2012 Writing Contest: Economics on TV?

Second Place Essay

The Hidden Cost of Money

Alyssa Hatteberg, Solon High School, Solon,Ohio, Teacher, Kurt Gielink

"While all indicators suggest the US economy is an ocean of prosperity, there still exist islands of stagnation where growth is at a virtual standstill." This television news broadcast begins an episode of The Wonder Years entitled "The Cost of Living," in which young Kevin Arnold is feeling the unfortunate effects the 1970's economy is having on his family: his weekly allowance seems to be miniscule compared to that of his friends at school. lnflation has hit Kevin right where it counts for a teen--in his discretionary income. His stagnant earnings no longer buy the things that his peers are buying; his demand exceeds his supply. Father Jack Arnold gets fed up with Kevin and older brother Wayne griping about their severely limited income and says to his boys, "You know what the problem is with you kids? You don't understand the value of a dollar."

Kevin responds by setting out on a mission to bring in the big bucks and gets himself a job as a caddy, thinking this will be a straight shot to wealth, but soon realizes that there is always a cost associated with opportunity. His first client happens to be Ken, his dad's boss—a controlling, demeaning, wealthy man who has been working his father like a dog, yet fails to increase his earnings with the increasing rate of inflation. At first, Kevin is thrilled to have this man for a client. The financial benefits seem inevitable because the man has been rumored to be a very generous tipper. However, the temporary satisfaction of having pocket cash soon wears off as Kevin realizes the costs associated with working for Ken: enduring this man's arrogant attitude toward anyone below his status. On the golf course, Kevin observes and experiences firsthand the daily cost to his father's pride as he does what is necessary to maintain his job. Kevin's quest to increase his earning potential and balance his supply and demand for cash turns into a lesson on the opportunity costs his father faced as he worked hard to provide for his family's needs.

ln the end, Kevin spends his hard-earned money by treating his father to lunch. The benefit to his father is not so much a free lunch, as it is the look of pride and understanding Kevin gives to him as they sit down to eat. lt may now be 2012, but the economic principles are the same ones the fictional Kevin Arnold experienced 40 years ago on the set of The Wonder Years.

Most teens today have no idea of the costs their parents have endured to supply not only the basic needs of the family, but the many extras that their children benefit from as well. Kevin grows, not in wealth but in wisdom, as he observes the personal costs his father endured. While we do not have the benefit of observing how this impacted Kevin in his adult years, it is reasonable to believe that this life lesson in economics would continue to influence a teen's perspective on the value of money and perhaps even the way he would treat employees of his own someday. The mature Kevin, acting as narrator at the end of the show, says it well as he describes his father: "He understood the value of money...and the cost of it."