Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

The Economic Puzzle of Oskar Schindler: Amenity Potential and Rational Choice

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

The Economic Puzzle of Oskar Schindler: Amenity Potential and Rational Choice

Article excerpt

I

Introduction

Schindler's List is a landmark film, a stark portrayal of day-to-day life during the Holocaust, which captures the brutal, systematic nature of one of the darkest periods in human history. This powerful depiction of the Holocaust is complemented by the story of an intriguing historical figure, Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who rescued more than a thousand of his Jewish workers. At times, Schindler is portrayed as a cunning and sophisticated businessman, who appears to be interested in generating the highest possible profits for himself, while fraternizing with despicable Nazi-SS officers. As the film goes on, however, Schindler's rescue activities are highlighted, showing how he made great personal sacrifices to protect his Jewish workers, almost suggesting that he was altruistic. After seeing the film, audiences are left to explain why a man, in the midst of this great evil, supported and even profited from the persecution of the Jews, while at the same time acted to protect his Jewish workers.

In the popular media and in scholarly circles (see Lifton 1994), Schindler's List, as Hollywood's account of the factual details of Schindler's business activities during the Holocaust, has generated endless debates over the character's "true" motivation. However, even if it were possible to determine Schindler's "true" motivation, simply knowing his intention would not explain how and why he was able to make the choices he made. It is possible to generate a more sophisticated analysis of Schindler's behavior by examining these choices as an economic puzzle, a series of "pieces," choices which were driven by his preferences, influenced by the vast range of resources he controlled, and subject to various legal and market constraints. Solving this economic puzzle is a matter of "piecing together" Schindler's choices by examining economic concepts to understand what guides and determines an individual's choices, in conjunction with a historical account of Schindler's activities. Applying such concepts to a factual account of his behavior offers an economic interpretation of the historical Oskar Schindler, by re-contextualizing his actual choices with the economic concepts which explain how and why choices are made.

II

Choice and Amenity Potential

In economics, choice is typically explained using the utility maximization approach, which holds that an individual's utility motivated self interest is the guiding motivation for choice, as well as the driving motivation for efficient economic outcomes (see Samuelson, 1947). Simply stated, utility maximization is the idea that individuals are motivated by their personal preferences (or utility) when making choices and when assessing the results of these choices. Since the economies of most modern societies are based on some variation of a competitive market, utility maximization is typically applied to describe actors who are making choices and evaluating outcomes in a competitive market, based on a desire to achieve the highest possible financial gain.

While the utility maximization approach is useful for explaining the choices of actors who are pursuing the highest possible financial gain, choice is a vast phenomenon which involves much more than the pursuit of the highest possible profit. In fact, the theoretical foundation of the utility maximization approach, rational choice, which dates back to the work of Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith in the eighteenth century (see Becker & Stigler, 1977), is an expansive view of choice which does not assume that economic actors will pursue the highest possible financial gain in all situations. Rather, the theory is based on three distinct assumptions (Hechter, Opp & Wippler, 1990: 3):

(1) Individuals act in order to attain preferred ends.

(2) An individual's likelihood of attaining his or her preferred ends is affected by constraints and opportunities, in the form of resources under an individual's control and social institutions to which the individual is subject. …

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