Back in the heat of the Indiana presidential primary, Obama came to speak at this university. He claimed he was doing something brave by not endorsing the gas-tax holiday Hillary Clinton and John McCain were peddling. He said he wasnt going to support bad policy because he wanted to be a politician that supported real solutions.
Well, the gas tax was certainly bad policy. Suspending it would have caused our gas consumption to increase at time when we should be cutting back and, as Obama pointed out, it would have saved most Americans remarkably little money.
But is that why Obama supporters applauded his stand? Did they really understand why the gas tax was bad, or were they just taking his word for it?
It may seem cynical to assume the latter, but consider that recently some politicians have touted a windfall profit tax on oil companies and restrictions on oil speculators. Attacking speculators is useless; they dont actually hoard oil and add only a few dollars at most to the price of each barrel. A windfall profit tax, on the other hand, is potentially very dangerous. The high profits that oil companies are currently netting are what will guide investment toward either new oil sources or profitable forms of alternative energy.
Economic ignorance also reared its ugly head two weeks ago, when MoveOn.org decided to protest the high price of oil at a local gas station, blaming the Republican Party while simultaneously lambasting McCain for his ties to ExxonMobil (a firm that has, in truth, donated more money to Obama, though McCain still has the most money from oil companies overall). If they had done their research, they would have seen that the reason for high oil prices goes beyond presidents; it is a result of the economy as a whole. Maybe thats why its so poorly understood.
Indeed, that such silly ideas abound suggests a certain amount of economic illiteracy. If everyone in America had gone through even an introductory economics class, politicians probably wouldnt be able to get away with a lot of their silly proposals, and people would know who or what is really to blame for their troubles.
Why cant that be the actual world we live in? Plenty of fundamental economic concepts really are not terribly complicated. Why cant they be taught in more high schools, middle schools and maybe even elementary schools across the country?
Most people in this country can get their hands on a high-school diploma without ever taking a serious economics course. Politicians who really want to encourage growth and economic prosperity could change that.
Imagine if either Mitch Daniels or Jill Long Thompson proposed new education standards that added an elementary economics course as a high-school graduation requirement. Surely future Indiana voters would be less likely to vote for an opportunistic populist if they had more background in economics.
We teach our children about democracy and civic virtue to inspire them to preserve it. In teaching them how to spot bad policy, they could be learning how to preserve it as well.