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.

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