Macalester Today Summer 2010

Compiled and edited by Erin Peterson illustrations By Wesley Bedrosian

Macalester professors share nine notions that could change the world.

If you’re like most Macites, you’ve had a few late-night discussions lamenting the world’s problems and offering up your finely wrought plans to solve them. “If only they’d just ask me,” you may have joked to your companions. So, finally, we have. We asked some of Macalester’s brightest academic minds how they’d change the world if they held the power. It turns out that in their visions, the world would look a lot different than it does today. Your house, for instance, might have treadmills instead of couches. Your boss would be kicked to the curb. And your commute would cost you three times what it does today. Whether you find these ideas incisive or insane, we’re confident that you’ll find them thought provoking. Read on to find out how Mac professors would tackle some of the world’s biggest problems with even bigger ideas, all in 250 words or less.

Power Televisions and Video Games with Treadmills

David Chioni Moore is an associate professor of international studies and English.

Two of today’s largest global problems are too much staring and not enough moving: Call it the soaring watch-to-walk ratio. In fact, diabetes rates are mounting even in places recently known for famine, such as China. For the first time in human history, there are more obese than hungry people worldwide. As the epidemiologist Barry Popkin put it (reworking a phrase of Thomas Friedman’s): The World is Fat.

Linking screen time to a mild form of exercise would serve several purposes. Not only would it likely trim screen time, but it would cut our carbon footprint too. I’m not aware of any foot-powered video technology now, though there are office workstations with integrated treadmills. Though I’m generally quite active, even I could benefit from this idea. As I type these very words, I’m sitting on my couch, staring at my laptop screen.

Make Employers Offer On-Site Childcare

Karine Moe is a professor of economics and Dianna Shandy is an associate professor and chair of anthropology. They are authors of Glass Ceilings and 100-Hour Couples: What the Opt-Out Phenomenon Can Teach Us about Work and Family.

Quality childcare is expensive. In the United States, parents pay child care costs ranging from $4,000 to $14,000 per year for center-based care, depending on where they live. While the costs and quality of childcare are important to families, finding childcare that fits their work schedule is a major stressor for working families. Oftentimes centers will charge parents by the minute for late pickups, and will call child protection services if the parent is more than 30 minutes late. The inflexible opening and closing times of many childcare settings makes it incredibly challenging for working parents to respond to the demands of the modern workplace.

Employers that provide on-site childcare go a long way toward solving this problem. Studies show that employers who offer direct childcare benefits enjoy improved worker productivity and reduced turnover and absenteeism. Also, since employers don’t pay payroll taxes on benefits such as subsidized childcare, companies can lower their tax burden by casting a portion of the employee’s compensation as a childcare subsidy. These benefits also accrue to the workers on a tax-free basis.

So here’s a call to employers: If you want increased productivity and reduced absenteeism, create an on-site childcare facility for your workers. By easing childcare related stress for working parents, employers could improve both their bottom line and their workforce morale.

Make All Donations to Political Campaigns Illegal

James Dawes is a professor of English and American literature.

Here’s my idea: Eliminate bribery.

No, we haven’t done that yet.

Imagine you and I are involved in a legal dispute. The night before the judge renders the decision, I give her $50,000 toward her election expenses and take her out to dinner to explain my side better. The next day she decides that I win. You complain, but I reply: You cannot infringe on my right to free speech and giving money to her campaign is an expression of my free speech.

We cannot buy and sell judges, and we should no longer be allowed to buy and sell Congress and the president. We need elections that are exclusively publicly funded.

To paraphrase Gandhi: What do I think of American democracy? I think it would be a very good idea.

Make Everyone Teach

Ruthanne Kurth-Schai is a professor of educational studies.

We need our public schools to prepare all people to act as broadly educated, open-minded, intrinsically motivated learners throughout their lifetimes. Schooling should be about more than competitive performance on standardized tests.

We should commit to a vision of public education that promotes both personal fulfillment and social responsibility. We can redirect educational policy and classroom practice to ensure continuing opportunities for all children and youth to learn in order to teach, and teach in order to learn.

On a regular basis—in preschool through secondary school settings supported by public funds—all students should be supported in learning specific concepts or skills for the expressed purpose of teaching these skills to others. For example, kindergarteners might teach peers how to care for household pets; upper elementary math students might learn to teach basic math to younger students; high school students might analyze a social concern and then provide a range of educational and advocacy events to engage the broader public. At every level, preparation and performance of teaching and learning would become more complex, more challenging, and more enlightening. Young people would experience the power of using their knowledge to make a difference in the world.

For all people, teaching and learning could then be experienced as a way of life. It would sustain people’s capacity for personal meaning and growth, for informed social advocacy, and for principled social action.

Fire Your Boss

Erik Davis ’96 is an assistant professor of religious studies.

Our economic system creates wealth through work. Workers create this wealth through their work on the job, but are paid less than the wealth they create. It should be possible for us to manage our own jobs—and fire our bosses.

I envision an economy run by unions of workers at their individual worksites. Take healthcare, for example. Even when doctors don’t have employers, they must nevertheless answer to insurance company administrators. They aren’t doctors, don’t have medical degrees, and don’t know what the work actually involves. Doctors and nurses should fire their bosses and go back to providing healthcare that they control. With the profit motive eradicated, doctors can make a living while doing a better job of helping us live.

Everyone wonders if people would simply stop working without bosses—that there are too many lazy workers. To which I say: Would all lazy workers please raise their hands? No hands ever go up. If you ask people what they’re afraid of, they’ll give you all sorts of nightmarish fears. When you ask them what they themselves would do in a situation, they almost always give you the best possible answer. The truth is somewhere in between. But we can agree that those doing no productive work and reaping most of the benefits ought to be fired.

Require Quantitative Literacy for College Students

David Bressoud is the Dewitt Wallace professor of mathematics.

There are many common mathematical misunderstandings, but an important one is the idea of compounding.

Consider a college student who for two years charges $100 more per month than she or he pays off, building a debt of $2,400 plus interest. At 12 percent, the total debt is $2,697. At 30 percent, the debt is $3,235, more than 2½ times as much interest.

The real difference occurs when this student pays this debt off. If the student now pays $100 each month toward the outstanding debt, then at 12 percent interest it would take 32 months to pay off the debt of $2,697, including the interest that accumulates while paying off the original debt. The student at 30 percent interest would take a total of 67 months—more than 5½ years and $6,700 in interest—to clear debt plus interest.

Failure to understand compounding leads to poor financial decisions. People take on more debt than they can afford because they don’t appreciate its effect. And this ignorance has been a significant factor in the housing bubble that led to our current financial difficulties.

Students study the mathematics of rates and percentages by eighth grade, but there is a significant difference between solving problems such as “What is 120 percent of 15?” and understanding the effect of percentage growth on compounding debts. Elementary mathematics in complex real-life situations is worth studying. It is called quantitative literacy. This must be part of the knapsack of basic abilities for all college graduates.

Design Governing Structures to Encourage Participation

Erik Larson is an assistant professor of sociology.

Admonishing, coercing, and providing incentives to individuals and organizations to do good things—eat more sustainably, walk or bike more often, use resources efficiently—are standard tools of leadership. However, governance works better when people have greater investment in the rules and goals. This investment tends to be greatest when people tell themselves what to do, how to do it, and why it is important.

Research consistently finds a gap between the law on the books and the law in action, since those who pass laws differ from those who determine how to comply with laws. For instance, equal employment opportunity law required that companies take action to ensure nondiscrimination. Companies responded by developing formal policies to demonstrate compliance, but didn’t necessarily achieve substantive results. The problem stems not from ill will on the part of employers but from their desire to comply with legal mandates. Rather than requiring mere compliance, it would be more effective to engage organizations to determine smarter ways to address the enduring problems.

Truly effective participatory governance requires bringing together a diverse group of people in local environments. Working together on common problems can build better connections between people and foster innovative and creative ideas. Rather than designing settings in which people respond to directives from above, settings in which actors face diverse sets of priorities and values are more likely to generate creative ideas and new ways of approaching familiar situations.

Read More Medieval Authors

Andrew Latham is an associate professor of political science.

Today, it’s easier than ever for people to share their thoughts with the world, whether it’s in a 140-character Twitter update or a 500- word blog post. Unfortunately, it’s also easier than ever to say nothing at all with all those words. Too often, we skim the surface instead of diving deep into the issues that matter most.

Perhaps it’s time to return to the medieval era—with its rich tradition of thinking on topics such as democracy, citizenship, rights, the common good, constitutionalism, sovereignty, civic virtue, and freedom—and see what conceptual raw materials we can collect and use to craft social and political theories that might shed light on contemporary challenges.

For example, the work of thinkers such as Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, John of Salisbury, Christine de Pizan, and John of Paris addressed questions as pressing today as they were a millennium ago: How should we live our lives as individuals? How can we live together in peace, justice, and the pursuit of the common good? I’m not, of course, suggesting that these thinkers can provide direct solutions to the current era’s challenges. But I am suggesting that recovering the intellectual toolkit of the medieval age might provide us with better ways of thinking about the great questions of our own.

Charge the True Price of Fossil Fuels

William Moseley is an associate professor of geography.

Some experts have estimated that the true cost of gasoline is about $70 per gallon if you accounted for the environmental damage created by energy consumption, the health effects of fossil fuel–related pollution, and the wars fought to secure access to cheap energy.

Imagine if we paid even a tenth of this estimated true cost, or $7 per gallon of gas. No longer would it be possible to live in car-oriented suburbs with limited access to public transportation. Our cities would become denser, demand for more and more diverse forms of public transportation would rise, and the market for alternative energy homes would skyrocket.

The way we practice agriculture in this country would become localized. Food production would need to capitalize on natural plant relationships, encourage agro-biodiversity, and be less processed. Decreasing demand for fossil fuels in the country, driven by higher prices, would allow us to stop fighting foreign wars to secure cheap access to oil.

A simple cost-of-living grant to assist the poorest Americans (funded at a fraction of the costs of the foreign wars we are fighting to secure cheap energy) would help ease the transition to higher energy costs. Other anticipated savings could be used to build a more robust public transportation network. Government policy helped us make the transition to greater energy use after World War II. There is no reason policy couldn’t help us reverse the trend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Erin Peterson, who writes for numerous alumni magazines, is a regular contributor to Macalester Today.