Friday, November 30, 2007

A Downside of Mac

So yesterday I found a downside to this lovely little uber-liberal arts college where I have been Visiting now for the past two semesters.

I have to say that until now, it has been incredibly lovely. Not only do I recognize another lesbian across campus regularly, but the students are bright and interested. It translates into more work for a professor, but it is also infinitely more interesting. I can see that over the course of a career, it would be nearly impossible for your teaching (and, as a result, your research) to become stagnant.

However, yesterday, during class, I unraveled an ugly side, and missed my second-rate state school kids back home.

I am teaching a "smushed" macro/micro course in one semester right now. I've never taught such a class before. Usually colleges and universities find that the material is difficult enough, and important enough to spread out over two semesters. At first, I was sceptical.

As it turned out, the Mac students learn at double-speed, so I found myself covering twice the information in a week than I normally would have. In the microeconomics third of the course, for example, I covered topics that normally I would have gotten to only in other courses (like labor economics or intermediate microeconomic theory). So yeah, they are good.

Anyway, I am now on to the macroeconomics third of the class and this week we were discussing economic development.

I am not a macroeconomist, but I must say, I had research envy after doing the preparation for this course. Who wouldn't want to research solutions to global poverty, for example?

Anyway, following an uber-conservative textbook not of my choosing (Greg Mankiw's book, Economics. He is currently serving as the economic advisor to Mitt Romney if that gives you any idea of his kind of conservative. It is chosen as a book because of its level of rigor, but I was surprised to find a number of theoretical mistakes in it.) I presented a thought problem about a type of utopian technological development: the replicator machine.

The thought problem went like this:

The Universal Replicator is a machine that can replicate any physical good. If a car is put into the Universal Replicator, the machine will create an exact working duplicate at the touch of a button. It will work on any non-living object.

Assume this technology becomes widely adopted throughout the country by manufacturers of all types of products.

What impact would the Universal Replicator have on the economy.
What jobs would not be needed?
What would happen to the price of goods?
What kinds of problems would you expect?
What benefits do you see?
What kinds of jobs would still be necessary?

You might wonder why a thought project like this is interesting at all. In fact, while we don't have a replicator machine at the moment, changes in agriculture have practically acted like that. Two hundred years ago 80% of our labor force toiled in agricultural production. Today it accounts for only 2% of jobs, while at the same time agricultural production has increased tremendously.

What was so shocking to me, was the reaction among many in one of my classes. Instead of "yeah! we could solve world poverty!!!" "We could stop working in manufacturing jobs and focus on service!" "On art!" "On music!"

No. . . .

They said: "How could we differentiate ourselvs, in class terms, from one another if we all can have the same stuff???"

I was flabbergasted and wanted to click my heels together whispering "there's no place like home. . . there's no place like home. . ."

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