Dead Economists Society
(originally posted 10/13/2012)
When I was first asked to be a substitute teacher at a prestigious boys’ school in Massachusetts, Economics 101 was to be my subject matter. I guess I was expecting a more open-minded approach to learning than what was demonstrated during my brief tenure there. Here’s what happened, I have left nothing out and I will let you be the judge.
Knowing I had only a week to improve the lives of my young charges, I knew I had not a moment to lose so the first thing I did was march them all out into a heavy rain and had them walk around in a circle until they began to learn a little something about the dangers of conformity – and the chill that can be provided by a cold March downpour in Boston. As I walked back in with my wet pupils some of the other instructors raised a few eyebrows in my direction but I pretended not to notice. After class, through chattering teeth, one of my students shared with me that he might be interested in pursuing a marketing degree as opposed to the economics degree that his father had planned out for him. I simply advised that he let his heart dictate such decisions and left it at that.
The following day I arranged for the class to spend the hour kicking soccer balls while quoting famous economists. You know the sort: “All the perplexities, confusion and distress in America arise not from defects in their Constitution or Confederation, nor from want of honor or virtue, so much as downright ignorance of the nature of coin, credit, and circulation.” And then the kid would wallop the ball, the sense of wonder about economics filling his soul. “The trade of the petty usurer is hated with most reason: it makes a profit from currency itself, instead of making it from the process which currency was meant to serve. Their common characteristic is obviously their sordid avarice.” With that the pupil lays into the ball and sprints toward the common goal in a very exuberant and poignant fashion. “Protectionism is a misnomer. The only people protected by tariffs, quotas and trade restrictions are those engaged in uneconomic and wasteful activity. Free trade is the only philosophy compatible with international peace and prosperity.” I think you get the drift by now … if only the boys had. They seemed to progressively lose interest with every additional quotation. Whereas I’d imagined them leaping and bounding about as they filled the net with ball after ball and finally scooping me up in their enthusiasm and running along with me in their clutches until their legs gave out, I saw none of this anticipated behavior. Instead, after a final line from Bill Bonner I was forced to herd them back inside and call the whole thing a resounding failure.
Stronger measures were evidently in order.
The next day I chose the quietest boy in the classroom and asked, “Please turn to the introduction of your book Principles of Economics by Alfred Marshall, Ph.D.” Dutifully he flipped open his book and began to read aloud.
“To fully understand economics, we must be fluent with the quantity of a good supplied and the quantity of a good demanded. If, using a standard graphical representation, we put price on the vertical axis and quantity on the horizontal axis it is relatively simple to chart the changes in the demand as the price” … I stopped him there.
“Excrement. That’s what I think of Mr. Alfred Marshall.” The boys all looked up as one at me. I continued. “We’re not laying pipe. We’re talking about economics. Now, I want you to rip out that page. Go on,” I encouraged “Rip out the entire page. You heard me. Rip it out!”
The sounds of the textbook being savaged by eager young hands had my blood coursing through my veins at a breakneck pace.
“Gentlemen, tell you what. Don’t just tear out that page, tear out the entire introduction. I want it gone. History. Be gone, Alfred Marshall! Keep ripping, gentlemen!”
As the last few pages drifted slowly to the floor beneath each desk I gestured for the boys to get up and huddle around me.
“This is a battle. A war. And the casualties could be your hearts and souls. Armies of academics going forward, measuring consumption and production.” I brought them closer, my face only inches away from theirs. “We don’t study economics because we think it’s cute, we study economics because we are members of a consumer culture. And the consumer culture is filled with acquisitiveness. To quote John Kenneth Galbraith ‘Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists.’” Only my future marketing major seemed to understand. After class he informed me that he approached his Dad about switching his focus to marketing and away from economics and was told in no uncertain terms that he’d be doing no such thing. He was very disheartened by this.
The following day I brought the boys out into the hall to look at some of the old pictures of former graduating classes. Most of the time was spent laughing at the bad sideburns and short gym shorts they chose to wear but as we were wrapping up out little tour I had them gaze upon the Class of 1978.
“They’re not that different from you, are they? Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see, gentlemen, those boys are now selling insurance, engaging in audits and designing new and more absorbent toilet tissues. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen. Do you hear it?”
They leaned in expectantly.
“Caveat emptor.” I whispered reverently.
At the start I told you I’d tell you everything and let you be the judge. Actually, jury would have been a better word. You see, upon hearing about the father that wasn’t going to let his son pursue his dreams of leaving economics behind and plunging headlong into the marketing game I got so distraught that I figured I would do the only humane thing left to do so I broke into the student’s house later that night and shot him. Sitting here in the quiet of my cell I can still here the tortured cries of his Dad when he heard the shot and came and found him. Such a senseless tragedy.
Now I have supplied my story and society at large has demanded justice, I guess all there is left to do is for you to make up your mind about right and wrong and hand down your verdict. Before you reach any conclusions though, I ask you to spend some time standing on your desk or table or bed and looking at things from a different perspective. Then stand there awkwardly as the music plays and then the scene fades to black.