First World Problems



The end of the summer means the beginning of a new semester. Once again, I have the privilege of teaching economic principles.

There is something truly exciting about introducing students to the economic way of thinking for the first time. At the same time, I always feel a pang of anxiety. It’s not because I’m worried about the material I have to cover, or whether or not my students will inevitably voice their displeasure at the difficulty of an assignment or an exam. I worry because I feel a duty to my students to do my best as their professor. If I truly believe (and I do) that economics is important for them to learn, then I owe it to them to give them the best class possible.

Like a first date, the first day of class is critically important. It sets the tone for the rest of the semester. Not only do I work to get an idea of what my group of students will be like, but my students are looking at me, hoping to learn the same.

After a brief discussion of the syllabus, I try to give my students something to take with them that day other than discussions of homework policy and what to do in the event of a hurricane (when I taught at GMU in grad school it was snow, here in Florida it’s hurricanes—always something). For the past few years I have always used Leonard Reed’s I, Pencil as a way to start the course. (For a great video see here). But this year I wanted to do something different.

It just so happened that a few days before the start of the semester I was on Facebook. A friend of mine posted a status about how she dropped her wine aerator in the garbage disposal, with the commentary that it was “probably the most first world thing to happen to me today.” #firstworldproblems

Alas, inspiration.

Fast forward to the first day of class. I pulled up a PowerPoint and asked my students, to give me some “third world” or “developing nation” problems? Students answered with the standards–poverty, education, healthcare, etc. I ask them if they could elaborate.

“How bad is it? Can you give me any details of than, ‘poor people are poor?’”

Silence.

We spent the next few minutes talking about the problems of the developing world, looking at how many people in the world live on $2.00 or less per day, how many live without electricity, clean water, or access to adequate medial care. We discussed things like war, unstable governments, and corruption. I told them that we would be using the economic way of thinking throughout the semester to discuss these problems.

Then I called up a different slide and asked my students, “What are some ‘first world’ problems.” I then proceed to tell them about my friend and her wine aerator. “My friend is so rich, that not only can she afford wine, but gadgets to put in it to make it taste better. The fact that she dropped it in the sink means she even has running water! I’d bet too that it could even be hot or cold!” The students laughed. Cue a variety of other posts from twitter and Facebook of people complaining about everything from their housekeeper not coming the day before, to having too much orange zest in their brunch mimosa, to having seen 14 of the 16 movies out in the local theater.

I told my students that economics can help us understand these “problems” too.

“Why do some countries have third world problems and other have first world problems? Is it possible for us to help people with “third world problems” so they can one day face only “first world problems?” I asked. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone who today was worried about clean water could wake up tomorrow and only worry about their wine aerator?

Again, silence.

“It’s a hard question,” I told them. “In fact, economists have been working on this for a couple hundred years.” I took this as an opportunity to introduce them to Adam Smith, telling them that An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations is really just a remarkable book from 1776 that looks at “first world vs. third world problems.” We discussed Smith’s ideas about things like a stable rule of law, property rights, and taxes and their importance for economic prosperity. I told them that while we know more today than what Smith knew, we still don’t have all the answers.

I explained that economics is a framework for looking at the world. Economics allows us to understand all human action, whether we’re looking at big issues like government corruption, or seemingly trivial problems like having to take our your own trash or deciding what to eat for dinner. Economics can help us understand why some countries are rich and other countries are poor. It may also help us in understanding why it may be difficult to impossible to “force development” on a nation. Economics helps us understand why other people do the things we do and also helps us understand our own decision making.

I ended the class by telling them that this semester we’d be discussing everything from the minimum wage and international trade, to taxes and elephant hunting. I promised them I would do my best to offer them a course that will help them understand the world around them.

Overall, it was a great first day of class. I’m looking forward to teaching my students and watching them grow as economic thinkers. I’m equally excited about what they will teach me.

Here’s to a new semester.

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