Economics. Few North American high school students get a course in it. But they absorb plenty of information from daily life!
My high school did require a course in economics—economic theory, to be precise. But the lessons didn’t match my life experience at all. So I couldn’t understand even basic concepts.
It wasn’t the teacher’s fault. Mr. Irgang was passionate about the material. He talked a mile a minute, but he went over everything at least twice. He illustrated key ideas with charts, graphs, and big body language.
Mr. Irgang was a Keynesian, a fan of well-regulated capitalism. So, he believed it’s good to look at big economic trends. And that those trends follow certain patterns. But because capitalism isn’t perfect, the patterns sometimes get out of whack. Then, the government needs to step in and help people.
This approach fit his life experience. He grew up under New Deal capitalism. Served (as I later learned) in the Korean War and got his tuition funded by the federal GI Bill. Then, he taught at Stuyvesant High School, a public high school that welcomed intellectually gifted kids from every neighborhood and social class.
In Mr. Irgang’s course, we started with macro-economics—big-picture economics. And with the law of supply and demand. This law implies, for example, that when demand is high but supply is low, sellers charge more for goods.
This made no sense to my 16-year old mind. What if, for example, a lot of people need food and there is very little? Would anyone who had food withhold it from as many people as possible? Or give it only to those who could pay? Maybe if there was war and they were refugees and needed to escape to safety. But if they were a big food company with a good business? No one would do that.
When we got to microeconomics I was even more confused. That’s the Adam Smith-type perspective: if individuals are free to pursue their enlightened self-interest, everything will work out for the best. An “invisible hand” will see to it. What is this invisible hand, I wondered. Is it like a conscience inside each person? Helping them understand that it is in their self-interest not to rip others off?
Because I had never participated in any economies based on self-interest, I wasn’t sure. In my family household, we were taught not to act out of self-interest. Instead, we each did our part because we were a family. Bound together by love, respect, history, shared future, and an interdependence that was, well, just the way we lived.
There was no economy of self-interest at my school, either. Stuyvesant is called a “competitive” school because you have to pass a test to get in. But, once there, we students didn’t compete with each other. We shared ideas, studied together, formed clubs, created underground newsletters. Why? Because we were friends, and excited about our shared interests. And because we were all stuck together in this ridiculous age-inappropriate vessel called high school.
Mr. Irgang used tests to calculate our grades. There was no opportunity to write a paper exploring our own questions. If there were, then I might have learned that famous writers had the same questions I did.
But I know that now! Capitalism’s challenges are headline news. So I’m catching up in my reading. I’m revisiting my old childhood questions, and asking some new ones.
Like: what if I read the Torah’s two creation stories as economic allegories? Where creation is a metaphor for human work. And the world is a metaphor for a workplace.
Then, the story in Genesis 1 doesn’t look so idyllic. In Genesis 1, God’s name is Elohim, which also means “aristocrats” or “nobles.” Elohim speaks and things come into being—as if an invisible, uncredited staff of thousands does the work. Humans, created in Elohim’s image, are to rule over the other creatures.
This looks a bit like an autocratic order. The kind of world that corporate capitalists try to create in their giant businesses. Where a tiny group makes all the decisions that a few managers implement and all the rest follow.
The story in Genesis 2-3, on the other hand, looks like a fun adventure in co-creation. God makes something and then waits for feedback from the creature. What does it need? I’ll make that thing. And—like a responsible owner-operator—I’ll even get down in the dirt like an artisan to do it. For example, the earth needs someone to serve it; how about a human being birthed from the humus? The human needs a companion? I’ll let it tell me what suits. The snake wants to teach the humans? Well okay as long as it gives them good information.
Seems like paradise. A kind of employees’ paradise. Until suddenly God gets nervous about the direction of change. Then God takes back all the freedom.
This is a really important point. It’s a reminder that economic democracy is fragile. You have to pay attention all the time. Because there’s always someone powerful who thinks an autocracy will be more efficient.
This is, for me, a novel way of reading Genesis. So, I do expect to think and write more about it. And I want to thank Richard D. Wolff and Stephen A. Resnick whose introductory economics textbook I am now reading. I wish we had such a clearly written book when I was in high school!
Readers: The book is Contending Economic Theories: Neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian. After reading it, I now want to call Genesis 1-3, “Contending Economic Theories”!
Photo credit: Ramesh Ialwani, via Wikimedia Commons