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Homo Economicus For President

A dark-horse candidate

By Oliver W. Kim

It’s UC presidential campaign season at Harvard. The sandwich boards outside the Science Center are plastered with promises of reform, free food, and alcohol funding. Facebook newsfeeds are awash with flashy campaign logos. And at a recent Crimson-hosted debate, current President Gus A. Mayopoulos ’15 could be seen swigging from a flask.

To their credit, all the Undergraduate Council presidential tickets have tackled serious financial issues in their campaign platforms. But there has been disappointingly little use of economic reasoning this election season. In this new Clark-Mayopoulos-Goffard era of comedic governance, Homo Economicus thought he could kill two birds with one stone by offering some lighthearted campus improvements based on economic theory. So, how could an economist improve Harvard?

In his first act as UC President, Homo Economicus would propose a markets-based solution to silence the Lowell Bells. The ringing of the bells is a commonly acknowledged public bad: every Sunday afternoon, residents of nearby houses (not to mention poor Lowellians) are subjected to tuneless renditions of top 40 hits and butchered old classics. The sound of the bells is unfortunately both non-rival and non-excludible. This is a textbook case of market failure.

Enter the Undergraduate Council. Banning the bells outright would be counter to the economic spirit of free choice—as hard as it may be to believe, there may exist a few students who derive utility from having the tranquility of Sunday afternoon broken by dissonant chiming. The correct solution would be market-based: with the coordination of the UC, the Quincy, Leverett, and Winthrop House Committees could offer financial incentives to Lowell to end the bells’ tintinnabulation. Lowell would ask for a price commensurate to the (questionable) utility lost from no longer ringing the bells, and the affected neighbors would offer a price proportionate to the disutility inflicted upon them.

There may also be a markets-based solution to the perennial freshman fear of being Quadded. As UC President, Homo Economicus would push for the creation of insurance contracts which pay off if a student is Quadded. Quad-averse students could purchase these contracts as a hedge; the cash windfall from being Quadded would offset some of the shock of realizing that it takes 20 minutes to get to class. To improve allocative efficiency, these Quad insurance contracts could be packaged, securitized, and traded on an open exchange like credit default swaps. It’s hard to see what would go wrong.

Finally, President Homo Economicus would seek to abolish mandatory Board Plus. Like Obamacare, BoardPlus redistributes wealth from light users to heavy users. Unlike Obamacare, Board Plus makes little sense. Students who do not frequent Greenhouse and Lamont Cafe should not be forced to pay into a service they do not use; the program should be opt-in rather than mandatory. Like many Harvard students, Homo Economicus was forced to go on a Greenhouse Cafe shopping spree at the end of last semester in a last-ditch attempt to exhaust his Board Plus balance. Diminishing marginal returns has no better illustration than the attempted consumption of ten Odwalla smoothies in a single sitting. Ending mandatory Board Plus would prevent such wasteful spending.

Admittedly, economists have not historically had a successful track record in the political arena. The logic of utility maximization does not translate well in speaking to voters. In a recent example, Italy’s Mario Monti, a technocratic economist, was booted out of the prime ministership after less than two years in office. In the UC election, Homo Economicus’s proposals would likely fall flat compared to crowd-pleasers like nap spaces and weekend Quad shuttles.

Perhaps a Homo Economicus candidacy can wait. He will consult his cousin Homo Politicus in the mean time for advice.

Oliver W. Kim ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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