My students teach me a lot; when I tell them this, they are non-plussed: why did they pay $3,000 for intro to macro if the PROFESSOR learns from THEM? Well, true learning is a two-way street. And thank you, it’s a privilege to have learned so much from so many.
In 2014, another asked, “Why has my father been out of work for two years?” I sent them home to discuss the graph of cyclical unemployment with their parents, and told the story of the Great Recession. The next questions were tougher.
In 2015, a student asked, “If my father moves to another state to get a job, will my family fall apart?” In 2016, my student asked, “Why did my father have to take a job as a school bus driver that paid half what he used to earn as a truck driver?” In 2017, a student asked, “How is it that my father worked up from $25,000 to $250,000, only to see it fall to $150,000, and then to zero?” I realized how hard it is to make families work when the breadwinner can’t predict his or her salary a year from now. And how much economic mobility (moving to other states) upends our human connections with one another.
This year three students mentioned (independently) that as children they got home from school between 3 pm and 5 pm, while both parents were off working, to find that the electricity was turned off. That made me realize how many people are hit by these economic waves, if even my students (who do come up with $30,000 per year for their education) have gone through this. Then one day my kids called me at the office around 4 to tell me that the electricity had been turned off.
Sigh. I shelled out $250 dollars, hoping we could get the juice back on before dinner since the stove runs on electricity and so does the refrigerator. Then the lady on the phone at the electric company asked, “Do you agree to the $70 charge to have this turned back on today?” Yes, I said, agreeing in the way that Aristotle’s ship captain would “choose” to toss the cargo overseas during the storm to save his life. My textbook says that all exchange is voluntary, but the textbook authors maybe never experienced this charge. Conditional will and the ethics of the just price seem to be concepts that come back into importance when we face firms with excessive market power.
One of the things students teach me is that intro to macroeconomics needs a content update. We are not as interested in how the rate of unemployment changes as we are in the changes in the rate of pay and in the gyrations of price. How about that textbook cost, up from $80 in 2001 to $279 in 2017? OK, I get it, we will move to open access and my handouts. We want to know why certain companies can extract additional cash from us at a whim, even though other companies continue to feel like lifesavers (Jack’s True Value makes life so much better). We want to know how to make families work when the house goes into foreclosure, and if students can have families at all when they have $40,000 of debt before they are 21. My text by Baumol & Blinder–it was a great text when it was written decades ago. Now it is 2017. Uncharted waters for the macro teacher and an urgent sense that we need a new way to understand what this economy is. Now.