Economics can help explain all sorts of things in life, from what we eat to our choice of romantic partners to where we live. To encourage my Cornell students to consider how economics applies to their everyday lives, I challenge them to “pose an interesting question based on something you’ve seen or experienced personally, and then use basic economic principles to craft a plausible answer to it.” I call it the Economic Naturalist writing assignment.
In my first installment in this series, I described some of my students’ most interesting responses to this assignment. For this installment, I’ll share one more from a 2007 collection of my all-time favorites and two new ones submitted this year. In future pieces, I’ll describe more examples from the past and also respond to questions that you submit. You can send me questions via Twitter (@econnaturalist) or email (email@example.com).
Why are child safety seats required in cars but not in airplanes?
Greg began with the observation that government regulations require strapping your toddler into a safety seat for even a two-block drive to the grocery store, yet permit your child to sit on your lap untethered when you fly from Miami to Seattle. Why this difference?
The cost of using a safety seat is much lower in cars than on a full flight. (Mick Stevens)
Many people are quick to respond that if a plane crashes, all passengers usually perish, whether they’re strapped in or not. It’s true, but then why were seat belts required in airplanes long before they were required in cars? The answer is that being tethered is actually far more important in airplanes than in cars, because severe air turbulence happens far more frequently than serious auto accidents. But then why do regulators permit toddlers to fly untethered?
Using standard cost-benefit reasoning, Greg argued that the real reason for the difference in regulations is rooted in the cost side of the equation rather than the benefit side. Once you have a safety seat set up in your car, there is no additional charge for strapping your child into it. Since the marginal cost is zero and the marginal benefit is improved safety for your child, strapping your child in while traveling in your car makes perfect economic sense.
But if you’re flying across the country on a full flight, you must buy an extra ticket in order to put your child in a safety seat. And that might cost you $1,000 or more.
Some people object that taking monetary costs into account is improper when dealing with issues of life and safety. By that logic, however, people should get the brakes checked on their cars each time they go anywhere. Like it or not, costs matter, even for decisions involving safety.
Why do Nigerian email scammers still use the same tired cover stories?