An economics lesson from a science teacher


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The best economics lesson I have ever learned came from a science teacher. Mr. Seaver was a guy with a foghorn voice. My youth was directly opposite his classroom. One morning he appeared in the hallway with a ladder. From a leather bag he drew a stencil set, pencils, a few cloths and a small pot of black paint. As he climbed the ladder, he balanced an inscription on the wall: “Life is not determined by what you want. Life is determined by the choices you make.”

The message was contrary to Mr. Seaver’s blistering style, but I was confused. No one before had asked me to consider this concept. I had been under the young impression that the world would always be my oyster.

A child appeared from the crowd gathered. “Hi, Mr. Seaver,” he said, “what are you doing all that up there for?”

Mr. Seaver paused as he wiped his paintbrushes. “I give you the best advice you will ever get, that’s what I do,” he said. “And I write it on the wall so you see it every day. Then you may not forget it. ”

I took it all in and wondered if he was right, both in terms of the advice and the impression he expected them to make. Every day that year, I passed the stenciled slogan on the wall. And every day I did, those words sank like seeds in the wet soil of my teenage soul.

In high school, theater emerged as my biggest interest. I could not wait to audition for plays and musicals. But I had a problem. I also wanted to play football and baseball. Kids compete in these sports year-round now, but when I was growing up, football was an autumn deal and baseball a spring affair. The exercises for plays and musicals came into conflict with play and practice. There was no way around it. I had to make a choice.

Looking back, I can see that the dilemma was not really about my abilities in sports or my theatrical talent. It was a matter of balancing trade-offs. Choosing baseball required sacrificing the game. Choosing one option meant giving up another. A tough lesson for a kid who expected him to get it all.

Teaching science was Mr. Seaver’s job, but he was a better economist than he knew. At its heart, economics is about choice. Sometimes academics take it further and say that economics is about choice in an environment of scarcity. All it means is that most of the time we have to choose between options that are not perfect, or even so amazing. Scarcity implies boundaries, and the world is full of them.

In a world without borders, we would not have to make choices. In an environment of abundance rather than an environment of scarcity, economic laws may not apply. But scarcity and limits limit our choices, and the laws of economics apply – to all of us, whether we like it or not.

You, like me, may want to live in a world without trade-offs, but life is not determined by what we want. Life is determined by the choices we make.

Mr. Hennessey is the magazine’s deputy editor-in-chief and author of “Visible Hand: A Wealth of Notions on the Miracle of the Market,” from which this article is adapted.

Journal Editorial Report: Best and Worst of the Week by Kim Strassel, Jason Riley and Dan Henninger. Photos: AFP / Getty Images / ABC / MSNBC / Zuma Press / Shutterstock Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the print edition on April 26, 2022 as ‘An economics lesson from a science teacher’.

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