I have lots of funny conversations with people about going back to school. It usually goes something like:
Someone: “What are you going back to school for?”
Me: “I’m getting an economics degree.”
Someone: “How are the classes?” (or a similar question about do I get in arguments with my profs, etc. from those familiar with my rant-y ways)
Me: “I haven’t taken any yet.”
I reckon I blab on as if I’m already a lot more well underway than I am, so they could be forgiven (certainly the presumptuous name of this blog could make one think so. Let’s call it aspirational). I’m sorting out the loose ends of an abandoned college career this spring and summer and will be doing my best Rodney Dangerfield impression this coming fall. My (sort of) newfound obsession with economics dates back to about 3 years ago, when I strayed from the normal sort of pan-news and politics reading that was the stock and trade of my daily banter to wonder more and more about what the hell was going on with the economy. The often delightful, occasionally infuriating, but always interest-piquing “Planet Money” podcast nudged me further along as did a growing hydra of link-following, blog-reader-adding madness that became my defacto pre-econ curriculum (and a cruel, cruel mistress of my former free time, look to the right for some staples). However, all this was really just rediscovering a part of my life that had fallen victim to the daily grind of life. Namely, REALLY enjoying learning. From about age 23 to 27, I had a glorious run of non-school-related, pre-internet era reading that largely shaped me into the person I am today, at least politically. A side-effect of the intersection of my longtime career as a touring sound engineer and my ability to read in a moving vehicle (which suddenly ceased one fateful day when I just noticed all the scenery rushing by in my peripheral vision while I sat in a van reading. I became carsick and I was never able to put that genie back in the bottle again. After that I became an almost constant driver). In those 4-ish wonderful years, I read perhaps a masters program load of political science, history and economics.
But if I’m blabbing on, I may as well start nearer to the beginning.
Watching my mom struggle to raise me and my brother with lots of odds stacked against her (and eventually watching her prevail pretty handily over those odds) was one of the primary formative experiences of my life. Bearing witness to her early trials and later successes did not, however, put me in an overly meritocratic frame of mind. Rather, it made me realize that a good upbringing and a supportive peer group of family and friends was a crucial complement to a good heart and head. I watched lots of glass ceilings being bumped into and occasionally cracked over those years and just generally became a big fan of women as humanity’s (at least slightly) better half and a full-on momma’s boy. (Luv ya mom!)
I don’t ever really remember liking hierarchies or taking orders generally. Especially when they didn’t make sense. I was always being a pain in someone’s ass back in secondary school. So much petty social injustice. I remember my first stirrings of cynicism around age 11, watching the ossification of social class begin to take hold along with puberty. This did not make me into some huge libertarian either though, as I found then (and still do) that so many who wrap themselves in the cloak of personal freedoms are just protecting their own prerogatives and privilege .
My first political awakenings in high school began with my drift out of the kitsch theater of heavy metal music (music, the one constant in my life) into punk and hardcore’s glorious burst of Reagan-era social criticism (whether well-informed or not). Vague notions about covert ops and fascistic tendencies began to penetrate my mind from outlets like Maximum Rock and Roll and bands like Conflict, The Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. I felt at home among these malcontents.
In my first go round in college some 23 years ago, I certainly did not exhibit my current enthusiasm. It was a lot of coasting, a little studying and a good amount of drooling while falling asleep near the back of the room (being 19 and working 30 to 45 hours a week is a challenging way to go through college, but lack of interest was the paramount problem). Outside of class though, over the course of a couple of years, I began following a strange bread-crumb trail of comedy movies to the (still weirdly good) biopic “Where the Buffalo Roam”, to the library, checking out as many Hunter S. Thompson books as I could find and first having my eyes opened to the fascinating politics of the 1960s and 70s. The way he was able to dismember a subject with often spot-on analysis left a reader not sure whether to laugh or cry (I almost always laughed whether I cried or not), and usually after lulling people into thinking he was little more than a drug-addled idiot, cemented my lifelong love of the freak, and is one of the wellsprings of the cynicism towards the foibles of us humans that I find it hard to ever get too far away from. I moved on to his more sober peers (and erstwhile campaign trail minders) such as Tim Crouse (his classic of campaign-lit “The Boys on the Bus” is still a most worthy read). I began reading Rolling Stone pieces from “Dollar Bill Greider” (HST’s nickname). I quickly moved on to Grieder’s books, “Who Will Tell the People?” and later, the monumental (both in size and impact) “Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country.” This compelling survey of the stagflation of the 1970s and then Fed Chairman Paul Volcker’s mission to send the US into a major recession in order to break inflation was an absolute page-turner to me at age 23. I was revolted but deeply fascinated by the strange machinations of our fiat currency system and the often wildly unanticipated effects of economic and political policy.
Onward I went to Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Edward Herman, John Pilger and many others learning about the sad treadmill of power protecting its imperatives the world over. I learned that, while alternatives to capitalism/market economies had not fared particularly well in the last 120 years or so, that in many of these failures nearly the entire weight of the vested interests of the world were lined up against such fledgling experiments with more equitable systems of resource allocation. I spent a couple of years of reading heavily on the decades of austerity experiments being imposed by the IMF and the World Bank on debt-ridden Latin American nations (often under the imprimatur of dictators such as Pinochet in Chile or Fujimori in Peru).
During my 20s and 30s, mostly due to my touring sound work, I was able to travel to Western Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Czechoslovakia, and Mexico. Seeing just a hint of how many ways people lived, around even the fairly developed world, opened my eyes to the arbitrary nature of so many of our “needs” and habits and prejudices and the privileged sphere in which most of my peers and myself were fortunate enough to live.
Now I find myself in the strange position of being a middle-aged small business owner enjoying a successful career, but still looking for something different. It’s a form of wanderlust. It used to manifest more in physical space and was a big part of why I spent so many years traveling back and forth across the nation and the world (in tandem with the very real economic imperatives of an auto-didactic crank like myself needing to make a good, middle-class living in a fairly autonomous work environment). These days it’s wanderlust of the mind. I’m never too sure about my motivations and this latest path is no exception. I agonize over all sorts of things related to going back to school at this point, i.e. Is this just my mid-life crisis? (I guess there are worse ones if so.) Is my business and income going to suffer? (Overall, my business very hopefully not. Personal income, probably at least a bit.) Am I going to be like so many I know with a law degree (I’ve met more people with law degrees not practicing law…) and go get an advanced degree at great personal exertion and eventually take a job to realize that I hate it? These are some things I wring my hands about (aware as I am, of the significant privilege implied by being able to worry about such things. A first world problem as the saying goes).
I had a touché moment a few days back when my wife was reading me some bits of an astrology bit our friend had posted on Facebook. I’m usually quick on the draw to poo poo anything astrology, but I had to admit to being kind of dressed down in an accurate fashion by the following:
Fear of being average
Because I feel solid and real only in the throes of being charismatic and creatively self-expressive, I continually strive to distinguish myself from the average, unremarkable aspects of my psyche and surroundings and, in so doing, push away the universal, equalizing presence that could free me from hierarchical evaluations and the pressure to pull off a seamless performance.
Oh snap. Anyway, I guess I can take some of that as a compliment, but it rang pretty true.
So why economics anyway? From some of my earlier critiques here of the discipline, it should be obvious I have mixed feelings about it. Even the aftermath of the biggest recession/depression since the 20s, economists are pretty much all just sticking to their guns (just like politicians…a bit more on that in a future post). Everything that happened, SURPRISE, just proved THEM right! The stimulus failed! There are notable exceptions, such as long-time Chicago School luminary Richard Posner, who have taken the time to adjust their thinking to reflect new data. But just as many don’t see that a thing has changed. While it’s certain that any of these folks could bury me in a barrage of “facts” SOME PEOPLE MUST BE MORE “RIGHT” THAN OTHERS. I put a lot more stock in the opinions of people who can give credence to a portion of a school of thought they do not follow all the way to its logical conclusions, but there don’t seem to be a ton of them. Taken as a whole, it all sometimes reminds me of imagining a world without lawyers:
BUT, what does interest me deeply is how some small things can make a pretty notable difference in the lived world. While I’m pretty well resigned to the idea that we are stuck with our market economy at this point (which always brings to mind the Churchill quote “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” …sub market economy for democracy), warts and all, success in the future to me is about using pragmatic (and decidedly non-dogmatic) ideas like functional finance, pigovian taxation to correct myriad market failures, and just to see economic “thought” and policy for what it is, a series of understandings and interpretations that reflect a political viewpoint about how best to implement the common goals of society. I would be honored to be in a position to one day help figure out policies to solve problems like: How much incentive is enough to get people to capture most of their water from rainwater? How can we move entrenched habits and interests towards a system of extensive public transportation? How can we figure out a way towards creating more value added in longer-lived products in a way that can help address issues of overconsumption and toxic garbage generation while maintaining an improving standard of living for the average citizen? These are worthy goals for economics, and are the real reason I’m having a go at it.