July 18, 2021

By Steve Stofka

To understand the dynamics of an issue, economists and policy analysts use a typology or matrix of two characteristics and their opposites. Sounds boring but it can be fun, as I’ll show. Grouping by traits or lack of them sometimes reveals an interesting relationship that we might have never considered. Economists and policy makers are often confronted with problems that are difficult to analyze. By looking at the world through a typology, a person or group may see a relationship that was not apparent. As a simple demonstration, let’s use the characteristics of animals with and without opposable digits and those who walk on two legs or not. Does some combination of these traits or lack of traits tell us anything?

A typology forces us to clarify what we mean by a characteristic. What is an opposable digit? There are animals with pseudo-opposable, fully opposable, and long opposable thumbs (Untamed Science, n.d.). What does it mean to walk on two legs? I grouped primates other than humans into a separate category because they don’t customarily walk on two legs. Their pelvis structure is designed for four leg locomotion. However, if locomotion is my test, then horses are two-legged, moving two separate feet at a time either diagonally or on the same side of their body (AMNH, n.d.). Using a locomotion criteria, humans and many birds are now one-legged animals. Not happy with that, I decide not to use locomotion as a criteria but whether an animal normally stands on two legs. I clarify my distinctions.

This exercise can help a group brainstorm any problem. It can be serious or silly. People with curly hair as one characteristic. People who wear sandals and those that don’t. By drawing a typology matrix, we begin to notice people with curly hair and sandals. Do perms count as curly hair? Are clogs counted as sandals? Kids, try this exercise while waiting in line at a theme park this summer.

Economists use this method to classify and analyze different goods and services. Goods are said to be excludable by the seller or provider, and rival or not in consumption. What does that mean? If I eat a candy bar, no one else can eat that candy bar. It is rival in consumption. The seller can charge a price for me to consume the candy bar, making the candy bar excludable.

Using this typology, economists identify toll goods, those which people can use at the same time without rivalry but require an entry fee to use the good. Anyone who has sat in rush hour traffic on a highway might argue that there is a lot of rivalry. This typology helps us identify capacity.

A concert or an airline flight are examples of private goods that can be consumed simultaneously but they are rival because each seat that is sold reduces the ability of other people to attend that concert or take that flight. These private goods share a characteristic with pooled goods.

Because many natural resources are pooled goods, this type of good comes up frequently in the analysis of environmental issues. A person who catches a fish at a lake reduces the number of fish available for other fishermen to catch. States usually restrict access to the lake or require licenses to make this good excludable and manage the capacity. Some whale species became endangered when there was no restriction placed on their capture and killing. Pooled goods must be managed for sustainability, the capacity of that good or animal to replenish itself.

Public goods present problems that must be managed. Civil defense is an example of a good that is consumed simultaneously by everyone and cannot be excluded. Much of public policy involves public or pooled goods. Are police services a public good or a pooled good? If police officers are handling a call at one location, they are not available for others so they are a pooled good.

Typologies help us think about a problem and perhaps question our perspective on an issue by forcing us to narrow our definitions of characteristics. We may come no closer to solving or managing the problem but the new insights we gain can trigger some aha moments, particularly in group brainstorms.


Photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash

AMNH. (n.d.). Gaits: AMNH. Retrieved July 18, 2021, from https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/horse/how-we-shaped-horses-how-horses-shaped-us/trade-and-transportation/gaits

Untamed Science. (n.d.). The Primate Order Explained: Monkeys, Apes, Lemurs… Retrieved July 18, 2021, from https://untamedscience.com/order/primates/

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