Indifference Curve Analysis: An Alternative Approach to Understanding Consumer Choice

Read this section to learn about indifference analysis. Attempt the "Try It” problems at the end of the section before checking your answers.

9. Case in Point: Preferences Prevail in P.O.W. Camps

Economist R. A. Radford spent time in prisoner of war (P.O.W). camps in Italy and Germany during World War II. He put this unpleasant experience to good use by testing a number of economic theories there. Relevant to this chapter, he consistently observed utility-maximizing behavior.

In the P.O.W. camps where he stayed, prisoners received rations, provided by their captors and the Red Cross, including tinned milk, tinned beef, jam, butter, biscuits, chocolate, tea, coffee, cigarettes, and other items. While all prisoners received approximately equal official rations (though some did manage to receive private care packages as well), their marginal rates of substitution between goods in the ration packages varied. To increase utility, prisoners began to engage in trade.

Prices of goods tended to be quoted in terms of cigarettes. Some camps had better organized markets than others but, in general, even though prisoners of each nationality were housed separately, so long as they could wander from bungalow to bungalow, the "cigarette" prices of goods were equal across bungalows. Trade allowed the prisoners to maximize their utility.

Consider coffee and tea. Panel (a) shows the indifference curves and budget line for typical British prisoners and Panel (b) shows the indifference curves and budget line for typical French prisoners. Suppose the price of an ounce of tea is 2 cigarettes and the price of an ounce of coffee is 1 cigarette. The slopes of the budget lines in each panel are identical; all prisoners faced the same prices. The price ratio is 1/2.

Suppose the ration packages given to all prisoners contained the same amounts of both coffee and tea. But notice that for typical British prisoners, given indifference curves which reflect their general preference for tea, the MRS at the initial allocation (point A) is less than the price ratio. For French prisoners, the MRS is greater than the price ratio (point B). By trading, both British and French prisoners can move to higher indifference curves. For the British prisoners, the utility-maximizing solution is at point E, with more tea and little coffee. For the French prisoners the utility-maximizing solution is at point E′, with more coffee and less tea. In equilibrium, both British and French prisoners consumed tea and coffee so that their MRS's equal 1/2, the price ratio in the market.