Do the math. As economic inequality has reached historic highs, and as political squabbles have led to a government shutdown and the possibility of a failure to raise the debt ceiling, economic and budgetary issues should be front and center on the progressive agenda. And yet, for far too many progressives, the comfort that we have in talking about rights and contested meanings of equality and all of that good stuff is matched by a significant, often paralyzing, discomfort in speaking the language of accounting, finance, or even basic arithmetic. The result is that debates about the economy are ceded to those who speak the language rather than being another arena in which to advocate intelligently and rigorously for progressive causes.
The problem is not only that too many progressives are uncomfortable speaking this language. The larger issue is that to the extent that we allow ourselves to be cowed by basic arithmetic, we become complicit in foreclosing a progressive agenda on economic issues. We treat basic mathematical literacy as optional, even as our society grants more and more power to those who are fluent in the lingo (I’m not talking advanced concepts here – high school level stuff at most). We expect, quite reasonably, that given some modest effort, we can learn what we need to about history or sociology or the law of some unfamiliar field; the concepts of middle school pre-algebra, however, are considered to make a legal subject “hard.” Maybe those muscles have atrophied, but persevere!
We should feel empowered. Any one of us can take a narrative, or an argument about policy, and identify its weak points and its internal contradictions. On topics about which we may not be familiar, we know how to do the research that will give us some baseline familiarity with the subject and allow us to question the basic assumptions in a reasonably intelligent way. But when presented with a balance sheet or with an economic argument involving some basic mathematical modeling, how many of us are sufficiently confident to challenge them on their own terms? All too often, folks throw up their hands and say that they aren’t math people (that’s why they are in law, after all). To say this is not modesty, it is defeatism. It is an admission that those who speak the language of accounting and finance can do as they please without being subjected to critical scrutiny, which is part of how our economy (including funding for legal services, research, social programs, and all the good stuff that we like both the state and private actors to provide) has gotten to its present state. The folks who seek to enrich themselves without a care for the collateral social damage that they may cause are only too happy to have regulators and critics who can’t understand the full extent of what they do. A refusal to roll up our sleeves and get familiar with working numerically just disarms us of our ability to do the analysis.
If you want to challenge established interests and fight for those who are on their back, learn some accounting.