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A Voice Of Economics In Columbia’s Heartland

An Econ student, probably, hard at work on his Gulati problem set (2017, Colorized).

If you’ve crawled out of Butler isolation recently to check the news, you might have seen this rather interesting in-depth NYT profile of an American Nazi. In fact, the article inspired us here at Bwog to take a deeper look into one of the everyday faces of Columbia University: a Columbia Econ major. Bwogger Zack Abrams investigates

Eric Johnson arrived at Columbia University this fall. He got in early. On his shopping list were a Canada Goose jacket, a lint brush, and a set of sharpened pencils.

Ms. Johnson, his mother, was worried about activist groups protesting his arrival. Going to college is hard enough to plan when your son is not an expected econ major.

But Eric, in the days leading up to his arrival, was somewhat less anxious. There are times when it can feel toxic to openly identify as a center-right economist in the Columbia of 2017. But not always. He said the election of President Trump helped open a space for people like him, demonstrating that it is not the end of the world to be attacked as the free-market idealist he surely is: “You can just say, ‘Yeah, so?’ And move on.”

It was a weeknight at the local steakhouse in Scarsdale, a town in Westchester, a few weeks before move-in day. The Johnsons were shoulder to shoulder at a table, a family in love. He was in a gold-buttoned blazer, she in a Moncler puffer. She ordered the salmon. The going-away party would be small. Some of Ms. Johnson’s friends were going to be there. “A lot of girls are not really into the writings of Keynes,” she said.

At Columbia, amid the manicured lawns and vaping students, the pizza places and Shake Shacks, Mr. Johnson’s presence can make hardly a ripple. He is the Econ major next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of acceptable majors can seem alarmingly in flux. Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Friedman, disdain for regulation and belief that the corporations are better off being taxed less. But his tattoos are innocuous pop culture references: a pickle adorns one arm, a homage to the TV show “Rick and Morty.” He says he prefers to spread the gospel of free markets with satire. He is a big “South Park” fan.

“I guess it seems weird when talking about these type of things,” he says. “You know, I’m coming at it in a mid-2000s, Jewish, New York, observational-humor way.”

Eric, 18, is a student by trade. He is not a star among the resurgent fiscal policy-based American right so much as a committed foot soldier — an organizer, an occasional podcast guest on a website called Radio Liberty, and a self-described “social media villain,” although, in person, his Upstate manners would please anyone’s mother. In 2015, while in high school, he helped start the Freer People Party, one of the center-right wing groups that drummed up support for Gary Johnson in 2016. The group’s stated mission is to “fight for the interests of working-class Americans.’’

Its leaders claim to oppose racism, though the Anti-Defamation League says the group “endorses policies that disproportionately harm minorities.” On its website, a “Taxation is theft” armband goes for $20.

“We need to have more families. We need to be able to just be normal,” said Matthew Park, the leader of the Freer People Party, in a podcast conversation with Eric. Why, he asked self-mockingly, were so many followers “abnormal”?

Eric replied: “I mean honestly, it takes people with, like, sort of an odd view of life, at first, to come this way. Because most people are pacified really easy, you know. Like, here’s some money, here’s a nice TV, go watch your sports, you know?”

He added: “The fact that we’re seeing more and more normal people come is because things have gotten so bad. And if they keep getting worse, we’ll keep getting more, just, normal people.”

Eric Johnson plans to take Principles of Economics with Professor Sunil Gulati in the spring.

He’s just like us but, y’know, an Econ student via Pexels

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