November 9, 2016
(really really long email sent to my Econ 1 students just now)
To my students
It is my honor and privilege to be your Professor. I do not know if my words will be helpful to you on this day, but I offer them to you with a heavy heart on what is for me a most difficult day.
I have been thinking about what to say to you for more than a day, even when I was far more optimistic about the results and then again when my anxiety mounted in the last 11 days. Yet even with several weeks to think, I am still struggling to come up with the right words. The right sentiment. This is long and touches on several different aspects of the election.
I think it’s important to remember that the popular vote is nearly evenly split, with about 60 million votes for each candidate. If you were on the winning side of this election, be humble; more people voted against your candidate than for. If you were on the losing side of this election, take heart; 60 million people voted as you did. You are not alone. Berkeley is not alone. California is not alone.
I also think it’s important for everyone – on both sides – to stop demonizing and otherizing those who voted for the other candidate. We are, as President Obama said this morning, one nation. We must find ways beyond our divisions. That will not happen until we talk respectfully with each other. Doing so is challenging, and today may not be the day for it. I encourage you to work hard to not put in writing something that you’ll regret later, something hard to take back when sitting at the family table in three weeks.
And I think it’s important to remember that not everyone who voted for the winning candidate was motivated by a white supremacist male-dominant heteronormative vision of America. Some were. But many who voted for him did so because of economic displacement or rising inequality and a political system that has done nothing to address these problems for over 30 years. When my brother lost his job as part of the late 1980s/early 1990s wave of contracting out, economic displacement became an important topic for me in my classes. Starting in the 1980s, there were many people like my brother – he would have turned 71 on election day – who had grown up expecting a world in which they got a good middle class job which they kept for their entire work lives, received steady wage increases, were afforded a good standard of living with a house and a car and two dogs and a picket fence, and then would retire at age 65 with a pension and a gold watch. That was the world the children of the 1950s and 1960s thought they were going to inherit. Or at least the world the white children of those decades thought they were going to inherit. And because their world view was formed before the important immigration reform of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1965, and the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s, that expectation was a white guy’s expectation of a white guy world.
Economists by and large stood idly by as that world disappeared. Contracting out. Technological progress. Import competition. Rising incomes disproportionately increasing the demand for services. Not to mention immigration reform, Civil Rights Act, feminism and ultimately more. And here we are 30 years later with a large group of people – tens of millions of them – who do not see a place for themselves in the America of today. You might want to say “Oh, well, suck it up.” But think back to that exercise we did in the first week of the semester about the meaning of work. Work – a job – means more to people than just a paycheck. Many of us gain our identity from our work, and from how we are treated at work. Call me into the office at 3 pm and tell me I’m one of 300 people being laid off that day, and please get my things and the officer here will escort me to my car … that’s more than just an incident of unemployment. And when that moment means the end of the life I had envisioned, the life my father or grandfather had lived, it is a moment with far, far more meaning than any model of unemployment or wages or the like could capture.
And so as sick as I am about the election results today – and the Tylenol bottle and I have been good friends today – I am also deeply aware that my profession has failed to use its talents and skills and passions to adequately address the issues of economic displacement and economic inequality that I believe led tens of millions of people to vote for the winning candidate. We have work to do, and it should commence soon.
Even with just the Econ 1 level of econ knowledge that you now have, you have acquired many tools that you can use to understand, explain, engage in debate. We talked about comparative advantage and the gains from trade, and you read that important article about “how economics has failed America” (http://foreignpolicy.com/…/economics-has-failed-america-gl…/) in not focusing on the costs of trade. Addressing externalities is an important part of dealing with climate change. Pressures on small businesses of additional costs is something you’ve analyzed. Inequality of income and its various effects on the economy. Policies for addressing unemployment. There’s a lot of material that we cover in Econ 1 that touches directly on issues raised by this election. Take your knowledge and your well-deserved confidence in that knowledge, and engage in reasoned debate with others. Move the conversation forward.
At the same time, there are certainly others who voted for the winning candidate precisely because of the vision of America he championed. That’s the part that makes me nauseous, gives me insomnia, and has repeatedly brought forth tears today. And while I can choose to blend in with my white skin and graying hair and “really, she’s a lesbian?!?” look, I am painfully aware that is not a privilege everyone – or even most of you – enjoy. I get the fear. It makes me sick at heart today, because what I want most of all is to give you a world free of fear, free of threat. We must stand up for each other. We must commit to heart the words of Martin Niemoeller, and practice them every day. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came_…)
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
I believe strongly in what Hillary Clinton said this morning in her concession speech (http://www.cnn.com/…/pol…/hillary-clinton-concession-speech/). The peaceful transition of power is something about our country that we not only respect, but we cherish. The continuity, the future, the existence of our country depends upon it. And so, with no less fear or trepidation about what policy actions lie ahead, I fully support the peaceful transition. We have one President in this country. Like him or hate him, he is our President. I surprised myself last night when, unable to sleep at 1 or 2 a.m., I heard myself praying for him. I left the specifics up to God.
And perhaps most importantly, believing in the peaceful transition of power and believing that he will be our President by no means implies that we all just shrug it off with “Oh, well. That’s over. What’s for dinner?” The First Amendment to the Constitution (http://constitutionus.com/) guarantees our rights to expression and to peaceably assemble:
Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Regardless of who had won last night, it is our obligation to get involved and stay involved. Not just until the pressure to study for finals starts, but always. Think about ways in which you can make a difference. Protesting may be one of those ways (please note the “peaceably” part of the amendment and stay safe, too). Volunteering at Planned Parenthood or the Southern Poverty Law Center or the ACLU or any of another several dozen organizations may be what you can do. Running for elective office or working for an elected official might be your thing. Majoring in economics (seriously) and embarking on a career of using analysis to address the problems of the displaced and the underprivileged may be your choice. Speaking up – even when it makes your heart race in fear – in protection of someone being harassed may be your calling. We can and must all be involved.
These are uncertain times. They are, for many of us, frightening times. If you or someone you know is overwhelmed by it all, please don’t hesitate to contact Tang’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) at (510) 642-9494 for 24/7 access to a counselor by phone. You may also contact any one of the following 24/7 suicide hotlines: Crisis Support Services of Alameda County, 800-309-2131 or National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-TALK (8255).
I have great hope for the future. The pundits say “demographics are (political) destiny” and I believe that is true. You are the future, and I am so grateful for each and every one of you. Today we grieve. Tomorrow we choose where and how we want to make a difference, roll up our sleeves, and get to work. America needs us.
With deep gratitude and affection,