Thursday, August 1, 2013

Message for the Econ Student I Met Yesterday

As chance would have it, I was doing a transaction at my local credit union yesterday when a brief conversation ensued. The gentleman who aided me, it turns out,  was approaching his senior year at the university and majoring in economics. When I asked him what attracted him to the field he bluntly declared that he loved gambling with stocks and trying to win. Perhaps his training at the U will aid him in learning the game and either using the rigged rules or getting around them to amass his fortune.

I left that encounter depressed. That in this troubled time so-called higher education would still certify such a graduate. Actually, given the large enrollments in both Finance and Economics here, I suspect there are many more like this otherwise likable young man, about to migrate around the planet to 'win' the game. I couldn't help but wonder if he had at least been exposed to critiques of such a system - perhaps by Nobel economists like Elinor Ostrom or Joseph Stiglitz? Might he have stumbled into David Korten's work or even seen his talk on Radical Abundance. Could he have been introduced to the work of Tim Jackson, Molly Scott Cato, Jared Bernstein, Juliet Schor, Hazel Henderson, Robert Reich, Michael Schwalbe, Charles Eisenstein, or Michael Shuman? And if so, how did he calibrate their look at economics with this notion that seeking wealth by betting on winners and losers would bring him and his society security or joy?

Korten notes early in this talk that the only beneficiaries of this 'game' are

      "a very small group of very rich people who reap the financial gains generated by large       corporations positioned to benefit financially from every economic transaction, irrespective of whether that transaction is beneficial or harmful to society."

Therein is the rub. I wonder if my soon to be graduated economics major has been asked to ponder :

is the transaction that he stands to gain from beneficial or harmful to society. My gut tells me that this isn't even a secondary consideration in the calculus taught here, let alone the primary one. But in a society where winning is consecrated ad nauseum, what should we expect.

Those economic thinkers mentioned above offer us a range of possibilities. They should at least be part of the conversation about nurturing a more sustainable society.

At the beginning the final chapter in Keith R. Brown's recent
 Buying into Fair Trade: Culture, Morality and Consumption, serendipitously he excerpts a quote from the same Howard Zinn piece I mentioned last week. I'll end with this more hopeful thrust.

     I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played... To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world... Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment... but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don't "win," there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope. (Howard Zinn, "The Optimism of Uncertainty", 2004)