Monday 5 May 2014

Youth Declaration and Economics Education

Now that I have some time, I thought I'd write about this conference that I facilitated at last week. UN Youth New Zealand, an organisation that I volunteer very heavily for, runs this four-day conference every year in the April school holidays for high school students called Youth Declaration. It gives young people an opportunity to express their opinions about policy in New Zealand, while at the same time providing important civics education for around 200 young leaders. Students from around the country attend, from all geographical, socio-economic, and political backgrounds, with the ultimate output a series of statements that form the Youth Declaration. This is made up of ten focus groups, loosely modelled on the select committee structure, and presented to government. Last year, Nikki Kaye, Minister for Youth Affairs, produced a response to the document outlining how the government was acting in those areas and pledged to do so again this year. It helps students understand that they can influence government, and they're not just shouting into the wind. It also happens to be a good social opportunity for meeting like-minded young people as well. The conference overall was a pretty awesome experience; it's important to remember that the conference is run entirely but young volunteers. Leaving the conference knowing that the students not only had a great time but went home understanding more than when they entered is a great feeling. I even got to debate on the same team as Gareth Hughes about whether social media did more harm than good (our team won). It truly is a life changing experience for our participants, and is one of our best conferences that truly meets our goal of Inspiring Global Citizens. A lot more information about the conference is available at the UN Youth website here.

As a facilitator for the Business and Commerce group, one particular phenomenon struck me. All of the students (bar one) were economics students at school, and the conference typically attracts high achievers so they were all good students. In fact, I would happily admit that they probably knew more about economic theory than me (my area of interest is innovation and entrepreneurship). They were experts in Keynesian economics, happy with the concepts of supply and demand and elasticity and equilibrium and so on. But the biggest issue was that their theoretical understanding was not grounded in an appreciation for how that affects people in the real world. Most of the students were never taught the disconnect between theory and reality, and sometimes found it difficult to understand why the theory didn't strictly apply. A clear example was in our discussion over minimum wages, with one student arguing that New Zealand should abolish the minimum wage because it a) causes unemployment due to the price ceiling, b) creates economic inefficiencies, and c) forces employers to overvalue their employees. The student was entirely correct theoretically, but when we tried to explain that this opens up opportunities for exploitation of employees and that people simply cannot survive on sub-minimum wage remuneration (without even getting to the living wage), he just could not understand why that trumped the economic theory. We discussed a very broad range of topics from exchange rates to fiscal drag to employer/employee rights, and every time the dichotomy of theory and reality appeared again.

I never took economics at school, much to the chagrin of the Teacher in Charge of chess who happened to also be Head of Economics because I took IT instead (I did end up taking some micro and macroeconomics at university so I understand the basic concepts). Talking to some of my co-facilitators, they expressed the view that when they got to university they realised just how right-wing (conservative) the high school economics syllabus is. I'm personally reasonably economically conservative, but one of the students ended up calling me far left (in fairness, in comparison to him I probably am). I know that there are extremely conservative members in our society, but it worries me that students are leaving high school with that indoctrinated in them as part of their studies. I wonder if more can be done in schools to discuss issues like income inequality and the importance of the welfare state as part of the economics syllabus.

One interesting proposal did come out from the discussions. The students understood why a starting-out wage (or youth minimum wage) is a good idea for giving young people more opportunities for employment and reducing the risk to employers (in conjunction with the 90-day trial period). However, this inherently devalues young people and implies that they are worth less for doing the same work as someone who is a few years older than them. So why not ask the government to subsidise the employment of young people? Employers can pay the youth wage to their employees (currently 80% of the adult minimum wage), and the government tops up the other 20%. It counters youth unemployment and provides all the benefits of a starting-out wage while lessening the impacts of age discrimination. Obviously this would incur a large financial cost on the government, but I feel like this proposal warrants further thinking and discussion.

In end-of-post-comedy:
I for one would like to see anyone try this with Judith Collins. Maybe a good belly scratch will placate her and everything will be fine. Probably not.

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