Just one of the many lecturers taking part in the new Raising the Bar program, Professor Andrew Ross of NYU spoke about economic issues Tuesday night. Economics enthusiast Dani Lopez attended the lecture and reports on her thoughts from the night.
When I heard I would have the opportunity to discuss pressing economic issues over a cup of hot chocolate with some of the best professors in NYC, I was stoked. However, what started out seeming like a great lecture quickly turned south when the opening remarks to Andrew Ross’ “Drowning in Debt” sounded like something out of an Occupy Wall Street pamphlet. Though he occasionally used statistics or referenced others in academia, he discussed debt and our financial systems not like an economist, but like an activist trying to rally support by completely villainizing one group (the government and financial sector) and pardoning the other (the indebted). I could not believe how biased his research and presentation of data was considering he is a professor of Sociology and Culture at NYU. He incorrectly depicted a picture of varying shades of gray as being solely black and white.
His attack on the secondary-debt markets, banks, and government were merited, but he completely failed to hold debtors accountable, even when another skeptic and myself challenged him on these points during the Q&A session. Whenever he was asked about debtor-accountability, he resorted solely to discussing medical-debt and student-loan debt. This was a touché trick in the sense that it is indeed difficult to attack medical-debt since it tends to be unavoidable, but it is a weak counterargument in the sense that it ignores the common debt acquired on mortgages and from hand-to-mouth consumers on luxury goods (luxury not meaning just BMWs but iPhones, movie tickets, and restaurant meals).
The epitome of his bias comments were when, asked by a skeptic on debtor-accountability during the housing bubble, he insisted everyone who got screwed over from the crash of the housing market was because they were forced into buying homes. As a lower-middle class student with parents who are struggling to keep our home from being foreclosed, the effects of the 2008 recession/housing bubble have been all too real for me and, as a result, it has been a topic of great interest to me. However, as a student who has taken several economics courses, hearing him say something as absurd as “people were forced to buy those homes” as a defense made me question the ability of Ross’ arguments to stand strong in the face of counterarguments. Hearing an academic figure that had written an entire book about debt in America make such a weak claim was not only disappointing but infuriating in the sense that it almost felt like he was saying it for the sake of fueling the anger of those in the room who clearly already had strong feelings about the financial sector.
Andrew Ross had an amazing opportunity to teach people about the complexities of debt in America and instead used to it to simply keep feeding the economically uneducated half-truths to fuel their uninformed anger. His bias aside, even if things were as simple and one-sided as he made them out to be, he failed to propose any meaningful solutions to the problems. When asked about it in the Q&A session, he simply kept talking about a utopian society (he easily used the word “utopia” 10-15 times in responding to my question to make it clear he knew his proposition was unrealistic) where the private sector—which history and economic theory have consistently shown are responsible for much of our innovation—would be abolished and everything would be funded by the government and local movements, like co-ops. He talked about how everyone would thrive through the sharing of communal goods, completely ignoring one of the most famous economic theories about the Tragedy of the Commons (which anyone who has taken only a semester of Principles of Economics or a Political Science course would know about). What made this especially ironic was how he complained about environmental degradation several times throughout his speech, which is the prime example of the Tragedy of the Commons.
Despite the various flaws I found in his lecture (there are still several more I could discuss, including but not limited to his proposal that we should refuse to pay taxes if they go to paying for causes we disapprove of, like war, and that we should all unite against the banks and stop paying our debts), I would like to clarify that I do believe Andrew Ross made some valid and worthwhile claims. The ultimate failure was that these claims were difficult to appreciate because they were lost in the large amounts of extreme, unsupported claims he made. Perhaps by reading his new book it is possible to understand the basis for some of these claims, but unfortunately, because of the vast amount of topics covered in his 90-minute lecture, some of his claims sounded like mere conspiracy theories (mainly the one’s about the government and the 1%).
In hindsight, I believe that as an accomplished professor and activist, Andrew Ross knew more about economics than he let on and that he purposely dumbed down the content with an audience that lacks an economic background in mind. I would like to clarify I do not in any way consider myself an expert in economic theory, nor do I think that I, a student, know more on the subject than a professor at a renowned college. Instead, I hope to emphasize the fact that people should strive to be informed members of society who question any lecture they hear, especially if it seems to only reiterate their own opinions.