I recently had about the best experience happen as a retired teacher could wish for. I was watching TV as a young, bright woman was being interviewed regarding President Obama’s Cost Containment Committee. She said something like, they are doing it backwards; they need to put social needs first and do the arithmetic second. The simplicity and the accuracy of that statement was, as my grandkids say, “awesome.”
This elegant woman in her early thirties looked familiar. Her name was the same as one of my former 7th grade students. Could it be? I Googled her name, found her email, and sent her a query, and immediately received an excited response… yes, it was she. Now I was twice delighted. I had seen a bright young middleschooler become that future brilliant adult evident in that child over 20 years ago. Perhaps I had contributed a small part to that brilliance emerging; teachers always hope so. Secondly, what she said has profoundly affected how I now view the constant economic chatter heard from both parties and their supporting cast of economists.
We need to cut the deficit; we need free markets; we need to cut taxes; we need less regulation; we should impose tariffs; we need less military spending; we need to; we need to, and we need to. And why do we need to? We need to, so the economy will work, so the arithmetic will work, but no one seems to be asking, with the exception of my former seventh grader, what is the purpose of the arithmetic.
Disregarding sociopaths, people want a clean world, a healthy world, a safe world; we want a sustainable world; we don’t want to be blown up nor poisoned; we want freedom from pain, and we want our toys too. Rational people are aware that we have limited resources, both natural and economic.
If I understand it correctly, the wealth used for trade and barter can only be derrived from human labor, so where do we put our labor? Our business schools teach our best and brightest how to organize instituitons so those institutions can generate wealth, but do they ask why are we generating this wealth? These young people learn to do the arithmetic, and that arithmetic works. Millions, billions, trillions of dollars, euros, yen are amassed and traded every day. But why? But why? What for?
Do we grow genetically modified corn and throw megatons of carbon into our atmosophere to make the balance sheet better, or to increase the quality of the human condition? Do we have private insurance companies managing our healthcare because they can do a better job of lessening the pain of our population most efficiently or because we are tied to an economic concept. A concept considered beneficial because the arithmetic says that this system generates dollars for shareholders. Shareholders then can spend their dollars to keep the economy going. It is simple arithmetic.
Simply put, it is time that we ask the why first, before we debate the how. Let’s figure out the problem first, and then use our arithmetic as best we can to solve the problem, not have the arithmetic determine our actions. Thank you Heather; it is a gift to learn from ones student.