This is one of the commended entries for the Economics Network Student Challenge 2011 by Heather Purdie (University of Strathclyde).
Having spent the first nineteen altogether very important years of my life in Scotland, growing, eating, socialising, learning, changing, travelling, maturing, my decision to study abroad for a year in the United States of America was one which I made with not a little anticipation and fear. I anticipated and feared that it would fundamentally entail a change in my Scottish growing, eating, socialising, learning, changing, travelling and maturing customs. I was correct, as I very quickly learned upon my arrival in the New World.
Studying abroad for a year at the University of Vermont in New England has, in fact, almost reversed my previous nineteen years of Scottish habituation. Okay, so undeniably my hair and nails grow like they always have, I still blink, my heart still beats, I still enjoy listening to terrible music, but the differences are apparent in other areas. Where once I ate haggis, neeps and tatties, I now eat corndogs, chowder and Ben & Jerry’s (maybe not all in one sitting!). How I once danced in the Sauchiehall Street nightclubs and drank in Wetherspoon’s, now, alas, the plight of the under-21: I regress into being “un underager” once more. When once I sounded reassuringly “posh” to my classmates, I am now the girl with the accent that people can rarely understand. Where travelling was once a time to see Big Ben, Edinburgh Castle, The Gorbals, now it’s an opportunity to view the Capitol, the Hollywood sign, and the Bronx (which, unsurprisingly, shares much in common with the Gorbals).
Yes, there is no denying it; life in America is different from life in the UK. Education is different in the US – I mean for one thing, everyone knows that American high schools are exactly as they are depicted in Mean Girls or in High School Musical. Students wear their own clothes, they go to detention, and they cheerlead. Colleges are like those in Road Trip, Old School, The Social Network. Learning is different in America.
More like a UK school environment than a university one, college here is approached and structured in a way unlike its UK counterpart. Classes are small and personal contribution is expected, homework is issued and graded, teachers learn names! So on my first day of classes at the University of Vermont, I was positively scared of the ostracism of being both an accented “international” and being exposed to such an alien education system. But then I went to an economics class! EC130, Room 3, Marsh Life Sciences building 0935-1025 Monday Wednesday Friday…
Externalities, public goods, free riders, Pigouvian taxes, SUPPLY AND DEMAND. I know this stuff, I thought. I can draw this graph. I can calculate this elasticity. To paraphrase Friedman, economics is always and everywhere a worldwide phenomenon. It translates across languages, generations, accents, cultural barriers. Although my experience of economics in the USA has been more focused on Merrill Lynch than Mervyn King and, dare I say it, Social Security more than social justice, the fundamentals are consistent, they’ve always been there, the most unexpected reminder of home.
For my Money & Banking class here in the US, I have been reading Andrew Sorkin’s book ‘Too Big to Fail’ about the 2008 financial crisis. Although this gripping (and scarily true) story focuses specifically on Wall Street and Washington D.C., the mirroring recessions and credit crunches in the UK and Europe are pivotal to the USA tale of greedy bankers. In fact, two of my fellow countrymen – Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling – feature in Sorkin’s analysis of the British response to the crisis and how the efforts of the then Prime Minister and Chancellor were pivotal influencing factors in the decisions of the former Secretary to the Treasury, Hank Paulson.
Across a range of economics classes, links to home were to be found. Whilst my International Trade module certainly pertained to – and debatably portrayed a biased view of – US trading dominance, in our partially globalised world and interconnected economic systems, the European Union, China and the tiger economies were certainly recognised as being the great economic forces throughout the world.
In my Public Policy class, the NHS was used as an example of nationalised healthcare in stark contrast to America’s own insurance-premium and pooling system of care for which vastly different policy choices are required. I shocked my classmates with my personal experience of moral hazard when I told them of the time I went to see the doctor because I had just one spot on my face. They scared me back with their claims that they would barely go see the quack with a life-threatening disease for fear of the deadly cost! They made me not a little jealous by showing me their straight, pearly white teeth. I made them a whole lot more jealous when I smiled and revealed that my braces and crowns and all other dental work had cost nothing. I appalled them when I revealed that earners in the UK making £150,000+ pay 50% tax. I was slightly sickened by the extra 7% Vermont tax added onto to all my purchases! But for all the battling we did over public policy choices suitable to each country, the fact we could argue using the same fundamental principles and analyses was both reassuring and educational for both parties.
In Game Theory, another economics subject which I am currently studying at the University of Vermont, I am comforted each time I realise that when playing games – whether sequential, simultaneous, of pure or mixed strategies – people everywhere will eliminate their dominated tactics, play their dominant ones and try to maximise their own utility. From the globally famous game, the proverbial ‘prisoners’ when given the chance to confess or deny their crime, whether in Boston or Brighton, York or New York, will reach a Nash equilibrium which fulfils neither players’ dominant game plan leaving both in jail for their misdemeanours. (Their experience in prison will, of course, differ greatly depending on where they played the game!).
So the next time someone asks me why I study economics or why they should, I’ll tell them how it has helped teach me that some things are the same no matter where you are, some of the same models still apply, some truths remain relevant, as economic agents people respond to their surroundings in ways that they hope will maximise their utility. Economics is about the study of markets; the allocation and distribution of scarce resources; equality and equity. Whilst the UK, the USA and every other country in the world does not hold entirely convergent views and ideas on all of these facets of the subject, it is in the overlapping, universal applications of Smith, Ricardo, Marshall, Friedman, Keynes, Nash (to name but a few great economists)that we appreciate the global nature of economics. As for my own learning experience here in Vermont, the greatest lesson I will take home to Scotland with me is – for all the differences in the fashions, the accents, the attitudes, the bureaucracies and systems, people are people wherever you go and I’d like to think that through the study of economics, we can come to better understand our common human needs and natures.
You can hear Heather’s recorded version of her essay here.