Campus News

Convocation Address: Prof. Rachel Connelly

Story posted September 03, 2003

Convocation Address
Prof. Rachel Connelly
September 3, 2003

President Mills, Dean Bradley, members of the Bowdoin community, most especially the incoming first year students. Thank you for honor of allowing me to address you this afternoon.

I need to begin this talk with a disclaimer. The title of this talk "Making Choices Under Conditions of Scarcity" is a well-known definition of the science of economics. So well known that we can't remember who said it first but it certainly wasn't me. A Google search revealed at least five texts where the phrase appears exactly and many more close variations but not a single attribution. So I am not certain that this is a proper citation but it is better than none.

Having set that record straight, I would now like to address the question, "Why have I titled my talk 'Making Choices Under Conditions of Scarcity?'" The short answer is that I want to talk with you briefly this afternoon about making choices. Certainly this is an appropriate topic for a convocation address. We are all at a new beginning and there are many choices to be made. But I admit my motivation has less to do with you and more to do with me because being an economist thinking about making choices (under conditions of scarcity) is something I know something about and since I am really nervous about this address, I felt that talking about something I know a little about would be a good idea.

When I started college, I did not plan to become an economist. I didn't even know what economics was. What I planned to be on my first day of college was a rabbi. Now in those days almost all rabbis were men but while I was in high school the first woman had been ordained at Hebrew Union College and so that choice was now available to me. Because I wanted to be a rabbi and rabbis need to be able to read and understand the Bible in its original Hebrew, I made my course selection choices with this goal in mind, choosing Hebrew among the courses I took in my first semester at college. But during my time in college I learned several things. The first thing I learned that I was terrible at Hebrew, and similarly, that many of the other skills needed to be a good rabbi, including having something to say for a sermon on a regular basis, were not among my strengths. So now you can understand why I so reluctantly stand before you today, giving what is essentially the sermon in this convocation ceremony and why I feel the need to lean on my professional identity as an economist for content.

There are several lessons in my story of transformation from pre-rabbi to pre-Ph.D. in economics that are useful for our exploration today of choices and choice making. First, we all make better choices when we have more information. An important part of your job here at Bowdoin for the next four years is to gather information to make better choices. Do that by choosing widely, taking risks and continually reflecting on what works and what doesn't. I didn't take economics until my third year of college. I took my first course in economics because everyone said I should. I took the second course because I so enjoyed the first. At some point in the middle of that second course, the lightbulb went off -- I like this, I am good at this -- my pathway was clear. I can't guarantee you a lightbulb experience while you are here at Bowdoin but I can guarantee that it won't happen if you are not open to it, by continually reflecting on what works and what doesn't, what makes you happy and what doesn't.

The second lesson we can take away from my story is that there are many, many pathways out there. Having made the choice to take Hebrew class did not mean I was required to continue along my originally chosen path. Most decisions are marginal ones -- small steps. Garrison Keillor told a story once about a middle age man who finally had inherited the family farm. After all those years of working for his father, it was his farm. The first thing he did was make a list of all the things that needed to be fixed on the farm. The list was so long and so foreboding that he ran away to Florida rather than face the list. His mistake was not taking the tasks one at a time and similarly we need to make our choices one at a time, always remembering to gather information and knowledge learned in one situation to use in another. Students often ask me which course they should take first, Intermediate Microeconomics or Intermediate Macroeconomics and the answer I give is whichever you take first will be harder.

Finally, my story illustrates one of the key lessons of economic choice making -- let bygones be bygones. What does that mean -- let bygones be bygones? It means only include in today's decision, criteria that are relevant to the current decision. Decisions you have made in the past that are not reversible should have no effect on today's decision making. So the fact that I had already taken Hebrew was a bygone to the decision whether or not to become a rabbi. As a further illustration, consider the mundane decision of what to wear tomorrow to the first day of classes. Let's say I am choosing between this outfit and that. On what should I base my choice? Which outfit is more comfortable, looks better, is more appropriate, makes me happier are all valid criteria. What is not relevant is the fact that this outfit cost a lot of money when I bought it last year. Its cost is a bygone. Letting bygones be bygones is not a natural thing for most of us. We humans have long memories, we hold on to both grudges and fantasies. But learning to ignore bygones will make you better decision makers. My husband and I took intro economics together. We often find ourselves in a conversation about something saying one to the other -- but that is a bygone -- meaning that is not relevant for the current decision being made.

I have now talked for a while about choices -- gathering information to make better choices, making marginal choices not "all or nothing" choices, and finally remembering that not everything that happened in the past affects current decision making. What about the "Under Conditions of Scarcity" part of the title which if you remember is "Making Choices Under Conditions of Scarcity."

Scarcity means, simply, that there is not enough. Now let's think about what there is not enough of. There is not enough of some resources, oil, water, ozone, etc. There is usually not enough money, towns and states complain of budget shortfalls, your parents and you respond similarly to the college tuition bills. And certainly there is not enough time, not enough time to do everything we want to do in a day, in a semester, in a lifetime. The reality of these scarcities leads to the most fundamental concept of economics, opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is a measure of the tradeoff I make when I make one use of a scarce resource and not another. So if I choose to attend a meeting this afternoon, the cost is the time lost to my studies. Or if I buy that new CD I have been coveting, then it is the cost of not having the $15 for another use. Or if we use water for watering the grass, it is the cost of not having that water available for irrigating a crop. Once you start thinking about the opportunity cost of a decision you will make better decisions.

Be careful with this notion of opportunity cost, it is very powerful but it can sometimes immobilize us. Just because there is an opportunity cost to something doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. Just make sure the benefits are greater than the costs. I have four children. While not everyone with four children can say this, in my case, this was not an accident. It is the result of a choice I made a long time ago and a set of choices I have made over the years. Four children are very costly in terms of money, of course, but also in terms of my time. But I long ago decided that the cost was worth it, worth the pleasure they would bring me, to their father and grandparents and so I chose to have four babies. Most of the time I still think I made the right decision but by now it is a bygone -- I have four children regardless of my current decision making calculus.

All of us, but most especially you first-year students, have many decisions in front of you. Presumably not children yet -- there is plenty of time for that -- but decisions on how you are going to spend your time here at Bowdoin, today, this semester, this year, for the next four years. My primary message to you today is to become a conscious and deliberate decision maker. By deliberate I mean, examine all the alternatives that are available even if they are seldom used by others -- the right choice for you may not be the one everyone else has always chosen. Of course you could become an investment banker and we hope that some of you do and give lots of money to your alma mater, but there are thousands of other pathways. Of course you could become a doctor and we hope that some of you do but there are many other opportunities out there where science plays a continuing role. My father always told me not to worry about what I was going to be when I grew up. He said, "Look at me, the last three jobs I have had didn't even exist when I was in school." By conscious decision maker I mean, think long and hard about the opportunity cost of the choices you make and choose broadly from the set of opportunities in order to gather as much information as you can.

Sometimes it is not easy being a conscious decision maker. When I feel overwhelmed by my kids, my job as a professor, my research into economic decision making as it relates to the family, my work towards the betterment of women's position in the college and in the larger society, I have no one to blame but myself, for I, of course, chose each piece of my very full life. It would be so much easier if I could blame my exhaustion on societal pressures or post-colonial hegemony but I can't. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of things we can blame on post-colonial hegemony just not my particular set of constraints. But most of the time, being a conscious decision maker for me means a fuller happier life and I wish nothing less than the same for each one of you. Despite how trite it sounds, making good choices, being aware of the scarcities of time and money and resources will improve your life.

As I began this talk with a disclaimer, I need to end it with a warning. It is a mistake to treat institutions exactly like a person. While the concepts of marginal decision making and opportunity cost still hold for institutions, institutions get to determine their own scale -- in a sense they do not face time or money constraints the way an individual does. Institutions, be they colleges, for profit companies, not-for-profit organizations or governments may choose to be big or small. While individuals need to think about long term as well as short term, for example, presumably part of your motivation for going to college is as an investment in your long-term knowledge and skill base, institutions need to think about the really long term since institutions don't naturally die. As a result of these differences, the right decision for an institution may be very different from the right decision for an individual. All institutions need to think about the long-term well being of their customers, their shareholders, and their employees. For the college this translates into treating students, alumni, trustees, community neighbors and employees with respect. These goals are more important for the long-term health of the institution than whether any given year's budget is in balance.

Having recognized this distinction, one of our jobs as citizens, employees, and shareholders, is to continually push institutions to expand our choice set and the choice set available to others. In the early 1970's it took a few brave women to push the elders of the Hebrew Union College to accept women. At just about the same time, Bowdoin College changed its admissions policy making a Bowdoin College degree available to women as well as men. This did not happen in a vacuum. There were individuals who took the lead, pushing Bowdoin to make this change, which I think we all agree was for the better.

So finally, while I firmly believe that each one of us is better off than we would be otherwise if we make deliberate and conscious choices for ourselves, we must never let the principle of choice lead us to be complacent that everyone has all choices available to them. Many people in this world live lives where the choices involve choosing between food or medicine, between one child and another. Many people face choices limited by post-colonial hegemony, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. We must not be part of the problem by hiding behind the ethos of choice instead of demanding that choice sets be revamped.

So go forth, members of the class of 2007 and the rest of us as well. Make good choices for yourselves by thinking about opportunity costs and marginality. Use information wisely and let bygones be bygones. At the same time I hope that part of the work you choose to do will make more options available for yourself and for others.

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