So it’s the day after the State of the Union, and of course people are going to be talking about the speech around the school. I would hope the event is still at the very least discussed in Government classes across the country, as I can remember from my youth. As a math teacher, the speech presents me with an opportunity to dive into numbers and big data a bit further – typically in the context of economics, so I love to plan some mini-lessons around the speech.
But why, this year, am I hearing more about what happened after the speech than the contents of the speech itself!?!? I’m sorry, and we will get to the speech itself and lessons that could be run off of it in just a moment, but we need to say a few things about Pelosi’s paper-rip first to clear the air, because both sides of the isle are driving me crazy with what I will call emotional myopia aka understanding humans.
First – I’ll describe what happened. After the speech was over, Nancy Pelosi ripped the copy of President Trump’s speech – which he had given to her before the speech – in half. It should be noted that obviously the two do not like each other, and that Trump ignored Pelosi’s slightly late attempt to shake hands with him after getting the speech.
Was the act of ripping the paper a good idea for promoting bipartisanship right now? Of course not. But if I practice one of the foundational concepts I try to teach (as an educator) – dialogue as defined by David Bohm – then I would be trying to step into Pelosi’s shoes. What she said about why she ripped the paper was that she was frustrated by the speech because it was a “manifesto of mistruths.” Have I ever felt like I wasn’t being heard, at all, and gotten so frustrated I did something that wasn’t helpful to my goals? Oh heck yeah! But there seems to be more than that. The act seemed only partially-spontaneous, and obviously given the nature of the situation there was at least some political calculation. However, even if you add that in, the Speaker of the House has been frustrated for years by a President that seems to blatantly lie and play stupid, was elected partially due to interference by a foreign power and an antiquated electoral system, has attempted to further meddle (albeit in a far less effective way than Russia did) in future elections, and was at the moment undergoing an impeachment trial in which the Senate Majority Leader (as well as others) said before swearing an oath to exercise “impartial justice,” that they in no way intended to be impartial jurors. Come on now… I mean, are the Democrats shining examples of bipartisanship? Fuck no. But give me a break if you think that the state of affairs is not frustrating, or that if she just hadn’t ripped the paper, we’d maybe be mending partisan relations right now.
So that’s what I think happened. Some serious frustration led to a politically unproductive act that won’t really have any impact in a party system that is already as separated as it can possibly get. So can we get the fuck over it? Can we talk about the contents of the speech? Did people read the transcript of it, with fact-checking footnotes attached? Need I remind us of Postman’s prophecy: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”
OK, so let’s talk about the speech. Again, I will remind you that I am not affiliated with a political party, and I find myself all over the board on issues that are traditionally conceived of as right or left. I try to find myself on a constant pursuit of truth and logic. I don’t do it perfectly, but I’m sure as Hell going to try.
Here’s my analysis of the speech: it was characterized by a) made-for T.V. moments (and I must say, our President sure knows how to create those moments and put on a show), and b) an attempt to use statistics (not super-accurate statistics) to position the president as the lead engineer of a complete economic turn-around/revival. Now, if you are a student in the U.S. right now, you are probably hearing the speech on the one hand, and the democratic debates on the other hand where we’re hearing a lot about inequity in our economic system, and you’re wondering what’s actually happening. So let’s take the opportunity to allow them to both get an introduction to economics as a field of study, and to have our students look at some global data. No, we’re not going to be teaching a thorough representation of all economic theory – I’m a high school teacher, so I don’t have the capacity to understand all of that myself! But we can at least plant seeds of self-sufficiency in answering one’s own questions using data.
First of all, check out this awesome new open-source economics textbook, available online. Obviously it would be a lot to process for a teacher if you are just looking at it or reading it for the first time, so I will direct you to some of the first activities within it, which deal with this set of data. You could start there – let’s analyze this chart. After all, it is right up our alley as teachers – it’s complex, requires data analysis, and also requires us to understand the calculations that go into a decile. In the process of analyzing this chart, one may give an example problem to show how we might calculate the top 10% – say you make this dataset up for the income of a population, listed in dollars: 1, 1, 2, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 5, 6, 7, 9, 9.5, 10, 10, 13, 15, 16, 20, 21, 22, 33, 38, 40, 44, 45, 48, 51, 53, 55, 1000. Since there are thirty data points, the poorest ten percent of this population would be made up of the average of a $1, a $1, and a $2 income. The top ten percent, on the other hand, would be made up of the average of a $53, 55, and 1000 dollar income. Wait… we keep hearing Bernie talk about “the 1%” – how would it affect the average income of the richest ten percent of a population if that population was made up of 9% of people with high incomes that are swamped by 1% with just ridiculously high incomes? Would the average seem high or low? These are all questions that students can and should discuss in the process of trying to analyze this graph. Then, students should actually get this data – it’s available for download in xlsx format just below the graph! Have them complete some exercises with the data – like the book’s suggested activity of calculating a rich/poor ratio for several countries in order to compare. Hopefully they also begin to ask some other questions… like ‘man, some of these numbers seem strange… what’s PPP and how is it calculated?” or “hmm, I wonder what the 2005 dollar means as compared to the 2020 dollar…” Great!
I’ll leave you with these possibilities for discussion points today and let you play with these resources. Next week, I’ll dive back into how you may have interpreted some of these resources, as well as how we can bring them back to some basic points about the State of the Union address in order to be able to at least use some data to begin to form our own opinions about the economy and whether or not it can or should exist in a bubble all to itself, elevated in importance above every other endeavor we may undertake as a nation. Until next week, have fun!