Volume 3, Number 92
16 December 2003

Benefits and Costs

Dear Friends,

Several of the letters commenting on Asa Janney's TQE #91 on recycling have brought out once again the need for understanding economics. One purpose of TQE is to assist Quakers in making this a better world, by avoiding the mistakes of misunderstanding economics.

Asa's TQE #91 was not anti-recycling. Its purpose was to ask whether the benefits minus costs of recycling are greater or less than the benefits minus the costs of disposing of trash some other way.

I cannot give you a full economics course in one Letter, but here are a few concepts.

Economics can be expressed entirely without money. Money is but a common measure for disparate benefits and costs.

The cost of THAT is "What would you have done instead, if you had not done THAT?" Asa teaches First Day school. The cost of his sorting out the trash is the preparation he might have done for First Day school with the same amount of time. Alternatively, it might be spending quality time with his family. Alternatively, it might be mowing the lawn. There are so many "alternativelys" that we usually express cost in money (such as an hourly wage), to embrace them all.

Economists sometimes say "opportunity cost," meaning the opportunity to make another product that is lost if instead we make THAT. In fact, all real cost is opportunity cost.

Every object has a cost, or something that would have been made instead. Some of the cost is labor. The cost of a truck to collect trash includes whatever the same labor might have produced had it not been making a truck (a computer? nursing a sick old lady?).  One question Asa asks is: Do we need more trucks (and labor time to make them) if we separate our trash into different categories than we would need if we hauled it all in the same truck?

We start every day with a certain amount of capital, which includes, among other things, 24 hours to do THIS or THAT, houses to live in, gardens to enjoy, plants and equipment to make computers and automobiles, hospitals, schools, clean air, trees, fresh water, and other environmental assets. Sullying air, or depreciating capital, including the destruction of the environment, are costs. Asa asks: Is the cost of environmental damage greater if we use more trucks to haul different categories of trash than if we put all categories together in the same truck?

A benefit is something we want that comes from incurring costs. Benefits include gas-guzzling cars, fatty foods that make us obese, rock music, as well as operas, healthy diets, musical comedies, pharmaceuticals, and education. Quakers often tell us in Meeting that we should want good benefits instead of bad ones. Which are which is a matter of personal values.

One purpose of this TQE is to show Quakers how to make this a better world by choosing good benefits instead of bad, and by minimizing the costs. This is what Asa was trying to do in his essay on recycling. You may disagree with what he calls benefits and with his appraisal of costs, but you should not demean his motives. If you do disagree, please write your disagreement in 100 words or less. On the other hand, insults to Asa's character do not help the conversation.

The cost of reading more than 100 words would be one of my daily naps, and at my age I will not pay that cost.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

Note: Readers' responses will be included in the next TQE.


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters a week in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2003 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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