You always have a choice


The phrase “You always have a choice” is extremely prevalent in super hero movies. Ranging from Batman Begins to Spiderman 3 to Wolverine. In whatever situation you’re in, you can do the right thing do the wrong thing or through brute force come up with an alternative that you can force to occur. This really epitomizes the rugged individual and the ideal American to some extent. No matter how down on your luck you always have the choice to be or do something better. The GOP really pushes for this, where many of the candidates argue that they were self made men. I think this is also the root cause for a typical response to the 99% protesters (or someone asking for an increase in minimum wage) – “Get a job.” If the choices are get a job, or not work, the C -brute force response now is – “start your own company” or “make your own job.”

Before, you assume I’m just bashing the GOP, this also comes from the left. The environmental movement also assumes this is possible in regard to personal behavior and reducing your carbon footprint. In many cases they assume that it’s easy for people to change their behavior, because they want to protect the environment. If we wanted to we could drive less, we could buy the less impactful light bulb, we could turn off our computers at night, etc, but people are lazy or don’t care.

So, are the GOP and environmentalists right? We’re all lazy and don’t want to make the right choices? That we don’t want to work or that we don’t want to do what’s right for the environment? I think that for the most part neither is true. You will find freeloaders or people that protest saving electricity by turning on as many lights as possible. However, most people don’t behave that way. So what’s the problem? Why do we have uneven unemployment in some areas, why don’t we all work to save the environment?

It goes back the the choices we can make. One of the big assumptions in economics is that the work force is mobile, that when there’s unemployment in one part of the country people move to where the work is. However, we saw that in the US that isn’t true with this recession. The only people moving were migrant workers which may have been illegal. Why? Why wouldn’t someone with no job in California move to another state to find a job? Well some of it comes down to their ability to move. If they own a house and the choice is to lose everything end up in deeper debt because selling your house (if you could sell it) would leave you hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hole with nothing to show for it, do you really have a choice?

In this way our choices are bounded by our situations. A woman may want to drive less because she wants to do what’s best for the environment, but she has a difficult choice. Move closer to work so she could walk and take her children out of a great school and move them into a lower quality school. I think it’s a no brainer which one she would choose. However, let’s say that the schools are the same, her children may not want to move because they’d have to make all new friends. The gains would be very minimal. There are a lot of costs to moving closer to work even if everything else would stay the same. This case also assumes that there’s only one driver. In many cases this choice would involve two people and the trade offs for one driving farther could complete negate the benefits of moving.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that we are able to make whatever choices we want. Our choices are constrained by the circumstances we live in. There are ways to work around these constraints to improve our ability to make choices, but that is not easy and certainly not free. When we make policies that impact choices and make assumptions about people’s ability to make choices we need to be aware of these constraints and work to remove them.

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