The notepads tell the story: erased words, thoughts in the margins, scratched-out
sentences and bullet statements that, generally speaking, try to do two
things: define economic literacy and—having defined it—determine
"action steps" to teach it.
In the end, the more than 60 participants to the Economic Literacy Symposium
did establish a series of steps whereby each representative sector could
advance the cause of economic literacy. (See list of participants.) But
more on those steps later; first, some background. The Symposium was held
May 13 and 14, 1999, at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, as part
of the Economic Literacy Project, a partnership of The Region
magazine, the Minnesota Public Radio Civic Journalism Initiative, and
Sound Money, a national radio show on personal finance.
More than just a forum for participants to share their views on economic
literacy, the purpose of the Symposium was to bring together members of
various groups—such as education, the media, business and labor—to
develop ideas that would promote economic literacy. The event began on
May 13 with a dinner and keynote speech by Alice Rivlin, vice chair of
the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and was followed
by a full day of "break-out" sessions, general assembly discussion, an
overview by Sound Money Economics Editor Chris Farrell, and
a luncheon media panel that focused attention on newspapers and their
role in reporting economic news. In addition, a Women's Caucus was held
the night of May 13 to discuss the relative absence of women in the field
of academic economics.
Finally, the Economic Literacy Project
is ongoing, with a presence on
the Web that will continue to grow as new material and links become available.
Also, the Symposium followed the publication of the December Region
a special issue devoted to economic literacy, which is also available
on the Web. (See also MPR's Marketplace Money.
What is economic literacy?
Symposium participants were first asked to consider that question, among
others, when they gathered for their morning sessions, during which the
sector groups were mixed. As some participants noted, it is perhaps telling
of the complexity of the issue that defining economic literacy proved
more troublesome, in some ways, than determining action steps to promote
it. As some said, this illustrates that economics is a "value-laden" term
for many people, and these values are not easily separated from a discussion
about established principles or ideas. One person's economics is another
one's manifesto. Chris Farrell recognized this in his Symposium overview,
during which he described a gulf between economists and noneconomists:
"Like it or not, economics has become the modern language of ethical and
That was certainly the case during portions of the morning sessions.
In one session, there was heated debate about colonialism and its continuing
impact on the developing economies of the formerly occupied countries:
one side arguing that trade issues are distorted by the countries' post-colonial
status, another side arguing that post-colonial or not, fundamental economic
principles regarding trade—like comparative advantage—still
apply. This discussion was part of the group's effort to define economic
literacy and caused one participant to throw up his hands and say: "If
someone from outside heard our discussion, he'd say, 'What the hell are
they talking about?'"
One group debated the necessity of even trying to educate the public
about economic issues that affect public policy, with some participants
suggesting that it didn't matter—constituencies will vote only one
way and will not change their point of view based on a better understanding
of the economy. Maybe that's true, others countered, but there is still
merit in understanding the complexities of a given issue, because ignorance
can be exploited by politicians and special interest groups. "If there's
no economic literacy, then economics will become the study of the unintended
consequences of public policy," one participant said.
Another group discussed the need for educating adults about economic
issues, not just children, and suggested the need for some form of "lifelong
learning center" on the topic. Easier said than done, said one participant:
"Imagine MPR running a program on arithmetic, to people who have never
learned it, and taught by people who don't know it."
Despite the debate (or, rather, because of it), by the end of the morning
each cross-sector group had completed its assignment and gave a brief
report before the assembly; there was some overlap in definitions and
- economic literacy means that people have an understanding of economics
that informs personal finance and public policy;
- economic literacy is a two-step process that begins with personal
finance and leads to broader economic issues that all of society faces;
- economics ultimately leads to questions about what matters, it's "where
the social and ethical rubber hits the road";
- a better-informed public will allow for fewer mistakes in public policy;
- economic literacy is not just about teaching people how to react to
certain policies or ideas, but how to put them into context and evaluate
At the close of the group presentations, some participants rose to share
further insights into the morning sessions. Prof. Michael K. Salemi
of the University of North Carolina said that he was struck by what
he described as the "two-edged sword" that comes with thinking like
an economist; that is, people who don't understand economics the way
an economist does can feel "forced out" from the discussion. There is
a feeling of "I've got it and you don't" when it comes to understanding
the economy, and those who "don't" are somehow marginalized. It is up
to those interested in economic literacy to engage people in a dialogue
that is important to them, Salemi said.
Michael James, co-director of the Center for Ethics and Economic Policy
in Berkeley, Calif., said that people have to understand that thinking
about economics is more than thinking about commercial activity. Economics
should not be separate from other policy debates, but a part of them,
because it helps people place their individual situations into a larger
Focus on the news
In her keynote speech that kicked off the Symposium, Federal Reserve
Board Vice Chair Alice Rivlin suggested that TV viewers are given more
contextual reporting about the weather than they are about business
and economics news. Newspapers, on the other hand, have more time, or
space, for context, but they face other issues, like inflexible editors
and writers who don't understand economics, according to the three members
of the post-lunch media panel, who were moderated by Farrell. John Berry
of the Washington Post, James Flanigan of the Los
Angeles Times and Mike Meyers of the Minneapolis Star Tribune
took questions from Farrell and the audience, as well as from Dave Beal
of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. (Audio transcripts from the media panel
are available on the Web.)
In response to a question about the level of economic literacy, Flanigan
suggested that Americans have become more cognizant of economics as they
have experienced forces at work that affect their pocketbooks. He cited
the oil crisis of the 1970s and the emergence—then decline—of
the Japanese economy on the world stage as examples where the public,
by reading and learning about those issues, have become more informed
about how their economy works. "Adversity is the mother of invention,"
The media, including newspapers, are often criticized for making the
news too simplistic, and Berry agreed that the issue was a real concern,
especially when it comes to reporting on economic issues. "I confront
it every day with my editors who, like everybody else, like nice, simple
easy things to understand," he said. Berry cited a particular case relating
to Social Security and how, if he were to tell the story simply, it would
be wrong, but if he told it with all its complexity it would never make
it into the paper. In the end, he said, "I am not writing that story.
It is too complex to put in the newspaper. I've almost never reached that
conclusion before, but in this case I have."
Meyers told stories about newspapers, and he picked on his own, that
missed stories not because they didn't get the facts right, but because
they didn't put the story into context, or get the additional facts that
would tell the complete story. In part, he said, that's because there
are all kinds of reporters—especially political reporters—writing
about economics, largely because those issues cross over into so many
"I've seen lots of political reporters do an excellent job covering
economics," Meyers said. "I'm not disparaging even this particular reporter.
What I'm trying to say is that one of the virtues of economic education,
I think, is it will make people pay attention on a daily basis to what
is being written. ... We don't need to be pundits in the press; you don't
have to be advocates as economists. All you have to do is give them a
complete picture; they'll come to a conclusion that at least will be based
on information, rather than ideology."
Where do we go from here?
The afternoon sessions brought the participants together within their
own sectors, and charged them with determining actions steps that would
promulgate economic literacy within their professions and among their
constituents. The results of that effort are listed within; here are some comments from within
the conference rooms:
Educator: "Social Studies teachers need to be decathletes,"
said Bruce Robb, Social Studies teacher for St. Paul Public Schools,
describing the different classes they are expected to teach. Bonnie
Meszaros of the University of Delaware agreed, saying that while a chemistry
teacher would not be expected to teach biology, a political science
teacher is expected to teach economics.
Government: Participants representing the government sector
discussed how to marshal the resources available within government agencies—both
human and otherwise—to get information to the public. Barry Anderson,
deputy director of the Congressional Budget Office in Washington, described
his office's attempt to become proactive instead of reactive when it
came to dealing with members of Congress. He said that most often his
staff is so busy reacting to special requests that they don't have time
to make special efforts to educate Congress on other matters; also,
he said that Congress is usually consumed by the issue du jour,
and cannot be persuaded to spend time on other matters.
Media: Members of the media group discussed ways to better
educate reporters, the impact of the many types of media available to
the public—TV, print, radio, the Internet—and how the competitive
nature of the business drives the type of reporting that is done. Bonnie
London, a freelance writer from Pierre, S.D., suggested that to a certain
extent, there may be varying degrees of economic literacy that can be
expected from different media outlets. For example, smaller newspapers
and radio and TV stations in smaller markets don't have the resources
to educate their staffs, she said.
Business and Finance: Among other things, this group discussed
how businesses can educate their own employees. Peter Bell, a Minneapolis-based
consultant, said businesses should ensure that employees fully understand
their investment plans; by doing so, a business will go a long way toward
teaching their employees about the economy. Jim Hield, vice president
of Public Affairs at Cargill, Minneapolis, described a program wherein
Cargill employees were educated about the North American Free Trade
Agreement through videos, postings on employee Web sites, visits to
appropriate government agencies and other means.
Academic: High school social studies teachers need to learn
economics, and some requirement for coursework in economics is necessary.
William Becker, executive editor of the Journal of Economic Education,
said the standard Principles course in economics needs to be re-examined,
and some budgetary control needs to pass down to those people in charge
of those courses.
Consumer and Labor: Seth Johnson, economic policy analyst for
AFSCME, Washington, D.C., argued for a consistent message over time
and worried that any attempt for a one-step "magic wand" will fail.
Michael James said that any attempt to teach economics must be placed
within the context of people's lives.
By the end of the symposium, when they gathered for their final assembly,
the participants were increasingly of one mind—at least when it
came to assessing the action steps to promote economic literacy. Using
hand-held controls to instantly vote on the proposals of the various
sectors, the assembled group rarely disagreed on the needs espoused
by the sector representatives. For example, at least 80 percent of the
participants think economics should be incorporated into the curriculum
of K-12 schools, higher education organizations should become advocates
of economic education, practical applications of economics should be
emphasized, and dedicated resources should be established for economics
There was some disagreement, though, with 70 percent saying that undergraduate
economics courses are inadequate, 35 percent did not advocate high-stakes
testing for economics (requiring a mandatory course that must be passed),
and 37 percent did not think that placing economics in the "context of
the learner" was a good idea. In the end, though, there was general consensus
on the action steps, and plenty of ideas for the participants to "take
One of the issues that surfaced throughout the Symposium was whether
economic literacy meant personal finance or general economics, and whether
attention should be focused on either one at the exclusion of the other.
In his wrap-up at the end of the day, Arthur Rolnick, senior vice president
and director of Research at the Minneapolis Fed, called for an end to
that debate, and suggested that personal finance and economics should
be considered as part of a "continuum." Personal finance should be the
"hook" that gets students to consider broader economic principles, he
said. Rolnick, who is also the board chair of the Minnesota Council on
Economic Education, used the example of math, which begins with simple
arithmetic and builds from a growing base. The same model could be applied
to the teaching of economics, he said.