My Center for Popular Economics Institute Experience: “Does your head hurt? Are you confused? Good, that means you’re learning”

By Leticia Medina, Deputy Director of Media Justice League (part of the MAG-Net delegation participating in the CPE Summer Institute)

“Does your head hurt? Are you confused? Good, that means you’re learning.” My classmates and I heard the preceding on a daily basis from Dr. Hector Saez at the Center for Popular Economics Summer Institute. The Summer Institute was a special track titled Media, Democracy and the Economy. For five days, Hector Sáez and Michelle Rosenfield dedicated themselves to opening up the world of popular (read: of or carried on by the people as a whole rather than restricted to politicians or political parties) economics. We talked about how economics inform all aspects of our lives and what exactly it means to live in a society that has built itself on a capitalist framework.

Capitalism as an ideology is embraced by many as an economic structure that allows for social mobility and consumer freedoms. In practice, however, capitalism seems to benefit merely a fraction of the population while it is harmful for the overwhelming majority. We must find a way to shift the economic infrastructure that governs us to better fit a worldview rooted in social justice. As it is, those in control of the nation’s riches do not, in effect, represent the interests and concerns of the American people. What does it mean for a very small group of people to own so much of the nation’s wealth? According to this cool infographic published in Mother Jones, the top 10% control over 2/3 of the nation’s wealth. The implications are astounding.

The Smith College campus (one of the Seven Sisters liberal arts colleges) in Northampton, MA is an idyllic blend of manicured grounds and Victorian architecture. The Center for Popular Economics put us up in sweet dorms at Chapin House which abuts Paradise Pond. From Monday, July 25 to Friday, July 29, we met with Hector and Michelle from 8:30am to late afternoon to learn from them all about our complicated and tangled economy. Because they were essentially condensing one semester’s worth of material into one week the pace was fast and the sessions intense. Nevertheless, our teachers managed to convey the most important and fascinating bits of their course content. From the inception of capitalism to the current-day debt ceiling fiasco, they walked us through important timelines and developments worth studying.

Hector and Michelle stressed over and over that the subject of economics should not be discussed or explored only by a small group of learned academics or finance experts; rather, economics should be accessible to every single person participating in and contributing to that economic structure, hence popular economics. Our instructors focused on the benefits of a participatory populace, one that is involved with its economy on many levels, from working and living in it to helping shape the direction the economy takes. For too long now, the study of economics has been relegated to the classroom and shrouded in undecipherable legalese. The popular economists at the CPE 2011 Summer Institute work to strip away those layers and generate conversations in clear and straightforward language.

I was especially heartened by the focus on media and media justice issues as they speak to the state of our economy now. We have come to realize that responding to media content by creating our own is one of the most effective ways of telling our stories in order to rewrite the narratives that shape our lives. Those in power have been extremely clever in framing their messages and flooding our means of communication with their prefabricated stories. Their tactics are insidious, self-serving, and utterly successful. The Center for Popular Economics recognizes that practicing critical analysis of media content, responding by creating our own, and demanding media policy that will ensure equity are essential steps in bringing about a shift in paradigm.

The classes, sessions, plenaries, and workshops that the CPE generously and thoughtfully organized for us left me feeling brain-fed, exquisitely exhausted, and nothing less than inspired. Exploring the different intersections between media, democracy and the economy was illuminating and, at times, frustrating. Frustrating in the sense that there are clear parallels in inequalities. Inequalities in media translate directly into inequalities in the economy which further translate into inequalities in our democracy. Being able to clearly understand and articulate those connections has amplified and enriched my analysis of those structures that I navigate on a daily basis.

If Hector and Michelle hoped that their students would be galvanized to continue researching and learning about popular/progressive economics on their own, they should be congratulating themselves on their resounding success. I for one plan on continued research of Keynesian economics, the problematic metrics of our GDP, and a better understanding of capitalism as an ideology. I know I will have many allies on this new journey because my amazing, unforgettable fellow classmates all expressed the same desire to continue learning. This is one of the major reasons I LOVE what I do and who I do it with. The fight continues.