Ask an English Major about Economics

Welcome to “Ask an English Major about Economics,” the column that puts the Milton in Milton Friedman. We’ve got some interesting questions to answer today, so let’s get right to it.

Dear English Major: In most downturns, the labor market responds to the law of supply and demand. As wages drop, employers hire workers to take advantage of the cheaper workforce. That’s not happening this time. How come? —Laid Off

Dear Laid: The verbs “lay” and “lie” are among the most confounding in the English language. The transitive verb “to lay” means “to put,” whereas the intransitive verb “to lie” means “to recline.” One lays the McNuggets on the tray and one lies on the cardboard box to sleep under the bridge after getting laid off from McDonald’s. Easy enough, right? However, the past tense of “lie” is “lay” and the past tense of “lay” is “laid,” so the correct usage is, “After he got laid off, Todd found it hard to get laid, so he mostly lay under the bridge reading ‘As I Lay Dying.’”

Dear English Major: After years of climbing the corporate trellis, I’m finally earning a salary slightly above the poverty line, and I’ve set my sights on home ownership. Unfortunately, banks are stingy with mortgages now. Can you offer me any advice? —Living the Dream

Dear Living: Home ownership is outside our area of expertise, but we consulted our colleague, “Ask an English Major with a Trust Fund about Economics,” and she suggested asking your dad to buy you a house.

Dear English Major: Isn’t economic growth the only way out of this mess? Only by lowering income and capital gains taxes and getting rid of unnecessary regulation can we restart this economic engine. —Supply Side

Dear Supply: if it’s a plausible fantasy you’re after, try the novels of Orson Scott Card or the short stories of Harlan Ellison.

Dear English Major: The $300 billion TARP bailout was approved by both Democrats and Republicans and purportedly kept us out of a depression, yet much of that money went to executive bonuses, campaign contributions and banking industry lobbyists. In hindsight, was TARP a mistake? —WTF

Dear WTF: “The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.” —John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath”

Dear English Major: Our national infrastructure is crumbling while millions of Americans are out of work. Unless we’re going to just let our roads and buildings disintegrate, we’re eventually going to have to rebuild them anyway. Why don’t we do it now, while we have so many unemployed workers? —Logic Lover

Dear Logic: As we’ve seen in novels like Pat Frank’s “Alas, Babylon,” Jack London’s “The Scarlet Plague” and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” we could all succumb to a pandemic or nuclear holocaust any day, which would make our current strategy look pretty smart. So when it comes to economics, you never know.

Dear English Major: Aren’t we just a bunch of greed-hounds who’ve lost touch with everything that’s beautiful? —Tree Hugger

Dear Tree: “The world is too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; little we see in nature that is ours; we have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” —William Wordsworth. Cf. “Rollin’ down the street smokin’ indo, sippin’ on gin and juice, with my mind on my money and my money on my mind” —Snoop Dogg

Dear English Major: Conservatives tell us a carbon tax would devastate the economy and reduce us all to eating out of Dumpsters. Liberals say without a carbon tax, we’ll make the planet uninhabitable. Who’s right? —Fearful

Dear Fearful: In the 14th century tale “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the Green Knight offers to allow any of King Arthur’s knights to strike him with an ax so long as he can strike that knight back a year and a day later. Sir Gawain beheads the Green Knight, who gathers up his head and walks off. The story gets weirder from there. This work is instructive about the economics of climate change, mainly because a green knight gets beheaded and it basically makes no sense at all.

That’s all for now. Join us again next time, when you’ll have a chance to “Ask a Hooker with a Heart of Gold about Iranian Hegemony in the Arab World.”