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PAGE ONE Economics
the back story on front page economics

NEWSLETTER

January ■ 2013

Choices Are Everywhere:
Why Can’t We Just Have It All?
Scott A. Wolla, Senior Economic Education Specialist
“You can’t always get what you want.”—The Rolling Stones

The public debate about the best way to reduce the level of government debt highlights our
difficult situation: Our wants greatly exceed our ability to pay for them. In the case of government,
purchases require current revenue through taxation or borrowing; the fiscal cliff arose from a level
of debt caused by wanting more (and purchasing more) than we can pay for.
If we wish to reduce debt, we must make difficult choices. One choice is to cut government
spending on goods and services—but which spending priorities should be cut? The other choice is
to raise taxes—but who should pay more?
You might prefer one choice or the other or a combination of both. In fact, you may have very
similar thoughts about your personal or family budget. These issues are based on understanding
the economic concepts of scarcity and opportunity cost.

Personal and Household Spending
Let’s use a specific example to get a better grasp of these ideas. Suppose you receive a $20 gift
card during the holidays. The $20 limit acts like a budget that constrains your spending. In other
words, your resources are limited. How about your wants? Are they limited? If you are like most
people, they are not—you would like to have much more than you can afford. This condition of
limited resources and unlimited wants is called scarcity. The $20 limit means that you can’t have
all the CDs, movies, or games you want; you must choose the one you want the most. Deciding
between the recently released CD from your favorite band and the newest hit movie requires a
choice, which involves an opportunity cost—the value of the next-best alternative when a decision
is made. The opportunity cost is what is given up. So, choosing the CD from your favorite band
means giving up the movie.
People make such decisions all the time. Managing a family budget is also an exercise in managing scarcity and opportunity costs. Household income determines the amount of money a family
has to spend; that is, it constrains spending. And, unlike our gift card example, household wants
are not limited to CDs, movies, and games. Rather, they include basics such as housing, medical
care, education, food, and clothing. But, just like the gift card example, because our wants exceed
our ability to spend, we must make choices, which involve opportunity costs. So, more money spent
by a family on food might require less spent on clothing.
Credit cards and other forms of credit make it possible (and quite tempting) to exceed spending
limits. Does debt negate scarcity? Does it permit you to buy more than your income would allow?
It might seem so, but you still have a limit. Using debt means that you are borrowing your future
income to buy goods today. As you repay the debt (plus interest) over time, you will have less income
in the future to buy goods and services then. And remember that credit cards have limits, and

PAGE ONE Economics

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

NEWSLETTER

Total Debt Balance and its Composition
Trillions of Dollars

Trillions of Dollars
15

Mortgage

HE Revolving

Auto Loan

Credit Card

Student Loan

Other

15

2012Q3 Total: $11.31 Trillion
2012Q2Total: $11.38Trillion

12

12
(3%)
(8%)
(6%)
(7%)

9

9

(5%)
(71%)

6

6

3

3

0

0

Source: FRBNY Consumer Credit Panel/Equifax

3

NOTE: The total level of household debt has decreased since 2008. While mortgages still represent the
largest portion of household debt at $8.03 trillion, the level has been falling. Outstanding student loan
balances have been growing and currently stand at $956 billion. HE, home equity.
SOURCE: Federal Reserve Bank of New York Credit Panel/Equifax;
http://www.newyorkfed.org/research/national_economy/householdcredit/DistrictReport_Q32012.pdf.

lenders avoid lending beyond the borrower’s ability to repay the loan. At the end of the third quarter
of 2012 (August 31), total consumer debt stood at $11.31 trillion (see first chart).

Government Spending
In many ways, the government faces these same choices. Citizens have collective wants and the
government attempts to satisfy these wants through its spending. Social Security, health care programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and national defense are among the top federal spending
categories. But the ability to satisfy our society’s wants is constrained by the level of government
income, which is generated primarily by taxing workers and companies. Just like individuals who
make spending choices, when the government chooses, there is an opportunity cost. If more money
is spent on national security, the result might be less spending on health care. It is possible to raise
taxes to provide additional income for the government to allocate, but that imposes further budget
constraints on workers and companies who pay taxes—so, this policy choice also has opportunity
costs. Of course, the government’s spending is not limited to tax revenue. Just as families can, the
government can use debt to pay for some of its goods and services. At the end of the third quarter
of 2012 (August 31), total federal debt stood at $16.07 trillion (see second chart).
What is the downside of government debt? Using debt to buy goods and services today means
the government is borrowing future income (that is, tax revenue)—which means less income in the
future for buying goods and services then. In addition, there is a limit to how much credit lenders

2

PAGE ONE Economics

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

3

NEWSLETTER

NOTE: The total federal debt stood at $16.07 trillion at the end of the third quarter of 2012 (August 31);
see http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/GFDEBTN. For an up-to-date view of the federal debt,
see the U.S. Treasury’s “The Debt to the Penny and Who Holds It:” www.treasurydirect.gov/NP/BPDLogin?
application=np.
SOURCE: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis FRED database.

(or investors) will extend to a country; they will avoid lending beyond the government’s ability or
willingness to repay the loan or will do so only at very high interest rates.

Conclusion
An understanding of scarcity and opportunity cost is crucial to making good economic decisions.
Remember that scarcity describes the condition in which our wants exceed the resources necessary
to satisfy those wants. Scarcity requires us to make choices and choosing involves an opportunity
cost—the value of the item given up when a choice is made. So, making wise (and sometimes difficult) choices requires considering the opportunity costs. ■

GLOSSARY
Government debt: The sum of accumulated budget deficits. Also known as national debt.
Opportunity cost: The value of the next-best alternative when a decision is made; it’s what is given up.
Scarcity: The condition that exists because there are not enough resources to produce everyone’s wants.

Page One Economics Newsletter from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis provides an informative, accessible economic essay written by our economic
education specialists, who also write the accompanying classroom edition and lesson plan. The newsletter and lesson plans are published 9 times per
year, January through May and August through November.
Please visit our website and archives http://research.stlouisfed.org/pageone-economics/ for more information and resources.
Views expressed do not necessarily reflect official positions of the Federal Reserve System.


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