Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Adam Smith and me

I can't believe I once worried about this:
Am I just a brain sitting in a vat of saline somewhere, controlled by a classroom of advanced post-doctoral students amusing themselves with my epiphenomenal world?

No matter anymore. Seems the whole world chooses to live vicariously now through chips and code written by young'uns high on pizza and caffeine.

Many of my lambs believe the world will end in 2012, that no man ever walked on the moon, and that mere belief in their dreams will get them to the promised land.

It's November, and I'm as cranky as the bees.

I teach science. I'm under a bit of pressure.

Arne Duncan says that "Science, Technology, Engineering and Math are at the forefront of our global economic future." He should know, he's a sociologist, and parlayed a mediocre basketball career into the White House.

Al Gore says that "in today's increasingly global economy, America cannot afford to continue to fall behind the world in the very subjects that are going to drive economic growth and development in the coming decades." He should know, he's a retired politician, majored in government, and earned a D in a sophomore science course.

The state of New Jersey expects my students to know this, and that, and some more of this for good measure. New Jersey pays good money to develop tests to make sure I've done my job.

I must confess, however, that I have ulterior motives.


Our economy is not based on information, or technology, or engineering, or math.

Our economy is ultimately based on what the Earth produces, on how much we can sustainably extract from the living organisms around us.

A nifty math degree might help me get a higher portion of what we extract than my neighbor who did not finish college. I might earn more money with an engineering degree. The sheepskin on my wall sitting in my attic somewhere might put a jaunt in my step.

To be fair, science has gone a long way to increasing crop yields, to enabling us to get metals from the ground, protein from our seas, but so long as we remain dependent on the sun for our daily bread, we cannot do much better in the long term, say seven or eight generations, than those seven or eight generations ago.

Our greatest resources here are not our minds. (The Chinese alone outnumber us almost 5 to 1--their top 20% in intelligence rival the entire population of the United States.)

Our greatest resource here is not our spirit. Parochialism is cherished everywhere.

Our greatest asset is the incredible land base we have. We can grow lots and lots of wheat and lots and lots of corn. We have ore and trees, we have coastline, we have abundant rainfall.

A degree in economics doesn't make you a better farmer; it just makes you better at glomming what the farmer makes.

We need plumbers and farmers and nurses and masons; we need electricians and framers and clammers and machinists.

If you are making a living extracting money from the economy without thought to the consequences of your actions, with no connection to the land base, contributing little to the general welfare of the community, you are not particularly useful, no matter how much you make.

The last couple of decades have seen an increasing inequality on the distribution of the financial wealth in the United States.

Producing more scientists will not fix the rising inequity in wealth distribution--it might even aggravate it.

So why do I teach science?

I have a copy of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence on my classroom wall. I remain a happy skeptic, convinced that thinking Americans can keep our Great Experiment alive.

Democracy cannot survive ignorance.

Every day I go to school with two goals--to show the children the world that they are missing when they are immersed in the human universe of iPods and monitors, and to show them how to think on their own.

If a handful of them go on to become scientists and mention my name along the way, cool beans. I'd be proud, but it wouldn't matter much beyond that.

If, however, children who pass through my classroom learn to love the world around them, and to critically assess how our actions affect the world they love, well, I've done something worthwhile.

Should I just be fooling myself, and I may be, I have a few million yeast bubbling away in 5 gallons of wort in the kitchen, a few Brussels sprout stalks still stealing energy from sunlight a few feet from my front door, and a clam rake I'm getting pretty good at using.

Not sure I'm contributing much to the GDP, but I've become part of the local economy, the one that respects entropy and life, the one that makes me happy. The invisible hand of the market pales next to the grace of the hand of nature.

The title is unfair--Adam Smith's work is like the Bible: widely quoted, rarely read, mostly misunderstood.
Photo from The Brain That Wouldn't Die, 1962, via classic-horror
The "Declaration of Independence" image from the US Library of Congress.


Charlie Roy said...

I enjoyed these words very much:

"If you are making a living extracting money from the economy without thought to the consequences of your actions, with no connection to the land base, contributing little to the general welfare of the community, you are not particularly useful, no matter how much you make."

I'll think about them the next time I trade a handful of derivatives. But think I will.

The Dirt on Soil said...

Ahhhhhhh. This post is why I keep reading you. This is why I want to teach as well. I tweeted your post. I know you love the tweeter ;-)

The Dirt on Soil said...

PS Does your copy of the DOI have f's where there should be s's? What's the dealio?

doyle said...

Dear Charlie,

Thank you for your warm words. Have any hot stock tips to share?

Dear The Dirt on Soil,

Thanks for your kindness. Yes, I have a lot of weird "f"'s--I think that's how the fancy folks wrote "s" back then. Does that make fenfe?

Charlie Roy said...

@ Doyle

Go long corn and soybeans. Good chance of a rise with the new year coming. We have a potential inflationary environment a Chinese and Indian public with a growing appetite for the joys of middle class meat-eating which means more feed for animals and higher demand for cheap U.S. subsidized corn and soy.

doyle said...

Dear Charlie,

I was kidding, as I'm sure you know--I would not place money on food like that. (Agin' my religion....)