Wednesday, October 19, 2011

When English Professors Try to Teach Economics

Last week I screened Charles Ferguson's 2010 film Inside Job for all four sections of Comp I that I am teaching this semester. When I originally got the idea to do this, over the summer, I had no idea how nicely it would coincide with the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement. If anyone is unsure of why people are protesting corporate greed in lower Manhattan, this film will shed some serious light on the matter, as I believe it did for many of my students.

This week I've been leading discussions of the film, and although it's been fun, it's also been a challenge. I am no expert in Economics. I took a very poorly taught Economics class in high school (around the time of the dot-com bubble), and never took any Econ classes in college. My undergraduate college was very, very left of center, so I was surrounded by a lot of anti-capitalist thinking, but I had a very nebulous understanding of what capitalism was, how it functioned, and why--and in what circumstances--it could be dangerous.

Although my understanding of these matters matured a bit throughout graduate school, I still never had any formal training in basic Economic theory. When teaching a film like Inside Job, therefore, I have to continually remind my students that I can only help them understand what the film is saying -- I cannot offer any expert opinion on the validity of the film's claims. That bit of critical thinking they must, like me, do on their own as non-experts. One of the themes of my course that is emerging, which I hadn't really reflected on previously, is the importance of learning how to assess, as a non-expert, the validity of complex arguments made by so-called experts and non-experts alike.

On a somewhat related note, I have been surprised at how many of my students feel a stronger visceral annoyance about those who "cheat the system" -- by which they mean those who take public assistance instead of looking for a job, or take public assistance and use it for drugs -- than they do about the super-rich who pay little in taxes. Interestingly, I heard a segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation last week that addressed this issue. Some states have recently passed laws requiring drug testing for applicants of welfare and other forms of public assistance, and questions have been raised about whether or not this is constitutional and whether or not it will save money. As it turns out, initial studies suggest that the cost of doing the drug testing is greater than the money saved by eliminating the estimated 2-8% of welfare recipients who abuse drugs. The report also made an interesting point that went against conventional stereotypes -- the percentage of people on welfare who abuse drugs is NOT any higher than the percentage of people in the general population who abuse drugs. If this is true, can it be constitutional to mandate drug testing for them simply based on the fact that they are applying for public assistance? If the issue is more about making sure tax-payer dollars never go into the hands of drug dealers, then does that mean that all public employees should also be drug tested? I'll be interested to see if any of my students change their thinking on this issue in light of these findings.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

On Top of a Mountain

Yuriko and I have developed this habit of over-booking our weekends. On the one hand, it's great, because we almost always have something fun planned, but on the other hand, sometimes we get so exhausted and just want to lie low, catch up on some sleep, and hang out with the dog and cats in Reading (which we just learned is the poorest city in the United States). But we rarely get to do that.

The weekend before last, we went up to the Poconos and visited the quaint little town of Jim Thorpe. This was our second time there, and, small as it is, we like it. There are two very good restaurants, some cool shops, nice little mountains, and it's just fun to walk around. This time we were there to see this "modern bluegrass" band, Joy Kills Sorrow, whom we discovered last winter in Delaware. They had opened for Eilen Jewell, a singer I like, at the Arden Concert Guild. This time they were playing their own gig--two sets at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. (The town of Jim Thorpe used to be called Mauch Chunk, before the celebrity/athlete who is now the town's namesake was buried there.)

Joy Kills Sorrow is comprised of some really talented folks. Bridget Kearney, the bass player who writes or co-writes most of the songs (and sings harmony) is my favorite. The lead singer, Emma Beaton, from British Columbia, has some fabulous pipes, a fun, quirky personality, and a growing number of tattoos. The rest of the musicians are also virtuosos -- Jake Jolliff on Mandolin, Matt Avcava on guitar, and Wes Corbett on banjo.

Earlier in the day, we went on a little hike up Mount Pisgah, and I realized when we got to the peak that I hadn't done this in awhile, and I had almost forgotten how much I like just chilling on the top of a mountain--even if it's just a glorified hill, like the mountains we have here in the East. There is just such a sense of peace and calm up there, not to mention a beautiful view of the valley below and the surrounding hills and ridges. Here's a picture of Yuriko celebrating the fact that we made it, hiding all fears of falling off that rocky overlook.

We're planning on going to Bear Mountain this weekend, in upstate New York, with some of my old friends from college. Hoping for brilliantly sunny weather and peak foliage. After descending from the mountaintop, we're planning on spending the night in Brooklyn. We may check out the action at (Wall) street-level -- far less placid, but perhaps equally invigorating?