Missing the Obvious

I’ve been meaning to type out this story for a few days because I found it amusing:

In Econ we were discussing surpluses and shortages when the professor asked, “Why should we raise minimum wage?”

It started out like most questions posed by the professor do, with a moment or two of silence before someone answering. The first person wasn’t quite right, then the second, the third, the fourth. People started to repeat the same thing just in a different phrasing. “Why?” my professor kept asking.

“It is moral!”, “People deserve a living wage” “If we don’t have workers then the supply will decrease”

These were some of the statements that kept reappearing in different forms. At this point I even put in my two cents about how if people didn’t have a living wage there would be no workers.  The professor kept asking “Why? What does it matter if people have enough money? Who cares if people die? ” We were all quite baffled, I’m sure no one thought the professor really was insensitive about the plight of others, but we could not figure out what she was trying to get at. This whole thing went on for about 5-10 minutes.

The light bulb moment for me occurred to me when in the middle of a students response the the prof. said “Is this a macro economics question?” There was a brief moment of confusion as I’m sure most people thought the same thing I did, “Well this is a macro econ class, isn’t it?”. Then the moment of clarity hit me and I just said it out loud “It’s normative”. The professor looked over in my direction a just gave a nod and let the other student finish. She proceeded to remind us the definition of normative and even though in this case most people agreed there should be a living wage it was still an opinion.

The professor continued on with the lesson and I just smiled. Not only because I figured it out, but the fact that as a class we spent 10 minutes trying to answer a question that didn’t really have an answer, at least not a specific answer. Even more importantly we were all forgetting one of the basic concepts of economics, knowing the difference between positive and normative.

It makes me wonder what other things I am looking at wrong because I am forgetting the basic ideas that would simplify the answer. Perhaps because we are in college we are looking for that deep down meaning to feel smart or impress our professors, but the truth is you can’t get to the grey area before you know the black and white or maybe sometimes all that is needed is the simple answer.


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