Monday, October 17, 2011

Not in my Classroom, Thank You Very Much.

Last night Crazy Math Spouse and I were watching “Stossel”. Now before you go all angry liberal on me, please read the rest of this post. I’ve read all the liberal leaning posts on CM and I’ve refrained from denigrating the posters whose political beliefs conflict with mine. I ask that you all give me the same courtesy. I’m not attempting to indoctrinate anyone via this post. I just want to relate something I suspect that most of you missed last night.

If you are still reading, I thank you.

Last night’s “Stossel” was on the Wall Street protests. Stossel decided to interview some of the protesters. Most of them talked about their belief that corporations are evil and the Federal Government needs to regulate them heavily. There was nothing new about those complaints. But the gem was one woman with an argument so ridiculous I’m sure we’ll all, liberal and conservative, vomit over. I don’t remember exactly what she said but the essence of it was that she thought money was the cause of all of our problems and that if we eliminated money all our worries would be gone.

I don’t ever want this woman in my class. If she ever showed up, I think I’d have to quit. I’m aware that most of my students and most of my colleagues believe blue is the only way of life. I bite my lip and hold my tongue to avoid conflict and try very hard to not let on that I’ve got deep red ideals. If you are in my class, you can think what you want to think and vote how you want to vote. But I’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

I happen to think that the invention of money is one of the highlights of the history of man. It’s right up there with language and negative numbers. Money is what makes our society comfortable. I can tell you the last time that I killed an animal to eat it (it was the 3rd of never). I can tell you the next time I will kill an animal to eat it (the 4th of never). It’s not that I’m a card carrying PETA member. It’s just that I don’t think I could kill. And life is not a Zork game. I’ll never go southeast and have a wild batch of carrots appear from which I can collect seeds. Life is much easier when we can parcel work out within our society. It means we can have more food, leisure, and shelter.

Money is genius. It gives us a way to easily convert goats to lamp shades. I know that today one large pizza is worth roughly 3 gallons of gas. Maybe it’s because I am a mathematical person that I like conversions. But I think that non-mathematicians would like money, too. I mean there are might be 7 people in a 100 years who’d trade a goat for a lamp shade. I’m sure that equivalence wouldn’t be on the trade board at your local Wal-Mart. But one might trade goats for grain, then grain (in bread form) for fabric, then fabric (in the form of a dress) for a lamp shade. In a society where many struggle to calculate a tip, how many will be capable of that more lengthy conversion? Money makes trade easy.

So why do I write these things? I don’t think it takes a lot of brain cells to figure out what money does for us. Does this anti-money woman really want to kill her own meat, harvest her own crops, spin her own yarn to weave her own fabric, make her own clothing, and build her own shelter? I’d be willing to wager she has done none of these things in her life. Yet she looked clothed and, um, well fed. So does she really believe that if we got rid of money tomorrow that we’d all be fed and clothed next week?

She clearly had no critical thinking skills what-so-ever. She’d be impossible to teach. But I think what troubles me most about her is that my students probably aren’t that much smarter.


  1. Well, critical thinking can also allow you to evaluate when people are speaking about more logical courses of action that have to do with making policy, and something more like "wishful thinking." Or when someone is using one idea to represent something larger--like money as a symbol for greed.

    The whole "wouldn't it be great if we had/didn't have x" sort of thing. The idea is akin to "imagine no possessions...I wonder if you can..." Is that vomit-inducing as well?

    I'm trying not to be harsh here, because I am one of those terrible liberals, but it seems like you watched a program that had intention to portray the protesters in the worst possible light, and then saw a fat woman say something "stupid," which was only made stupid because you took what she said absolutely literally.

    As I could hypothetically be that fat woman, talking about the end of money, I find it hard to appreciate your scorn.

  2. I hear you, CMP. While I'm behind the movement, I have seen interviews with protesters who sounded absolutely ridiculous.

    This is where your post took my brain: Wouldn't it be great if we didn't have any of the kind of cellulite that makes our thighs look like cottage cheese? And wouldn't it be great if we didn't have wine bottles that actually become empty after you drink all the wine in them? And wouldn't it be great if we didn't have the kind of snow that required shoveling in the northern region in which I live? And wouldn't it be great if we lived in a world without, like, really bad pop music?

    Thanks for the giggle.

  3. "Does this anti-money woman really want to kill her own meat, harvest her own crops, spin her own yarn to weave her own fabric, make her own clothing, and build her own shelter?"

    Well, she might. There are plenty of people who live "off the grid" in a way they find consistent with their ideals. In fact in my neck of the woods, there are many such people in our neighboring Amish communities.

    So a college student wants to examine possible flaws in the free market system and even explore the possibility that there are other economic arrangements that might allow us to create a more equitable or just society? Perhaps instead of vomiting, you might take a more Socratic approach, combined with a bit of patience for a young person who seems to be earnestly grappling with serious issues.

  4. Hell, you'd really hate me, then, because I have that particular fantasy on a regular basis.

    Thanks for letting me know that what I thought were critical thinking skills were another one of my hallucinations.

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  6. Could be a future Amish, a hunter-gatherer in a former life, or a young intellectual revealing new truths to an unenlightened society.

    Or just somebody who can't think beyond, "I get sad when I think about money so I wish it would go away."

    Hey, if you want to live in a world without money, go into academia!

  7. From a deep-blue prof, please accept my heart-felt, "Hear, hear!"

    It's a brilliant post.

  8. I thought the end of money was a right wing idea? At least my cousin the survivalist right wing conspiracy theorist is all up on it. Now I'm confused.

  9. The only country that tried to get along without money in the 20th century was Democratic Kampuchea, aka "Pol Pot Cambodia." They were able to survive because they sold China raw materials, and the Chinese sent weapons, which was useful because Ankar (the Party) had this idiotic fixation with fighting Vietnam in a series of border skirmishes. There is a lot of evidence that DK was preparing to re-introduce money in 1979*, but all that went down in flames as Vietnam finally said "F*ck this shit" and invaded Cambodia in that year, driving the Khmer Rouge into Thailand and thus to the arms of the US, where they were paid to sneak back into Cambodia and commit terrorism against any Cambodian supporting the Vietnamese Army and the new provisional government, a task they kept at for ten years.

    So in short, only the truly transitional regime lacks/bans money; had they cut all the `Nam hate, Democratic Kampuchea would have been the Albania of the Far East (small, paranoid, crypto-ultra-Maoist.)


    * John Pilger is somewhere on YouTube fishing newly-printed, unissued script out of a gutter in Phnom Penh.

  10. You could stand a lesson in critical thinking yourself. This is the channel that taught my students that Project Apollo is a hoax, and that global warming is too. Thanks a lot.

    It would serve you right to get a hoard of students just like this in your classroom, fresh from their NCLB background. If you worked at a public university like plebians like me do, you'd have no choice but to do your best to teach them critical thinking. You wouldn't be allowed to "throw them under the bus," like all too many conservatives think they can do with the rest of us Americans.

  11. It might be useful for you to consider the difference between stupid and naive. This woman is clearly pretty naive. But based on one sound bite taken from what was surely a longer answer or answers, it is impossible to draw any real conclusions about her critical thinking skills.

    If you've ever been on TV (I have) and had your longer statements edited for time (again, I have), then you'd know that the producer has the power to make you look as smart or as foolish as he or she wants. And given that the channel you were watching has a well established anti-factual bias (see Frod above), I'd want to see the entire unedited take before drawing any conclusions.

    But even if she had nothing else to say, I'd still call her naive rather than stupid on this one. Now the granny at the Tea Party rally carrying the "get your government hands off my medicare" sign ... that's stupid. See the difference? One expresses a naive, but altruistic wish for a more just world, while the other makes an undeniable factual error born of selfishness. So if we're going with which idiot we want representing us, I'll take "Ms. Naive" over "Granny Fuck You" any day.

  12. As usual, Archie nails it: stupid and naive aren't quite the same thing. According to some NPR program last night (yes, I've got my own media preferences/biases), at least one of the "occupy" protesters is now carrying a sign reading(or perhaps chanting; I was listening with half an ear) "we're here; we're unclear; get used to it." That's actually part of what I like about the protests; after years of working very hard to always have the right answer, many of these kids are suddenly realizing that some questions don't have obvious right answers, and sometimes it isn't even clear what question needs to be asked. That, to my mind, is the first step toward genuinely useful critical thinking.

    But yep, the "get rid of money" idea (if perhaps not its proponent; I second Archie's description of the perils of TV editing, not from my own experience, but from my father's, and it's only gotten worse in the 20+ years since he did that regularly)is stupid. Note that both coveting and hoarding of assets were problems in wholly or mostly pre-money cultures (see pretty much anywhere in the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments and most of the prophets). Money isn't the problem; it's a tool that can be used well or badly (one more example of its positive effects is the fact that aid organizations often have to urge people to send money rather than goods, for reasons of both efficiency and benefit to the local economy; shipping a lot of stuff halfway around the world often isn't the best way to help the survivors of a disaster, even if they actually do need that sort of stuff).

    I have occasional off-the-grid fantasies myself, mostly when I stop to ask whether I could avoid using products made by exploited and/or slave labor. I'm also aware that living that way would be very difficult, and quite possibly not the best use of my talents. So the other solution is structural change -- which is, I hope, the direction in which the "occupy" protesters are groping. I'm sure some of them are just plain dumb and/or flaky, and many others will melt happily back into capitalism-as-it-exists if/when things improve, but I'm hoping that a few of them really are having productive conversations and coming up with good ideas. Once they do that, they will probably need to go to grad school and/or spend time apprenticed in some other way to those who are older and more experienced in what does and doesn't work and why, but I really am hopeful that the movement will lead to some real change.

  13. In lower-income areas, barter has become a big thing. There are also "time" banks where you trade hours. Neither requires you to kill your own goat or weave your own cloth. It's perfectly possible to imagine viable alternatives to money. And her weight is completely irrelevant here.

  14. yep, she's very naive. holy cow. no worse than Stossel though.

  15. Well, there are plenty of historical societies that dealt in people rather than money. I personally believe that printed money maintains a separation - a boundary, if you will - between the individual and the work that the money symbolizes. Money, as a result, allows us to look past the humanity and excuse atrocious behavior like layoffs and cut benefits as "only business." When in fact it is extremely personal and inhumane.

  16. There are plenty of people at those protests who have a coherent message, but they're not getting air time. Of course Stossel is going to hold that woman up as an example of how stupid/naive/whatever the OWS protest is.

    These two Marines aren't going to be on Hannity any time soon:

  17. There's nothing to stop anyone who doesn't want to deal with money from living off the grid, without money. Or even on the grid, as a Dumpster-diving freegan or whatever they're called. The problem is telling everyone else that they shouldn't have money, either. It takes a fair amount of arrogance to declare that the entire world should scrap their current system of trade and live under one that you deem is best. I don't care that she's naive or even stupid; there are plenty such people in the world and of course the media loves to interview them. The arrogance sticks in my craw. However if she really did weave her own cloth, spin her own thread, and sew her own clothes with a bone needle from an animal that she had hunted and killed for sustenance, etc. I'd respect her argument a bit more. Actually, I'd respect her for doing those things - it's hard to live the way people did thousands of years ago. But there is nothing stopping anyone from doing those things - hunting, spinning, weaving, etc. are all legal. Living outdoors, well, that might be a bit more problematic without buying land, but there are plenty of vast tracts of woodland that are relatively uninhabited, and I'm sure she could go live there if she really wanted to be off the grid. However if she herself uses money, then it's hard to respect her argument that we need to eliminate money - it's the old "do as I say, not as I do" hypocrisy. But of course, I'm a card-carrying capitalist with a retirement portfolio that will remain invested in Wall Street for the next twenty or thirty years, so obviously I don't think money is bad, nor do I have any desire to enforce a morality of non-greed on people who hoard money. I have some issues with government policy but I'm not angry at rich people. I don't even understand "income distribution" as no one's ever distributed money to me, not since I collected an allowance as a teenager. I am compensated for work, but I chose my field, no one forced me into it. If having piles of money was that important to me, I'd have gone into a more lucrative field. However if mortages and student loans are going to be forgiven, then yeah, I'd like some free money, too, although I've never been rich enough to buy a house, so I never did have a mortgage that needs to be forgiven, and my student loan's only a few thousand bucks, but still, forgiveness of debts - that'd be great! I can rack up some debts to be forgiven, if that's really going to happen! Of course this is a joke, I'm not really going go into debt so that the government will forgive it.

  18. I don't have a television, I haven't seen that interview and I've never heard of Stossel. But there's money and there's money. Before money, precious metals formed a medium of exchange, so you could get your goat and your lampshade. Minting the metals into coins deterred fraud. A few thousand years later, money, no mere medium of exchange anymore, dominates our thinking about economics and prevents meaningful debate and action to address future global needs. Were money a mere medium of exchange, a passive medium of exchange, we could think about the production and consumption of goods and services and collectively set our priorities. But 21st century money is active, unstable, invisible, highly subjective to manipulation and end-in-itself reflexive.

    If you don't understand what I mean, compare the following two types of disasters, sadly not so theoretical: a hurricane destroys most of a major city; a panic wipes out a significant percentage of the value of key financial indices. One immediately understands the loss from the hurricane -- lives, property damage, infrastructure -- and the rebuilding it mandates. But what got lost when the stock market had its big correction? Suddenly many, many people feel much poorer without a single building flattened, without even a slice of bread going moldy. The abstractness of money facilitated a massive collective hallucination and the hallucination resolved itself. Then suddenly, when we all feel poorest, productive people must stop their important work, in businesses, hospitals, schools, etc. so that we can "save money." (I write from New Hampshire where the state legislature has just cut its contribution to the state university by about half!)

    So yes, we need a medium of exchange, so you can have your goats and lampshades. But we should not worship it as a god, elevate the people who oversee it to the status of invisible dictators or make it the central organizing principle of our cultural life.

    I don't have a simple counter proposal --- or the time to study the issue deeply enough to formulate one. Doesn't matter - no one would implement a proposal from me anyway. But decades of abuse since the Reagan Revolution have made many, many people very angry, both on the left and the right. I do think we're living on the cusp of counterrevolution and money will soon evolve into something new and different, into something kinder to the environment and something compatible with zero-population growth (when we get there). It must.

  19. I initially blame TV as a medium, rather than the naive protester... TV has helped us to think that reality is reflected in sound bites... then our students think that any level of critical thinking needs to be on par with what they hear on TV in "in-depth analysis" stories that claim to be doing analysis, which really aren't.

    That said, I'd welcome her in my class. In fact, I probably have her in my class. She just hasn't learned to think about things critically. I'd love to help her with that. If she is still talking like that after having the opportunity to not be that naive, then I'd throw her under the bus.


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