In Economics, we say that the prevailing price is the one that allows the amount of a good that is willingly provided to be equal to the amount of that good that is demanded at that price. This means that, in an economy such as ours, prices are determined by market forces and not by some centralized planner. I recalled this lesson from the first days of any class in a Principles of Microeconomics as I checked out of a grocery store the other day. I was informed by the clerk that, as part of a program at that store, I had earned a significant discount on gas thanks to the amount of groceries I had bought. The man behind me jumped in to encourage me, saying “that is good, since I hear that Obama is going to raise the price of gas back up to $4.” I did not answer him, but took my groceries and left, wondering if I should have given him an impromptu lecture in microeconomics.
I am still wondering.
Those of us in academics have an interesting relationship with knowledge. We are paid to teach it as well as to uncover it. Further, as parents, we spend most of our days teaching our children such things as how to navigate the world, how to behave, and what it means to be a good person. So when someone says something that conveys a lack of knowledge, our first impulse is to teach them, since that is what we do. However, I also know that the man involved came to the grocery store for milk, not a lecture on price determination. Further, I wonder if it is always safe to teach strangers about topics that they obviously have no serious interest in. However, I am reasonably sure that my lawyer husband would not let a comment about being “guilty until proven innocent” go unchallenged, which gets me back to the man who thinks that our country’s president is able to completely determine the price of gas.
Further, I wonder if there are situations in which I would be more willing to speak up. What if the person in line had said something that was racist or otherwise hateful? Would I have spoken up then? I remember once in graduate school hearing some of my fellow students discussing interviewing potential roommates, and was horrified to learn that questions about sexual preference were seen as appropriate. These were in the earlier days of the AIDS epidemic, and such questions were justified by ignorance and comments such as “what if they cut themselves shaving.” (Yes, I did speak up in that instance, but those were people I knew well.) And what if I found myself in a racist conversation; can I be sure that I would always have the courage to speak up and make sure that such conversation did not continue? And If I did not, could I honestly hug my beautiful biracial niece and nephew? Of course, I do not claim that knowledge about economics is on the same level as knowledge about the evils of hate or racism, but I am again left wondering when it is appropriate to lecture strangers and when it is best to walk away.
One of my daughter’s teachers recently accepted an offer to have me come into their classroom and teach some basic economics when they reached that section in Social Studies (an acceptance that led my husband to mockingly exhibit a big yawn.) However, that, again, is a different situation, as those students want to be in that classroom, or at least their parents or some government official wants them to be there. Which leaves me back at the question I encountered in that line in the grocery store; when should we share our specialized knowledge, and when is it best to walk away from ignorance?