Money Talks: Symposium Offers Contrasting Views On Economic Crisis

Illustrations by Matt Haney
A year ago this past September, the U.S. economy fell off a cliff. How we collectively allowed that to happen is a matter of some debate. But few would disagree that we were hurt by a certain narrowness of vision. We ignored risks and held too dearly to shaky assumptions about home values, debt and market stability.

As Nebraska Wesleyan planned its Visions and Ventures symposium on the economy—held on the anniversary of the collapse—faculty and staff refused to think narrowly.

“Our topic was ‘Economic Justice: The Colors of Money,’” said Sara Olson, Nebraska Wesleyan’s public relations director and member of the forum committee, which coordinates Visions and Ventures. “As we looked at the topic and at possible speakers, more than anything, we wanted breadth.”

Democratic DonkeyThey certainly got it.

Kicking off the symposium was liberal columnist and author Naomi Klein. Her bestselling book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, argued that industry and political leaders have used the chaotic aftermaths of wars and natural and economic disasters to push through policy changes that wouldn’t have passed under calmer circumstances.

Klein pointed to corporate-friendly policies for Iraq’s oil wealth established during the height of the war; Sri Lankan fishermen uprooted after the 2004 tsunami to make way for luxury hotels; and public housing in New Orleans replaced by condos after Hurricane Katrina.

She asked Nebraska Wesleyan students whether similar things were happening in the current economic crisis. She said the bailouts benefiting large investment banks passed quickly, yet the regulations that could hinder their future abuses have stalled.

Klein was followed by Annie Leonard, an international sustainability and environmental health expert. Following Leonard was a panel discussion on economics and the constitution. Panel members included Lancaster County District Judge Jodi Nelson; Robert Routh, an attorney with Cline Williams Law Firm; Nebraska Assistant Attorney General Jeff Schroeder; and Larry Ruth, a lobbyist with Ruth, Mueller, Robak, LLC and chair of Nebraska Wesleyan’s Board of Governors.

The symposium concluded with a speaker quite different from the one who’d launched it: conservative policy analyst and Wall Street Journal editor, Stephen Moore. Moore is also a contributing editor for The National Review and a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute.

Republican ElephantMoore lectured on the relationships between government spending, taxation and economic growth. In his view, “Everything we’ve done in the last nine months to deal with the financial crisis we face today has been exactly the wrong thing to do.” He argued that a crisis caused by too much debt and too much spending can hardly be solved by even more debt and spending.

As if to emphasize the sharp contrast in Klein and Moore’s views on the economy, Moore began his remarks by saying, “Just about everything [Klein] told you is probably wrong. I’m going to give you the other side. I’m going to give you the pro-capitalism side of the equation.”

Scott Stanfield, professor of English and forum committee chair, said that while the committee didn’t select Klein and Moore to refute one another, he sees tremendous benefit in presenting students with polar views on important topics.

And while their views may be polar, Stanfield said neither speaker was marginal. Klein’s Shock Doctrine is an international bestseller translated into 27 languages. Likewise, The Wall Street Journal, where Moore serves as an editor, has a circulation of more than 2 million. If their ideas are fringe, then the fringes are well populated.

“Sharply defined positions are useful for contrast,” Stanfield said. He believed that “two polarized speakers can serve a purpose that three or four middle-of-the-road speakers could not. The middle of the road is what many students know most about anyway.”

The middle of the road may well constitute the best path forward. But the ongoing economic crisis has proven that it’s always wise to know about the terrain to your left and right. If nothing else, it can help keep you from falling off a cliff.