Recap: Summer School on Socioeconomic Inequality #sssi12

Last month, I attended the first ever Summer School on Socioeconomic Inequality at the University of Chicago. World renowned scholars Steven Durlauf & James Heckman pulled together 30 up & coming scholars (mostly economists) from around the world to listen & engage around socioeconomic inequality. The goal of the program was to show the gang how to apply economic tools to issues of social injustice and let us know about up & coming research in the area.

While I do wish the program had been extended to two weeks – we covered a LOT of information in that one week. At the same time, I’m glad it was just one überintensive week. If the program had been scheduled for two weeks, I would not have applied. ‘Cuz y’know, that whole socioeconomic inequality bit comes into play, what with the missing a buncha time from work and all.


I won’t lie: I was lost as all hell for a good part of my time there. I haven’t had stats & I’m not an economist, so I really didn’t know much of what was going on. Fortunately, I was able to pick up on things after a few while!

Many of the lectures were all about mathematical measures that I don’t understand, so I basically sat there, glossy eyed for a bit. I’m pretty sure I would have gotten a LOT more out of things if I had taken statistics, but that’s not until the upcoming year.

The reading list was incredibly dense – all with great stuff. There was noooo way to get through it all, what with surgery recovery, paper writing, and work, but I hope to come back to some of it throughout my career. (Someone remind me to add it all to Evernote.)

Overall, I’m got great perspective on how economists view the world. Since policymakers care more about the work & opinions of economists than those of social workers, I felt like it would be a really good idea to attend. I admit, once I started getting lost, I was finally able to understand why my advisor kept questioning why I wanted to participate! In the end, I didn’t think it was particularly important for me to walk away with econometric tools, although that was the goal of the program. For me, it was about gaining perspective.

About that perspective… I’ve never really understood economics. I took the standard micro econ my freshman year of college. My TA took such pity on me that she gave me points for writing down the question numbers. I barely walked away with a C-.  I was hoping to get a better understanding at #sssi12 but in a sort of no-stakes environment. This program wasn’t graded & quite frankly, I could’ve just sat there without letting people know I’m a complete idiot in this realm. I can say, I don’t understand econ any more than I did my freshman year, but I do understand economists better. It really is all numbers everything, but I think the folks I met had good intentions. They basically told me that they seek out mathematical models to help them understand problems scientifically. By using math, they can isolate individual aspects of inequality and test them, specifically, in controlled environments. That last part is where I disagree, though.

tinker here, tinker there, see what comes of it!
source: merriam-webster

As a social worker, I really don’t believe it is possible to isolate issues of inequality – everything plays off of everything else! At the same time, my fellow scholars told me that their efforts to turn concepts into math are akin to other social workers efforts to identify issues. We both seek to describe what we’re studying through empirical study. However, social workers look at everything as one giant intersection, while economists manipulate their equations in what I described as an equalizer approach. In short, they want to find what levels of impact each variable has on the others. I get what they’re trying to do, but I still disagree how they’re going about it.

The problems I have with econ are 1) that they’re not communicating or researching with those of us who know the day-to-day stories and 2) their training is not at too heavily focused on simplifying complex stories that deserve to be complex. At the same time, I want to figure out how I will take economists perspectives into consideration as I do my work moving forward. It’s these folks who’ll be influencing major decisions for the foreseeable future, so we can’t just ignore them. Plus, the people who chatted with me about the econ-social work divide showed me that economists aren’t all inherently evil*. In fact, quite a few students expressed appreciation when I asked Jim Heckman about telling the contextual, ecological stories alongside the numbers-only stories economists tell through their work. I think there is a lot of room for the two fields to work together and I got a lot of support for that notion!

Overall, I had a great time. I learned a lot, discovered a lot that I need to read, and got some new ideas for my impending research. I think the planning crew did a pretty decent job for the first ever cohort. It also helps that they solicited – and responded to – feedback throughout the program. It’ll be interesting to see what they do with the next go ’round!

*I did find Lones Smith highly offensive. Aside from my unfamiliarity with statistics in general and economics in particular, I had a difficult time following him because I spent so much energy processing (and then shutting out) the microaggressions that were running rampant through his lectures. I’ll describe a couple examples below, but as you know, microaggressions are as much about tone and body language as they are about content.
Ex 1:
Lones said he borrowed the following example from a student. Take 3 rock legends: Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, & Jimi Hendrix & pair them with 3 rap stars: Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, & Jay-Z (Lones called these guys “Hipsters”. No, I’m not kidding.) The goal was to maximize the payoff for each artist pair, as determined by some random value assignment. Now, imagine this middle-aged white dude ranting about the unlikelihood of such pairings and spewing his hatred for rap music, culminating said rant with, “I absolutely hate rap music. I always thought it was short for crap.” Now, imagine the man dragging this meme throughout a 2-day, four hour presentation. Finally, imagine the man bringing up the meme at the end of part 2 in response to a question from a black student. Q: What if I, a black man, walk into a heterogenous bar? How do I sort?” A: “Well steer clear of me; I like rock.”

Ex 2: Lones added the example of mating choices to further demonstrate his position on assortive matching. Insert quips implying that women are shallow, stupid, and indecisive. Insert more quips about how frustrated men get when trying to select the right women for them. Now, imagine this same middle-aged, white man telling a slightly varied story of Pandora’s box, in which Pandora has her choice of boxes & she opens all the ones containing evil, but leaves the one containing hope. Next, imagine this man ranting, “This dumbass opens ALL the crapy boxes and unleashes havoc on the world! But what a DUMBASS she is; the only box she left unopened is the one with hope in it!” Insert continued ranting with more “dumbasses” . And as before, imagine more microaggressive quips in part 2.
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