Economic Decision Making

Why can't you always get what you want?

2.1 Introduction

In 2004, a music magazine compiled a list titled the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” The song chosen as the 100th greatest begins with a choir singing something economists have been saying for years:

And you can’t always get what you want,
Honey, you can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime, yeah,
You just might find you get what you need!
– Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” 1969

As simple as it sounds, this chorus explains why everyone has to make choices-even Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and the other members of the self-styled “Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.”

What you may not know about Michael Philip Jagger is that he was once a student of economics. Born into a middle-class family in Dartford, England, Jagger was raised to be a teacher like his father, earning high enough marks in school to win a scholarship to the prestigious London School of Economics.

Jagger was studying accounting and finance in 1961 when a chance meeting with a boyhood friend named Keith Richards changed his life. “So I get on the train to London one morning, and there’s Jagger and under his arm he has four or five albums,” Richards later recalled. “He’s got Chuck Berry and Little Walter, Muddy Waters.” Fans of American rhythm and blues music were few and far between in England at that time. Finding another one was like coming across a long-lost brother.

Jagger invited Richards to join a few of his friends who played music together for fun. Once Richards did so, life began to change. “You could feel something holding the band together,” a friend observed. “Keith sounded great.” This worried Jagger’s mother, who had noticed that after teaming up with Richards her son had begun to think of music as more than just a hobby.

A year after this meeting, a new R&B band billing itself as the Rolling Stones began to appear at London clubs. Then, in 1963, the Stones released their first record. Jagger now faced a difficult choice: finish his degree or drop out of college to pursue a career in music. He later said of his decision,

It was very, very difficult because my parents obviously didn’t want me to do it. My father was furious with me, absolutely furious. I’m sure he wouldn’t have been so mad if I’d have volunteered to join the army. Anything but this. He couldn’t believe it. I agree with him: It wasn’t a viable career opportunity.

Despite his parents’ misgivings, Jagger chose music — and the rest, as they say, is history.

This chapter is about the choices and decisions we all face in our lives. It explores why, as the song says, we can’t always get what we want. And it looks at how we can use the economic way of thinking to decide what we want most and what we are willing to give up to get it.

Next Reading: 2.2 (Why Is What We Want Scarce?)