Before finding my job at Ursuline College, I taught economics or statistics at several different colleges. I taught as part of my graduate assistantship on the way to my Ph.D., as an adjunct at several colleges in the Boston area as a graduate student, and at my first job out of grad school, and the one that brought me here to Cleveland. I was recently reminded of a lecture I tried to teach at one of those schools many years ago. As part of a class in macroeconomics, I tried to have a discussion about how the United States could help people in poorer countries. I threw out the question, expecting to list ideas on the board as they were generated. I recently learned that such an approach is being picked up by a new web site that is part game and part social networking site called “Evoke.” With funding from the World Bank, this site asks ordinary people to use their imagination to compete to help solve real world problems.
However, that day in my macroeconomics class, no such ideas were generated. Instead, I heard nothing, as a group of students stared back at me with blank faces. After a few moments of silence, I asked them what the problem was. Nobody answered, until one student finally raised his hand slowly. He said that, since the U.S. had been so successful, he thought that we did not need to share our wealth with anyone. A little taken aback, I said something like “well, that is one way of thinking of it; does anyone else have any other ideas?” Perhaps because of peer pressure, no one ventured to disagree with that one student. I left defeated and disillusioned; after all were not the young supposed to be the idealists in the world?
Several hours after the Earth shook in Haiti in mid-January, my own life was disrupted as I broke first my leg and then later my arm. As I lay in bed waiting to heal enough to return to the doctor, the horror of the aftermath of the earthquake in one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere unfolded. There were scenes of crushed limbs and broken bones, and I have a vivid memory of one scene where a woman lay on a mat with a bandaged leg, with the reporter telling us that she had a broken leg. As I watched it, I felt shooting pain up my own broken leg, and realized that she probably did not have access to good pain medicine, so her pain must be multiples of my own. I was taken back to that class in macroeconomics many years ago, and wondered, what can we do to help our suffering brothers and sisters?
When I applied to graduate school in economics in late 1984 and early 1985, the song “We Are the World” served as a background refrain as I typed (on a typewriter) my applications. While not planning to study development economics, I still had the hubris to think that my work in economics would help make a difference in the lives of those less well off. Once in my first job, I was shocked at how quickly the desire to change the world evolved into a desperate attempt to earn tenure, and I must confess that I strongly doubt that any of my academic work has made a difference in the lives of anyone who is less fortunate than I am. I was reminded of my own idealism as I watched the re-make of that song on the opening of the Winter Olympics. Surely, I want to pass my former idealism on to my daughter, who has already made the world a better place just by being in it.
And so, in the model that sees a “blog” as a discussion starter among people who might otherwise not ever meet in person, I want to propose another question. Since the U.S. has already been helping the suffering in Haiti, what can we do to continue to make the lives of the people there better? I suspect that the readers of this site will have more ideas than did the 18 year olds in my class many years ago.