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Such a question is normally asked by me in an intermediate micro class to illustrate that basic economic tools can be useful for understanding the most pedestrian events of our everyday life. Indeed, I was all set to have my intro students grapple with this earth altering question as I wander into class today. But I won’t. Not today. Why? Two reasons. And both have to do with students taking the fun out of asking such questions.

(1) First, I like to ask questions like this not just because “economics is everywhere” but to paradoxically remind students that there is much more to life than applying rational benefit-cost thinking to every situation. Over the past few years, I have come to believe that my students now ONLY think of how to apply the rational benefit-cost idea to a situation and have totally ignored the countless hours of lectures and readings I try to give them on, “there’s more to life than that.” So, in thinking about holding open a door, sure it is a fun and useful exercise to ask what is “optimal” behavior if, for example, we are thinking about minimizing time spend in transport to and from places. You can even assume other goals. But the reason I wanted to talk about holding open doors is that I think this has very important insights for appreciating the complexity and challenges of economic development, and for how we live a good life. You see, I think it is important to live in a community where people at least share the sentiment that holding a door open is a decent gesture. It is a community that places the interests of others somewhere in your consideration. And even if door holding is not common, the sentiment is what I find to be important. I have argued and will continue to argue that unless we live in a place where metaphorical “door holding” is part of the culture, it is going to be preposterous to imagine that markets will work well there. It will be more preposterous to think that civil service and political representatives will actually work well too.

(2) But now students have layered quite a second reason to not ask the question. You see, by my sharing the sentiment that it is a decent thing to hold a door open for people, my sentiment and my act of doing so actually reveals an unconscious bias that I have. Now, I’ll remind you that I like to hold doors for men and women, boys and girls, old and young, but that doesn’t matter for the crowd of regular offendees. My gesture of holding a door is construed as a sign that I think some people are too weak or independent to open doors for themselves – in other words, my sentiment is actually belittling other people. I am not here to debate whether or not my act or sentiment in fact does this or whether it matters, only to state the obvious that this has also had a chilling effect on my behavior. I tend to hold far fewer doors on campus today than I did when I got here. And of course, I will not be asking my students about whether or not I should be holding doors open.

So, I do my best to avoid be sucked into the campus pity party. Sadly of course, I think I am going to be accused of committing additional acts of micro-aggression for not wanting to engage at all with any situation that may be construed as a micro-aggression. And please dear readers, do not feel any need to shower any pity on me, for neither am I deserving nor is it a useful sentiment. I merely state this as another reason why I am sitting on the sidelines.

2 Responses to “Should I Hold the Door Open for You?”

  1. Harry says:

    Yes, WC, our parents did not raise us by beginning with a discussion of marginal utility.

    Pure Objectivists and pure Marxists open their own doors most of the time, and when people open doers for them, the Objectivist has paid the doorman dollars, whereas the Marxist doorman gets to live humbly in his North Korean commune. Nobody smiles very much.

    About a mile from my home is a volunteer fire company that I think was established about 1885. So far, it is doing well. But to survive it has always depended on replenish its firefighters with new young people able to climb ladders and wield heavy fire hoses, and be willing to jump out of bed at two AM into the cold.

    They hold the door for us as we run out of our burning houses, and we hold the door for them by contributing to the fire company.

  2. Harry says:

    Another metaphor you might use in class is the gender-neutral concept of fixing ball marks and raking sand traps on a golf course, public or private, that one might never play again. Some people do this without calculating the cost. Similarly, pro-fracking people pick up trash on the ground.

    I once read that the word economics is rooted in the Greek word for home economics, the study of how one manages daily living. Plato and Aristotle had much to say about this difficult and complex subject, but I doubt either would worry about the ethics of opening doors.

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