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For the Public Good: An Economics Major’s Perspective

By Hilary Symington '12
Economics and Art History Major
 

Last Thursday, I attended “For the Public Good,” the first in a series of interdisciplinary panels tackling questions about the public good – how these questions arise, how they are framed, and how they are answered through policy.

From the opening remarks, I was struck by the panelists’ different approaches. Nancy Holmstrom, a philosophy professor at Rutgers University, quoted from a poster spotted at the recent anti-globalization protests in Europe: In protest of a world where everything has a price, but nothing has a value.” Barnard professor David Weiman, like a true economic historian, began, “I’ve been thinking a lot about Adam Smith lately,” referring to the 18th century economist and philosopher. Psychology professor Michelle Fine, from City University of New York, recounted an anecdote from an ecologist who raised the question of how nature responds to crisis by looking at New Orleans’ soaring oak trees that survived Hurricane Katrina. The ecologist reasoned that if we were like trees, we would lean on each other like the oaks—although tall and proud above ground, these trees are connected in a tightly knit web of roots below ground. Without one another’s subterranean support, they never could have braved the storm. 

The speakers all said essentially the same thing—that the neo-liberal trickle-down system has failed, that the public good can no longer be entrusted to private companies, and that free-trade policies are not the answer. But at times, it seemed as if all three panelists were speaking three very different languages, leading me to wonder: just how realistic is an interdisciplinary approach? How effective? 

Holmstrom and Weiman both used economic history to launch their critique of neo-liberalism--explaining the Enclosure Movement and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, respectively.  Both reached similar conclusions, that capitalistic firms lack the necessary long-term perspective to look out for the public good. But as Holstrom described what she believed economists believe, one of her comments gave me pause.

“They see everything in terms of maximizing personal utility....They assume that all can and should be a commodity,” she said.   

Hearing this perspective as an economics major, I was frustrated by her assessment and found myself thinking about my own approach to my chosen field of study. Yes, I aim to maximize my utility function subject to my budget constraints as well as the constraints of society, but the public good—universal health care, universal quality education, freedom, love—is very much part of my utility function and very much of fundamental importance to me.

Professor Fine’s presentation took a different tact. She used personal anecdotes and her words were hopeful as she reminded us that the public good is all of our concern, regardless of our background or academic discipline. Fine’s passion for justice and for education renewed my belief in the possibility of an effective interdisciplinary discussion of the public good. Like the trees of New Orleans, we as academics may branch as far as possible away from one another, but our shared roots can only make us stronger. We owe it to ourselves to lean on one another.

Read additional reflections on "For the Public Good" by a Barnard faculty member and the associate director of BCRW.