Grade School History

July 25, 2021

by Steve Stofka

My mother taught fifth-grade for many years. As I was packing away her school texts for a library donation, I browsed her American history book.  I was surprised that the teaching of history had not changed much since I was a child decades earlier. “It leaves out a lot of the ugly,” I said.

She thought about that for a moment. “They are fifth-graders. There are a lot of immigrants with different cultural histories,” she said. “We teach citizenship and history.”

She went on to explain that the school board chose a text that highlights the rights and duties of citizens, the benefits of negotiation and trade, and the tragedy of war, when people stop talking.

“I just browsed the text but it seems to let white people off the hook for a lot of stuff that happened,” I said. I mentioned the part where Indians and colonists argued over land rights. “The settlers exploited the Indians, claiming the land when they got one minor chief to sign an ‘x’ on a piece of paper,” I said.

She thought about that. “I wonder if a 5th grader would understand the subtlety of that. We’re trying to get them not to call each other names and push each other down. The height differences in the boys are starting to emerge.”

“That warped view of history will stay with them for the rest of their lives,” I said. “Founding Fathers, yadda-yadda-yadda. Freedom and equality for all. They fought tooth and nail with each other. Jefferson wrote about self-evident truths then kept slaves.”

“I think the school board wants the children to learn those aspirational ideals,” she said. “Contradiction, meanness and dishonesty the kids can see every day in their community, on the TV, perhaps in their families. They don’t need to be taught about those things.”

“They need to understand those conflicts and betrayals,” I said. “It would help them understand.”

She shook her head. “No, they wouldn’t. Not at that age. We don’t teach trigonometry to 5th graders because they wouldn’t understand. We teach a simplified version of history for the same reason.”

“It makes history seem remote from their lives,” I protested. “Its why a lot of kids don’t care about history.”

“History happened before they were born,” she said. “For them, history is remote. Some children probably learn more history as part of their religious upbringing. It’s a connection with the past.” She paused. “There might be an old textbook upstairs in one of the bedrooms. You might compare texts from when you were in school.”

I didn’t find an old grade school textbook on American history, but there was a 4th grade math text. Math teaching begins on a base of arithmetic and the four rules of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, then uses those skills to teach what can be called mathematics – algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus. I wonder if we will ever develop a method of study to teach history in a similar manner. If someone did, would the school board approve?


Photo by British Library on Unsplash


July 18, 2021

By Steve Stofka

To understand the dynamics of an issue, economists and policy analysts use a typology or matrix of two characteristics and their opposites. Sounds boring but it can be fun, as I’ll show. Grouping by traits or lack of them sometimes reveals an interesting relationship that we might have never considered. Economists and policy makers are often confronted with problems that are difficult to analyze. By looking at the world through a typology, a person or group may see a relationship that was not apparent. As a simple demonstration, let’s use the characteristics of animals with and without opposable digits and those who walk on two legs or not. Does some combination of these traits or lack of traits tell us anything?

A typology forces us to clarify what we mean by a characteristic. What is an opposable digit? There are animals with pseudo-opposable, fully opposable, and long opposable thumbs (Untamed Science, n.d.). What does it mean to walk on two legs? I grouped primates other than humans into a separate category because they don’t customarily walk on two legs. Their pelvis structure is designed for four leg locomotion. However, if locomotion is my test, then horses are two-legged, moving two separate feet at a time either diagonally or on the same side of their body (AMNH, n.d.). Using a locomotion criteria, humans and many birds are now one-legged animals. Not happy with that, I decide not to use locomotion as a criteria but whether an animal normally stands on two legs. I clarify my distinctions.

This exercise can help a group brainstorm any problem. It can be serious or silly. People with curly hair as one characteristic. People who wear sandals and those that don’t. By drawing a typology matrix, we begin to notice people with curly hair and sandals. Do perms count as curly hair? Are clogs counted as sandals? Kids, try this exercise while waiting in line at a theme park this summer.

Economists use this method to classify and analyze different goods and services. Goods are said to be excludable by the seller or provider, and rival or not in consumption. What does that mean? If I eat a candy bar, no one else can eat that candy bar. It is rival in consumption. The seller can charge a price for me to consume the candy bar, making the candy bar excludable.

Using this typology, economists identify toll goods, those which people can use at the same time without rivalry but require an entry fee to use the good. Anyone who has sat in rush hour traffic on a highway might argue that there is a lot of rivalry. This typology helps us identify capacity.

A concert or an airline flight are examples of private goods that can be consumed simultaneously but they are rival because each seat that is sold reduces the ability of other people to attend that concert or take that flight. These private goods share a characteristic with pooled goods.

Because many natural resources are pooled goods, this type of good comes up frequently in the analysis of environmental issues. A person who catches a fish at a lake reduces the number of fish available for other fishermen to catch. States usually restrict access to the lake or require licenses to make this good excludable and manage the capacity. Some whale species became endangered when there was no restriction placed on their capture and killing. Pooled goods must be managed for sustainability, the capacity of that good or animal to replenish itself.

Public goods present problems that must be managed. Civil defense is an example of a good that is consumed simultaneously by everyone and cannot be excluded. Much of public policy involves public or pooled goods. Are police services a public good or a pooled good? If police officers are handling a call at one location, they are not available for others so they are a pooled good.

Typologies help us think about a problem and perhaps question our perspective on an issue by forcing us to narrow our definitions of characteristics. We may come no closer to solving or managing the problem but the new insights we gain can trigger some aha moments, particularly in group brainstorms.


Photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash

AMNH. (n.d.). Gaits: AMNH. Retrieved July 18, 2021, from

Untamed Science. (n.d.). The Primate Order Explained: Monkeys, Apes, Lemurs… Retrieved July 18, 2021, from


July 11, 2021

by Steve Stofka

This week President Biden issued an executive order (White House, 2021) to counter the trend toward corporate consolidation and oligarchy that has arisen during the past decades. I appreciated that the report contained links to the outside data sources they are using. After almost six months in office, Mr. Biden has signed 51 orders, almost half of them rescinding the orders of former President Trump (National Archives, 2021). In 2017, Mr. Trump signed 55 orders total but only eight of those were rescinding orders. The pace of orders slows after the first several months in office. I’ll review some highlights from this order.

For the past decade inflation has been below the Fed’s 2% target but the trend toward consolidation in some key industries gives those few companies that dominate an industry greater pricing power. Modern Farmer reported that 80% of the meatpacking industry is controlled by just four companies (Nosowitz, 2020). In 2000, the top 20 home builders controlled 15% of the market. Today it is 30%. Mr. Biden’s order notes that mark-ups, the charges over a company’s cost, have tripled in recent years. Since 2010, Federal Reserve data (2021) shows that after-tax profits have increased almost 50%, substantiating the claim of higher markups. In the past decade, low interest and rising profits have fueled a tripling of the stock market.

For the ten years following 9-11, after-tax profits also tripled, despite the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s. Many financial companies lined up at the corporate soup kitchen in Congress and were bailed out. Homeowners and workers went hungry while Congress paid bonuses to the same speculators that sparked the crisis (Story & Dash, 2009). Sorry, folks, we had to honor the contracts, the politicians in Washington said. It’s the law. Who helped write the laws? The corporations that got bailed out.

The order notes the growing increase of non-compete agreements for new job hires, making it more difficult to move to a more attractive job. It references data from the Economics Innovation Group (EIG, 2021) that the rate of new business formation has sunk by half in the past fifty years. The shift of manufacturing to China has also contributed to the overall decline.

The report notes the upswell in occupational licensing requirements over the past several decades. Licensing appears to be about public safety and some of it is. The states have come to depend on the revenue from the licensing fees and it avoids having to raise some taxes on voters. Trade schools that certify beauticians and other occupations like the tuition revenue they receive. Established business like licensing because it keeps out competition. The benefits are widespread and the costs are concentrated to those seeking careers in those occupations, many of them blue collar and little political power.

There are many faults in our federalist system that an executive order cannot remedy because the Constitution gives a lot of power to the states. What it can do is bring more attention to these anti-competitive practices. New Zealand and Singapore top the World Bank’s list of countries with low obstacles to doing business. The U.S. is sixth, just behind S. Korea and a few places ahead of Norway.

Americans believe in American exceptionalism but the Nordic countries keep beating us in various international categories. People say “You Americans. You should be more like the Nordic countries!” Suck on it, Norway, Finland and Sweden. We are ahead of you in ease of doing business. Next year we’re going to take on S. Korea and after that, tiny Denmark. There is nobody more capitalism loving than America and we’re going to prove it by stopping some of these anti-competitive practices!


Photo by Pietro Mattia on Unsplash

EIG. (2020, June 29). Dynamism in retreat. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from

Federal Reserve. (2021, June 24). Corporate profits after TAX (without IVA And ccadj). Retrieved July 11, 2021, from

National Archives. (2021). Federal Register: Executive orders. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from

Nosowitz, D. (2020, June 09). DOJ reportedly Subpoenas ‘Big Four’ Meatpackers. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from

Story, L., & Dash, E. (2009, July 30). Bankers reaped lavish bonuses during bailouts. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from

Van Dam, A. (2019, October 19). Increasingly, economists find, homebuilding in fewer hands. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from

White House. (2021, July 09). FACT sheet: Executive order on promoting competition in the American economy. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from

True Independence

July 4, 2021

by Steve Stofka

On this Independence Day holiday. I’ll add a few historical tidbits I read recently. Beginning in 1775, Americans fought with each other, with the British and Indians. It was our first civil war. Even the British were shocked at the atrocities that Patriots committed on other Americans. From New York to South Carolina, farmers who wanted to remain neutral were regarded as traitors, Loyalists who favored the monarchy. In their outrage, colonial militias pillaged farms and crops, burned homes and families. Farmers in New York fled to Canada.

In the middle of this civil war, the colonies published the Declaration of Independence. It was carefully edited so that it fit on one printed page and could be posted on tavern and courthouse doors. John Adams, who would become the second President of the United States twenty years after the Declaration, called it a “Theatrical Show” (Taylor, 2021, p. 160).

The mood for independence quickened at the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in January 1776. At the time of its publication, the author was anonymous and many thought it was Adams who had written it (McCullough, 2008, p. 83). Adams was rather critical of the Biblical claims made in Common Sense, but he recognized the emotional appeal of its plain spoken diatribe against monarchy.

A declaration on independence would give the colonies some legitimacy in the eyes of France and Spain, who might be able to help the desperate colonies. Unlike some of his peers in the Continental Congress, Adams thought the war against Britain might drag on for ten years. When British General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown eight years later, half of Washington’s army troops were French. The navy that closed off Cornwallis’ retreat was French (Taylor, 2021, p. 294). In the struggle of global empire, anything that weakened Britain was in the best interest of both France and Spain.

The majority of American colonists did not want independence. A third of the population were Loyalists who appreciated the Parliamentary order and military protection of British rule. A third of the population didn’t care. A  third wanted independence (Taylor, 2021, p. 212). As in the later civil war, many small farmers resented the big plantations owners who bought their way out of the war, paying a fee to avoid military service for themselves and their sons.

In 5th grade history class, we don’t learn many of the messy details of our history. The school boards want to avoid controversy; teachers want to avoid conflict between students. They prefer textbooks that emphasize the tragedy of war and praise negotiation to settle differences. After all, the teachers are repeatedly encouraging students to “use their words.” Even in high school, much of the ugliness and confusion is left out. In a full historical account, there are few clear moral lessons.

When we read some of these details as adults, some of think it is “revisionist” history because that information conflicts with the child’s view of history we were taught. In the 1992 movie A Few Good Men Jack Nicholson says, “You can’t handle the truth!” It’s true. We were taught a romanticized version of history, carefully edited to make sense to young people.

Some adults hold onto their cherished myths the way the Peanuts character Linus cuddled his blanket. They are today’s Loyalists – loyal to the monarchical rule and order of myth. Some of us declared independence from those myths and welcome the historical accounts, beautiful or ugly. We celebrate our independence from fanciful myth.


Photo by Darix Garcia on Unsplash

McCullough, D. (2008). John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Taylor, A. (2021). American republics: A continental history of the United States, 1783-1850. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.