By James Kwak
I was catching up on some old Planet Money episodes and caught Allen Sanderson of the University of Chicago talking about how to allocate scarce resources. The first day of introductory economics, he says, there are always more students than seats. Say there are forty extra people, and he can only accept ten more into the class. He asks the class: how should the ten slots be allocated? You can easily guess the typical suggestions: by seniority, because seniors won’t be able to take the class later; by merit (e.g., GPA), because better students will contribute more to the class and get more out of it; to the first ten people outside his office at 8 am the next day, since that is a proxy for desire to get in; randomly, since that’s fair; and so on. Someone also invariably suggests auctioning off the slots.
This, Sanderson says, illustrates the core tradeoff of economics: fairness and efficiency. If you auction off the slots, they will go to the people to whom they are worth the most, which is best for the economy as a whole.* If we assume that taking the class will increase your lifetime productivity and therefore your lifetime earnings by some amount, then you should be willing to pay up to the present value of that increase in order to get into the class. An auction therefore ensures that the slots will go to the people whose productivity will go up the most. But of course, this isn’t necessarily fair, especially when you consider that the people who will get the most out of a marginal chunk of education are often the people who have the most already.