Irwin: Taylor Swift Speaks to Us

A professor gives his take on how Taylor Swift lyrics are relevant to both today’s crisis and ECON 39.

by Douglas Irwin | 4/30/20 2:15am

My daughters are big fans of Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now” album. Having been forced to listen to the songs over and over again, your humble economics professor has internalized the lyrics and has found the words speak to us today in so many ways. Two songs — “The Story of Us” and “Better than Revenge” — are particularly relevant to the class that I am teaching this quarter, ECON 39, “International Trade.”

After presenting selected lyrics from these songs, I will discuss how they are meaningful to us today.

"The Story of Us"

TS: “Now I'm searching the room for an empty seat / 'Cause lately I don't even know what page you're on”

There is no searching the room for an empty seat on Zoom. And in this distance-learning model, I certainly don’t know what page you’re on. However, I begin every class by discussing where we are on the syllabus so you know what page we’re supposed to be on.

TS: “Oh, a simple complication / Miscommunications lead to fall out”

A simple complication in the economic model may lead to a miscommunication (either on my part in explaining it, or yours in comprehending it) about the significance and implications of the model. The “fall out” will be my failure as a teacher or your failure to do well on the exam. In either case, unfortunately, you bear most of the burden. Sorry, that’s life!

TS: “So many things that I wish you knew / So many walls up I can't break through”

Yes, there are many ideas and concepts that I wish you knew. I will do my best to convey them to you and help you understand them. The walls include inattention in class and the coronavirus, which has kept us apart. But I always try different ways to break through to you. To paraphrase a famous president, tear down these walls!

TS: “Now I'm standing alone in a crowded room / And we're not speaking”

This is how I feel in class sometimes when everyone is tired and not reacting, often on a Friday, or when I throw a question out there and no one raises their hand. It is even worse on Zoom, when everyone blocks their video and mutes their microphone, and all I see is a screen of blank tiles with student names.

TS: “And I'm dying to know / Is it killing you like it's killing me, yeah”

Yes, we faculty also miss not having you on campus.

TS: “I don't know what to say / since the twist of fate / When it all broke down”

There’s not much to say except the “twist of fate” in this case is the coronavirus. Fortunately, it hasn’t all broken down. We’re trying to do the best we can under the circumstances with remote teaching.

TS: “And the story of us / Looks a lot like a tragedy now”

Too pessimistic. Yes, it is tragic that we’re not in the classroom together but hopefully that tragedy does not define the story of us. We are still going to learn a lot over this term.

TS: “Next chapter”

You are used to this by now. The quarter system moves fast, and just when we become familiar with the material in one chapter, it’s time to move on.

"Better than Revenge"

TS: “Soon she's gonna find / Stealing other people's toys on the playground / Won't make you many friends”

There is a lot of economics in this verse. When trade between individuals is voluntary, both sides in the transactions are presumed to be better off (a positive sum transaction). However, if one person simply takes (steals) another person’s goods, that is an involuntary transaction, and there is no presumption that both sides will benefit. (More likely, it is a zero-sum, wherein one benefits at another’s expense.) The same is true in the case of countries. When trade is voluntary, both countries stand to benefit (although it is more complicated than that, as we will see). But it is certainly the case that if one country invades another and steals its natural resources, that will not be mutually beneficial  — and it won’t make the invading country many friends.

TS: “She should keep in mind / She should keep in mind / There is nothing I do better than revenge, ha”

The 18th-century philosopher and economist Adam Smith observed this long before Taylor Swift. When one country puts tariffs on its imports from other countries, that is likely to lead to retaliation. As Smith wrote in 1776, “Revenge in this case naturally dictates retaliation.” For example, in 2018, when the Trump administration imposed tariffs on imports from China and the European Union, both quickly retaliated by imposing tariffs on their imports from the United States.

TS: "And do you still feel like you know what you're doing / 'Cause I don't think you do, oh / Do you still feel like you know what you're doing / I don't think you do, I don't think you do / Let's hear the applause"

Sometimes Dartmouth students are very confident about how much they know, and therefore they expect to do well on tests. When students tell me that they don’t have to come by office hours or ask questions in class because they understand the material, I sometimes think to myself what T-Swift is saying here. Sometimes your performance does not match up with your expectations. This gives me no satisfaction, and I certainly don’t expect any applause when I return exams. The smiles of relief that I see are satisfying, but the furrowed brows of disappointment are disappointing to me too. At any rate, don’t slack off just because everything is pass/fail this quarter.

On behalf of the Dartmouth faculty, I’ll say that we really miss seeing all of you on campus, and we look forward to the fall!

Irwin is a Dartmouth economics professor.

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