavier.”
Already, Total SA has clear-cut thousands of acres of forest land in order to gain access to the oily sand below. The process of extracting heavy crude oil costs the company $25 a barrel—compared to the $6 per barrel cost of extracting and refining light crude. Extracting heavy crude generates three times as much greenhouse gas per barrel as does light crude. By 2015, Fort McMurray, the small (population 61,000) town that has become the headquarters of Northern Alberta’s crude oil boom, will emit more greenhouse gas than the entire country of Denmark (population 5.4 million). Canada will exceed its greenhouse gas quota set by the Kyoto Accords—an international treaty aimed at limiting global warming—largely as a result of developing its heavy crude deposits.
No one even considered the extraction of heavy crude when light crude was cheap. In the late 1990s, oil cost just $12 per barrel, and deposits of heavy crude such as those in Canada attracted little attention. By mid-2006, oil sold for more than $70 per barrel, and Canada’s heavy crude was suddenly a hot commodity. “It moved from being just an interesting experiment in northern Canada to really this is the future source of oil supply,” Greg Stringham of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers told Al Jazeera.
Alberta’s energy minister, Greg Melchin, defends the province’s decision to proceed with the exploitation of its oily sand. “There is a cost to it, but the benefits are substantially greater,” he insists.
Not everyone agrees. George Poitras, a member of the Mikisew Cree tribe, lives downstream from the oil sands development. “You see a lot of the land dug up, a lot of the boreal forest struck down and it’s upsetting, it fills me with rage,” he says. Diana Gibson of the Parkland Institute, an environmental advocacy group, says that you can see the environmental damage generated by the extraction of oil sands around Fort McMurray from the moon. “What we are going to be having is destruction of very, very valuable ecosystems, and permanent pollution,” she says.
Sources: “Alberta’s Heavy Oil Burden,” Al Jazeera English, March 17, 2008 (see english.aljazeera.net); and Russell Gold, “As Prices Surge, Oil Giants Turn Sludge into Gold,” The Wall Street Journal Online, March 27, 2006, A1.