Economics 101: When Teachable Moments Have a High Cost

Ah, economics. It’s a fairly loaded topic that combines global scale complexities with plain common sense. It has been repeatedly impressed upon me that as a teacher and mother I should be looking for “teachable moments” to instruct my students and sons on how to spend, save, and invest money wisely. I assume this is between teaching the skills of reading, writing in complete sentences, using the potty with proper aim, driving, basic first aid skills, and staying out of jail.  Challenge accepted.

However, guidelines are very necessary for teachable moments in economics. Impromptu lessons on the redistribution of goods are highly dangerous, as I recently discovered. Such lessons should not be illustrated with toilet paper or foods of any kind (especially desserts). If using M&Ms to illustrate an economic principle, plan ahead for when the supply runs out or make sure your pupils are at least 3 years old. Otherwise your lesson can spin off to topics such as mob rule and capital punishment.

Here are today’s key principles:

–          Redistribution of wealth: Even when they seem abundant and self-regenerative, resources are limited. Taking from one area to give to another will have an impact, even if it is supposedly not felt.

–          Supply and Demand: This basic principle can be quite complicated when the demand far exceeds supply. The desperation of the ‘demander’ will not necessarily find an immediate, generous ‘supplier.’

–          Value is both monetary and intrinsic. Price does not necessarily determine value.

One such hands-on ‘teachable moment’ was inflicted on me yesterday afternoon. A shopping trip was desperately needed—a home with a 1 year old and no bananas is an unhappy home indeed. Worse, there were only 3 remaining rolls of toilet paper. Now, here is where having a well-balanced portfolio for diverse markets comes in. The market value of T.P. is 0 for my son, slightly greater for my father, high value for my mother, and CRUCIAL for me. Those who have been around me for more than 3 days know that my physical well-being is 73% dependent on proximity to a well-stocked bathroom.

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During a commercial break in the Olympics the previous night, I hustled to the guest room in the hall and discovered an empty roll dangling from the hanger. Whew! Close one. I informed my mother that we were out of stock and also down to the last squares in the other bathrooms. (DEMAND) I hustled off to another provider. (FREE MARKET COMPETITION) Before leaving for work this morning, my mother informed me that she had moved a roll of toilet paper to the guest bathroom, just outside the room I am occupying, thus allowing me to use it once more. (SUPPLY)

Oh, happy day. Who says it’s pointless to have faith in the markets? The Invisible Hand is my Mom’s!

 When Firstborn and I returned from our lunch outing, he immediately ran to the play room which allowed me to hustle to the nearby restroom- and I do mean hustle. This was NOT the guest bathroom and- as I soon discovered- was devoid of any paper products. (DEMAND! URGENT DEMAND!)

Here is where the problem with the redistribution of wealth emerges. While there is joy in receiving a new supply from seemingly abundant sectors, it does mean that other areas will eventually not have enough. In this case it would have been prudent to ask where the extra roll came from, but I was too busy celebrating the change in my ‘have-not’ to ‘have’ status. Big mistake. Big. Huge!

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Now I was stuck. Even the diaper bag with wipes (ECONOMIC INNOVATION) was way out of reach, and my son seemed to sense distress. It was then he learned about stocks and bonds; when the toilet paper is out of stock, we’re about to bond. Suddenly, all my scolding about taking toilet paper off the rolls came back to haunt me. If only he were old enough to understand and obey. I asked him to go and get mommy some white paper from the bathroom. He laughed and returned to his toy. I will remember that one, my son. (Then again, he may have a future as a democratic campaign strategist; this morning’s diaper was enough to make Barbara Bush hope for change.)

When one’s only options for toilet paper depend on a baby or waddling pants-down across the house, one will suddenly find a great distaste for personal applications of trickle-down-theory-economics.

We should note from current events and as my personal experience confirms, when a deficit creates a problem, one must find a way to restock. For example, one can eat a PB&J for lunch and use the dinner money to purchase a vital item. Of course, sometimes those with greater resources willingly provide opportunities for the less fortunate—(Daddy heard my cries and made sure to get extra toilet paper on a Sam’s Club run. I made it a point to take his grandson out so he could work in quiet and to fill the car with gas. (EQUITABLE RELATIONSHIP) 

All things considered, I’m not sure if my ‘issue’ was a teachable moment or a lesson from the School of Hard Knocks. One thing I do know… toilet paper is NOT the preferred teaching aid for economic hands-on learning.  

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