H2 Economics vs General Paper: and why I’m taking the H2 Economics examination in 2018

[W]hy do we study perfect markets, where firms are price takers? One reason is that they provide a useful approximation to the real world and give us many insights into how a market economy works. [. . .] Another is that perfect markets provide an ideal against which to compare the real world, since in perfect markets we see resources being used and allocated efficiently. (John Sloman, Alison Wride, and Dean Garratt. Economics. 8th Edition, Pearson, 2012. Quote from p.32)

H2 Economics vs General Paper: and why I’m taking the H2 Economics examination in 2018

In plain English, when we say that something — let’s say, the way a society is structured — is “efficient” and “ideal”, we are making a normative statement, or a value judgement. We are saying that the society under discussion makes such a good use of its resources (and hence is efficient) to the extent that we see it as so good and desirable, it might as well be perfect (and hence is ideal). Of course, Sloman et al. are not saying that “perfect markets” are ethically, morally, or aesthetically perfect. They are simply “perfect” in a very limited sense delineated by the field of economics, which includes the idea that firms are “price takers”, meaning that firms do not have the power to set the prices of the goods they sell themselves.

[Note:
Sloman et al. use the word “efficiently” in the sense that “efficiency is achieved when each good is produced at the minimum cost and where individual people and firms get the maximum benefit from their resources” (p.10). I want to argue that “ideal” here means “existing only in the imagination”, but given their reasoning (“since in perfect markets we see resources being used and allocated efficiently”), I find it difficult to make that argument.

To me, what is most suitable — and therefore, ideal — for the global society is a market system that is regulated to the extent that we bring the full force of our human capabilities to combat the ills of unsustainable human activity (i.e. climate breakdown, over-production/over-consumption, etc.), and to build a society that is inclusive in the most profound sense. Of course, to make that argument, I would have to pivot away from the discipline of economics as it is taught and examined in JCs in Singapore!]

In the hands of the wrong student or teacher, confusions between value judgements and value-free statements (i.e. normative statements and positive statements) can proliferate. Bombarded by words like “maximum satisfaction”, “perfect”, “efficient”, and “ideal”, many students end up thinking that what their economics teachers are talking about is some kind of utopia designed by economists that the real world has failed to live up to. In the hands of a clumsy student, information from the H2 Economics syllabus can appear in a GP essay with disastrous results. Some students end up defending the value of competition, for example, by saying that more competition will result in greater productivity.

(If only I had a dollar for every time…)

When I get new students studying GP and H2 Economics for the first time, I usually have to work to chip away at these types of misunderstandings that crop up with alarming frequency (alarming because I see H2 Economics as one of the propaganda tools of the neoliberal movement). In 2017, I thought to myself: why not tackle these misunderstandings at their root, and teach both H2 Economics and GP?

I started thinking aloud with some of my students, and close to the end of 2017, I ended up making a promise to them: that I would take the H2 Economics examination in 2018. While I feel a slight feeling of regret creeping in (the Sloman textbook is remarkably boring), I’m finding motivation by telling myself that beyond expanding my customer base by expanding my teaching repertoire, I will be uniquely positioned to battle the misconceptions (that just so happen to be helpful to the neoliberals) that so many students end up with — and with the amount of stuff that I post online, perhaps I can be of help to the larger community as well.

So stay tuned, Mr Seah’s H1 and H2 Economics tuition is coming soon!

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Tackling student sleep issues (Book recommendation!)

For a number of my students every year, one of the first things I have to do is to make sure they are sleeping properly. The signs are easy to recognise: when they are trying to solve a particular problem (let’s say, figuring out how to respond to a question), their eyes sometimes glaze over. Sometimes they blink and keep their eyes closed a beat too long. Sometimes their eyes are red the moment I see them.

Students with sleep issues can often be very high-performing students, but the fact is, they could perform much better if they were sleeping better.  Some poorly performing students can even make a jump in their academic performance just by being more mindful of their sleep. In fact, I am willing to bet that when they become more disciplined about their sleep, their lives get better in general.

I’ve written about sleep before, but this is such an important issue, that I feel the need to write about it again. To be perfectly honest, I sometimes suffer from insomnia — I’ve been calling myself a semi-regular insomniac for years. In the last month, I’ve actually had a number of weeks of bad sleep, to the point where I realised that I had to deal with it head-on. In the past, my go-to solution had been to go to my doctor for sleeping pills, but this time I wanted to get to the root of the issue. I wanted to really understand why I was feeling and sleeping so badly.

It was therefore with immense pleasure that I found The Sleep Solution by W. Chris Winter, a specialist sleep doctor. The science he presents in this book has been so helpful to me, I’ve been recommending it to my friends and family (particularly those who complain about not being able to sleep). It’s an added plus that Winter writes with a conversational tone that is often laugh-out-loud funny, even if some of his jokes can fall a little flat.

You can read a review of the book here, and you can check the availability of the book at the NLB (Singapore) here. People who have an NLB Overdrive account can get the book here (but most of you should go with the physical book since comprehension tends to be higher).

If you’re a parent or student dealing with sleep issues, go read the book. Well, if you’re human, just read it anyway. You’ll feel better. I’m not even finished with it, and I’m sleeping better already — I’ve even let go of my identity as a “semi-regular insomniac”. It’s that good.

An educator’s perspective on “fake news”

I intend to send this in to the Select Committee that has been formed to tackle fake news in a few days. Comments and suggestions are welcome, but I also encourage my readers to send in their views.


I am a private tutor who teaches General Paper (GP), and new students sometimes say: “I thought I wasn’t allowed to criticise Singapore’s government in my essays!”

When it comes to misperceptions of the world, my new students start off with plenty. It’s already an uphill battle to fight these errors, and I believe that introducing legislation aimed at battling fake news will only further stoke needless fear into a populace already unsure of those (in)famous “OB markers“. This would especially be so if the legislation is aimed at social media, the ground for so much of our political discourse these days.

I completely understand if politicians think that this fear of authority, particularly the fear of speaking out against authority, is a good thing — surely it makes a population easier to control, in some ways. However, considering the current government’s goals, this fear that has worked so well in the past may prove counterproductive now, especially when we consider Singapore’s economic productivity.

Already we are struggling to attain a level of productivity comparable to other developed countries, but this makes no apparent sense: aren’t we topping the charts when it comes to the famed international student assessment benchmark, PISA? Why is this not translating to high levels of productivity in the workplace? My opinion is that the fear of authority — which is so effectively worked into Singaporeans via the education system, national service, and our national bureaucracies — plays a huge role in this lack of productivity.

The economy from here on out is going to be ever-shifting and unpredictable. The current government correctly places an emphasis on lifelong learning, since it is those with the ability to react effectively to such changes who will be more productive in this new landscape. It isn’t just knowledge that is important. What is crucial is the ability to use that knowledge, to test data against reality, to tell falsehood from truth — in short, we need to know how to solve those inevitable problems that arise daily for the modern worker.

The fear of authority acts against this skill of problem-solving that necessarily involves some level of risk-taking, and therefore the risk of angering authority, especially in the context of the modern office.

Witnessing history unfold before us with the presidency of Donald Trump and the attendant phenomenon of fake news is worrying, but we must be careful of knee-jerk reactions that will only set us back as a nation. What we need to combat fake news is a Singaporean public that can think critically for itself. It may be a public that’s more resilient to persuasion, but isn’t that the goal here, to have a public that can resist manipulation by malign forces?

It is often said that people are too concerned with getting things and spending money. What is your opinion? (English O-level 2017, Syllabus 1128)

In cities near Singapore, like Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, one is bound to meet the Singaporean “national bird”. This creature utters one incessant cry: “So cheap! So cheap!” So many Singaporean tourists get labelled as examples of our “national bird” because we seem to be obsessed with buying things that we perceive as cheap, which is sometimes seen as a larger symptom of the consumerist disease. However, I will contend that the accusation that people are too concerned with getting things and spending money only hides the real cause of that behaviour — the perception of economic insecurity. Given that perception, apparently consumerist tendencies can be seen for what they truly are: the attempt to stave off the constant fear of annihilation by the impersonal forces of the economy.

People whose lives seem to revolve around consumer goods sometimes appear to live essentially meaningless lives, since their lives are all about consuming, and not producing. Their consumerist behaviour precludes the productivity of creativity, which to me is the basis of a meaningful life. I understand why anyone would label this consumerist behaviour as excessive, but we must have more empathy for such people. We are all threatened with the anxiety of meaninglessness, but sometimes this is expressed via the anxiety of annihilation. This annihilation is not just the destruction of our bodies, but the destruction of the key parts of our perceived selves — our social circles, our ways of life, our possessions, and so on. When government housing (HDB flats) in Singapore can sell for more than S$1,000,000 for a 5-room flat, it is no surprise that people feel threatened. Buying consumer goods is an expression of that fear, with each additional acquisition symbolising not just buying power, but the power to survive and thrive in spite of the threats that seem to press from all sides. This expression of fear cannot be condemned as excessive if we are to truly understand the mindsets of such consumers. Moreover, almost all of us actually are those consumers, to some degree. After all, who has never jumped at the thought of a discount on something we really want?

I admit that from some objective point of view, this consumerist behaviour is excessive. Life should be lived with courage, and if so many of us were not as afraid of annihilation, perhaps we would see more creativity in the form of compassion (creating positive change in society through compassionate acts), art (creating beauty), and so on. However, when even millionaires seem to be obsessed about cheap cars or fashion, we must have empathy for them and not condemn their behaviour as excessive when they may be concerned for their children, for whom a million dollars may seem insufficient.

This excessive concern with getting things and spending money may be spiritually, psychologically, and socially unhealthy and counterproductive, and must be resisted by those who see the damage that such behaviour can cause. However, to resist this behaviour by labelling it “too much” is itself counterproductive. As members of global society, we should be more concerned with building and shaping the world into one where nobody will have to feel insecure about the necessities of life, including food, shelter, medicine, and education. Perhaps then we can move from being mere consumers, to create something larger with our lives.

(552 words)


I’ve also posted this under A-level essays because it would be really easy to expand to satisfy the GP marking requirements. I would add sections on:
– What the anxiety of annihilation is
– Precarity
– How consumerism is threatening the environment (climate change and pollution) and society (inequality)

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Video games and the factory worker ethic

On Tuesday I had the good fortune of meeting an airline pilot by chance, who told me something that I had suspected but never confirmed: you can learn some of the skills involved in flying a plane with certain flight simulator games (he used Microsoft’s “Flight Simulator X” himself). These games are challenging and fun, and according to the pilot, mastery in such flight simulator video games is looked on favourably if you apply to be a trainee pilot. Play, in this case, is not just for its own sake but also for some kind of utility (i.e. learning how to fly a plane). This stands in stark, stark contrast to most video games out there on the market today, especially smartphone games (Flight Simulator X happens to run on non-mobile platforms).

Most mobile games nowadays have a learning curve that plateaus rapidly, usually within a few hours. Take any first-person shooter game for example — most games out there feature simplistic swipe-and-tap mechanisms that are miles away from the experience of firing a real gun. These games are usually “pay or grind to win”, requiring that a player either put in real-world currency (pay to win) or repeat certain actions/stages multiple times (grind to win) before they are allowed to advance. The use of “grind” exposes how this sometimes feels for players, with a game sometimes taking on a boring, tedious quality before bestowing on the player a reward that often requires more grinding to exploit fully.

The idea of grinding in games isn’t a new idea. I did it myself as a teenager when playing in multi-user dungeons (MUDs), but at least I had plenty of people to chat with in-game when grinding (the reason I type so quickly nowadays is that as a teenager I learnt how to type as quickly as possible to grind efficiently and chat online at the same time). What is new, I think, is the typical teenager’s view of these games.

Unlike 30-somethings today, most of our teenagers grew up in a world dominated by video games. When the phrase “childhood play” is mentioned, what do you think of? I think mostly of chasing people around in void decks and playgrounds, digging in the sand, and a very dangerous night of inadvertently creating a bomb with sparkler powder and a milo tin. Yes, it is mixed in with afternoons spent at the video game arcade (Alien vs Predator, woohoo!), but it is dominated by self-directed, physical play. Teenagers these days share some of my childhood experiences, but also will have experienced a whole host of computer-aided play — whether it be the old Pokémon games, Xbox games, or whatnot.

We need to interrogate what “play” means to us, especially because we have moved firmly into the smartphone age, and are moving into an age of augmented reality gaming (i.e. Pokémon Go). When thinking about mobile games that require grinding, I realise that I have almost completely stopped processing them as “play”. The gamer is forced into the mindset of a factory worker, logging the hours to “create” a product (with the sad irony that no product is created, other than an experience that the gaming company hopes will lead you into giving them money to avoid playing certain parts of the game).

That play should be fun is a point so obvious that it seems to need no discussion, but we have millions of people who work at mobile games that can feel like a factory shift, all the while thinking that they are indulging in play. In a strict sense they are participating in a game and are thus playing, but because so many of them are not actually having fun, I want to reframe this in-game grinding as factory work for the game companies. I have to admit the possibility that some gamers grind while entering into some kind of peaceful, focused, meditative space, and for them I would admit that this is play. (Meditative space is fun space!) Yet, I assert that this experience is rare because most people have no idea what this meditative space feels like in the first place.

Moreover, play in digital space is inferior to play in a physical space. Consider almost any kind of offline play, and you are bound to encounter something that will help people learn outside of the zone of play. If you play the guitar, if you play football, if you play with fire, if you play in the sand, if you play with your friends, you will pick up and refine your abilities in the musical, physical, visual, kinesthetic, social, and even intellectual realms. As children, many of us were introduced to the concept of fairness when deciding on the rules of the games we played together, after all. For most of us, it is innately rewarding to play these games and learn in these realms. It is just a vulgar accident in a vulgar society that learning in these realms helps us to get better grades and jobs. (Yes, I believe that society should be arranged in such a way that most of us get to act like rich people who do not need to work.)

Playing certain video games makes us more likely to want to get jobs, so that we can earn more money to pay for “luxuries” like in-game currency, so that we can unwind from the stressful jobs we work at. Playing in the offline world has the advantage of usually being cheap, requiring less money for us to have fun, while giving us the skills to earn more money in less time.

It is unfortunate that I keep on moving back to the necessity of making a living, but this is the world we live in, and we need to deal with it. I believe, however, that play can be our guide in deciding what to do with our lives. We need less of the factory worker ethic when playing, and more of a child’s wonder and excitement. Play should be fun — just like teaching can be fun. Are you having fun yet?