A friend posted this cartoon on Facebook this morning and it led to an interesting discussion.

Economist Roger Koppl wrote:

My second grade teacher told us the best things in life are free. After thinking about her statement I said, “The best things in life are free, but you have to have enough money to enjoy those free things.” She stared at me for a moment and replied in astonishment, “You’re right.”

I responded to Roger: “OMG. You probably should have known in second grade that you’d be an economist.”

And then that triggered a memory of a conversation I had with a school teacher when I was in grade 2. (In Canada, that’s how we referred to second grade.) In this case the teacher was my father, who was principal of the school in our small town and so he was in charge of 1-12. (Thank goodness we didn’t have kindergarten; it gave me an extra year of play.)

When I was in grade 1, parents had to buy the textbooks for their kids. There was an active resale market and a lot of parents bought used texts. When I was about to start grade 2, my father was all excited one evening because a government body, either the local school board or, more likely, the Manitoba provincial Department of Education, had decided that no longer would parents have to buy books; they would be provided.

Here’s the conversation that took place:

Dad: We can now get books for free.

David: But who’s paying for them?

Dad: They’re free.

David: Ya, but who’s paying for them? They can’t be free to everyone. Someone has to be paying.

He relented and confessed that taxpayers would pay for them.

That’s when I should have known that I would be an economist.


Here’s a conjecture: When this movement spread, both in Canada and the United States, the prices of textbooks, inflation-adjusted rose. The reason is that no longer would the parents feel the effect of textbook prices directly and so the textbook publishers would take advantage of the parents’ and the bureaucracy’s insensitivity to price.