Education Policy

A Costly Denial

As the debt ceiling debate fades, a new reminder of a dangerous collective malady emerges with the ill-defined protests that started in New York and have spread throughout the country.  The protests, despite the message the media works so diligently to construct, represent another scene in the vacuous western between employers and employees, owners and renters, the haves and the have-nots.

Simple vilification, while emotively luxurious, describes nothing but immaturity and ignorance.  Moments that fit a clean dichotomy are rare and historic, and this is not one of them.  Attempts to diagnose economic troubles with shallow slogans and proscribe solutions with simplistic statements only articulate our crude view of a complex subject.

Our current anger over all things economic should yield self-examination and the realization that the true villain is our own fiscal illiteracy.  As Bill Clinton stated in a CNN interview aired a few weeks ago, in a democracy, disgust with elected officials should be directed at ourselves–they’re who and what we chose; they’re a reflection of us.

This echoes a basic management maxim–the product, whether success or debacle, will always be the natural result of our decisions within our chosen structure.  With economics, we choose poorly.

Our economic ignorance exposes us to manipulation, misinformation and self-inflicted hindrances that have enormous consequences.  Relying on publically floated ideas, we’d think the Laffer curve implies that tax cuts from any rate ultimately produce greater tax revenue, or that Keynesian spending was ever conceived to be more than a single solution (public spending) to a particular problem (high unemployment and private retrenchment).

Without financial education, we’d view the mere offer of a 103 percent loan-to-value mortgage as a sign that it’s relatively harmless, or that we could eradicate a $14 trillion deficit without both substantial spending cuts and revenue increases.  The best evidence of the damage done by our own fiscal ignorance lies in California, where direct democracy has greatly contributed to an unworkable financial reality and threatened the solvency of the state government.

We understand that an asymmetry of information proves lethal in the marketplace, yet we do little to rectify the imbalance.  How could we be so ignorant of such a central component of personal and collective success?

Economics and finance aren’t taught.  In high school, we learn geometry and trigonometry, we learn chemistry and biology, but we don’t truly learn about capitalism and the marketplace.  As of 2009, only 21 states required a high school student to take economics to graduate.  Nearly all of those states require just a single-semester course taught during senior year without standardized accountability for what’s learned. For those not in advanced classes, in one semester we teach them micro- and macroeconomics and personal finance.  29 states don’t even ensure that students take this whirlwind tour.

In college, outside of business-oriented majors, economics is merely a choice among many other offerings that satisfies a particular degree requirement, even though students are required take an introduction to literature course.  Geometry, biology, literature–these are all important and enriching courses, but they’re not as central as economics and finance.

No matter what one does with their life, economics is unavoidable, not just in informing our political and personal decisions, but at the fundamental level as the sin qua non of a functional existence.  We can hide from chemistry; finance will find us.

Necessarily so, a thread of idealism runs through education.  Before now, academics generally lived above the business cycle.  The waves of creative destruction don’t reach the top of the tower.  The cultural mandate for high school education is student growth – the nurturing of a better self, a focus on what we can become.  Capitalism soils this downy path.

Those who do require economics push a concept into ideal-driven environments at a time when the receivers of this knowledge are also at their most idealistic.  There’s a reason why socialism is a popular flavor of adolescents – it presents an economic model that requires a better self, a more ideal form of human behavior to function well.

Capitalism presents the dirty realities that adolescents and educators hope to reject – that self-interest drives our actions, that altruism as motivation is ephemeral, that we need a system to interact with strangers because fear of the other is encoded in our DNA.  What 17-year-old wants to study a system built on these truths when the great heartbreaks of adolescence stem from our growing awareness of these dark realities?

The marketplace is woven into our lifestyle, and it has meaning beyond the simple exchange of saleable goods.  This isn’t to say we tether our value to the marketplace, but the marketplace is every day – we can’t exist above it.

We need balance.  We need a true understanding of our form of capitalism and the effects of our fiscal decisions without allowing the baseness of the market to consume us.  Yet we can’t avoid that descent into materialistic existence by ignoring the realities of our system.  At some point, we get this. Unfortunately for most, when we realize the centrality of economics, we’re too engaged in our daily lives to actually learn it comprehensively.

Sadly, the very things that turn us off to our form of economics make our uninformed fiscal decisions so destructive – selfishness becomes the basis of our perspectives and we function as parts without a whole.  Our aversion to economics stems from our aversion to those qualities within ourselves that we don’t want to admit.  With any flaw or dysfunction, willful ignorance and denial just lead to deeper pain, a pain that leads to unrest, vilification and self-destruction.

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