My initial reaction to the #OccupyWallStreet protests is this: Our public schools are failing many of our kids.
This is not new and I’m not the first to say it. People know that to compete in a global, information-based and technological economy, education is more important than ever. Our nation has a huge mismatch of available labor skills and needed labor skills.
When I hear some of the protesters speak, I feel they don’t have the full set of tools — the language, even — to express themselves. They don’t know how the system works. And it’s ridiculous that they don’t, because the capital markets are ruled by some basic concepts that are not that difficult to teach.
(Here’s a start: The economic collapse of 2008 and 2009, from which we’re still reeling, was caused by too much debt. Did Wall Street play a major role in buying and selling that debt? Sure thing. Did consumer banks and mortgage lenders make loans to people who shouldn’t have gotten them? Yes. Could they have done it without borrowers? Nope. Would they have done it without government tax incentives and policies that promoted home-ownership, which guided capital to flow into mortgage debt, versus other types? Probably not. Read Michael Lewis’s The Big Short to learn more.)
It’s ridiculous that kids memorize the dates that Confucius lived but don’t learn a thing about consumer credit or compound interest.
One colleague recently told me that his grade school taught him weaving and knots. He didn’t learn the concept of supply and demand until after college. (What economy was he being prepared for?)
When I was in grade school, I learned the difference between a mitochondria and a ribosome. I couldn’t have told you one thing about debt or equity, a bond or a stock.
Don’t get me wrong — I love science, I love art, I love that my public school exposed me to Toni Morrison and Chaucer — I think these things are important, but there’s got to be a way to fit economics in.
Economics is the study of incentives, of money supply and flow, of consumption, of economies.
This economics stuff matters. Even if the Wall Street protesters don’t fully understand the system, they know it affects them. Because it does.
Business makes the world go around. And it can be richly taught. I took my first macro-economics as an honors colloquium, 15 students in an intimate group with a real economist. But the fun came in micro-economics. I had a high-energy professor — we did exercises on buying and selling, we were all to be “goods” in the market selling our labor, we played games that illustrated incentives. I never looked at a consumer product price tag in the same way again.
Earlier this year, I guest-lectured on business journalism 101 at a local university. The college kids, who are self described non-math types, got a lot out of it. For many, it was their first exposure to anything financial.
One student approached me after my talk and said, “When my boss cut back my hours at the coffee shop, he said that coffee bean costs were rising. I was like, ‘What does that have to do with me?’ I feel like I understand that now.”
Bingo! I’m sorry her hours were cut, I’m thrilled that she better understands how a drought in South America affects her personally. She figured it out after just 20 minutes of learning the principles of an income statement.
This isn’t a post that’s meant to blame or shame. I just think we should arm kids with the tools they need.
Financial literacy is an important tool.
For some great commentary on public education, check out this interview with the late Steve Jobs.
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