General equilibrium! Crown jewel of micro-economic theory. Arrow and Hahn give the best justification:
“There is by now a long and fairly imposing line of economists from Adam Smith to the present who have sought to show that a decentralized economy motivated by self-interest and guided by price signals would be compatible with a coherent disposition of economic resources that could be regarded, in a well defined sense, as superior to a large class of possible alternative dispositions. Moreover the price signals would operate in a way to establish this degree of coherence. It is important to understand how surprising this claim must be to anyone not exposed to the tradition. The immediate `common sense’ answer to the question `What will an economy motivated by individual greed and controlled by a very large number of different agents look like?’ is probably: There will be chaos. That quite a different answer has long been claimed true and has permeated the economic thinking of a large number of people who are in no way economists is itself sufficient ground for investigating it seriously. The proposition having been put forward and very seriously
entertained, it is important to know not only whether it is true, but whether it could be true.”
But how to make it come alive for my students? When first I came to this subject it was in furious debates over central planning vs. the market. Gosplan, the commanding heights, indicative planning were as familiar in our mouths as Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester….England, on the eve of a general election was poised to leave all this behind. The question, as posed by Arrow and Hahn, captured the essence of the matter.
Those times have passed, and I chose instead to motivate the simple exchange economy by posing the question of how a sharing economy might work. Starting with two agents endowed with a positive quantity of each of two goods, and given their utility functions, I asked for trades that would leave each of them better off. Not only did such trades exist, there were more than one. Which one to pick? What if there were many agents and many goods? Would bilateral trades suffice to find mutually beneficial trading opportunities? Tri-lateral? The point of this thought experiment was to show how in the absence of prices, mutually improving trades might be very hard to find.
Next, introduce prices, and compute demands. Observed that demands in this world could increase with prices and offered an explanation. Suggested that this put existence of market clearing prices in doubt. Somehow, in the context of example this all works out. Hand waved about intermediate value theorem before asserting existence in general.
On to the so what. Why should one prefer the outcomes obtained under a Walrasian equilibrium to other outcomes? Notion of Pareto optimality and first welfare theorem. Highlighted weakness of Pareto notion, but emphasized how little information each agent needed other than price, own preferences and endowment to determine what they would sell and consume. Amazingly, prices coordinate everyone’s actions. Yes, but how do we arrive at them? Noted and swept under the rug, why spoil a good story just yet?
Gasp! Did not cover Edgeworth boxes.
Went on to introduce production. Spent some time explaining why the factories had to be owned by the consumers. Owners must eat as well. However it also sets up an interesting circularity in that in small models, the employee of the factory is also the major consumer of its output! Its not often that a firm’s employers are also a major fraction of their consumers.
Closed with, how in Walrasian equilibrium, output is produced at minimum total cost. Snuck in the central planner, who solves the problem of finding the minimum cost production levels to meet a specified demand. Point out that we can implement the same solution using prices that come from the Lagrange multiplier of the central planners demand constraint. Ended by coming back full circle, why bother with prices, why not just let the central planner have his way?