Saturday, January 08, 2005

Opportunity Cost

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Usually when we think about the term costs we think of money. However, in economics we use the word opportunity costs to consider costs in a larger sense.

Normally when we purchase something we give up money in exchange for a good or service we want. But the true cost, or opportunity cost, is usually more than this. If my wife and I decide to go to a movie and pay $20 for tickets we are giving up not only something else that we could purchase with the $20 but also something else that we could have done with the time spent in the theater viewing the movie. It is the other thing that we could have brought with the money as well as the other thing that we could have done with the time that is the true, or opportunity cost. Everything we do involves a choice and when we make a choice the cost of that choice is the other things we could have had or done if we had not made this particular choice.

Now, as rational economic beings we choose that which will give us the greatest satisfaction at that particular moment. The opportunity cost of a particular choice is the next best alternative that you would have chosen. This is the thing you give up in order to obtain the thing you choose.

I may not agree with your choice and, later today or tomorrow you may regret having chosen option 'A' over option 'B'. But this does not invalidate the concept of opportunity cost. You choose what is most important to you at the time based upon the best information available and your desires at that moment. As we grow and mature we should be acquiring the experience and knowledge to enable us to make better decisions and look at choices from a broader perspective.

Advances in technology have done much to reduce opportunity costs but, in a world of unlimited wants and limited resources, opportunity cost still exists. As recently as two hundred years ago shoes (actually boots) were so expensive that most people, if they could afford boots at all, could afford no more than one pair and that pair had to last for years. In England at that time stealing a man's* boots was such a serious crime that the penalty was death (since walking was the main mode of transportation and most work was done outdoors, stealing a man's boots was the equivalent of taking away his ability to support himself and his family). Thanks to advances in technology, shoes today are so inexpensive that even the poorest people can usually afford more than one pair. But while an average person may be able to afford as many pairs of shoes as they want and still have plenty of money left over for other things, opportunity cost is still present. While money may not be the major constraint, space is. Where do you store the shoes? Despite the relative affluence of the average contemporary American, most of us can't afford mansions with unlimited rooms. So the more shoes one acquires and stores by stacking them from floor to ceiling in the closet the less space there is for clothes. With closet space as the scarce resource the opportunity cost of more shoes is fewer clothes.

*NOTE: I am not being sexist here by using the term man. In the era before day care, schools, household appliances, automobiles, etc. women had their hands full working at home and did not have as great a need for shoes. As a result they went barefoot or wore clogs or other cheap foot coverings of some kind.

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