“Look for the Helpers” – Fred Rogers Has Something to Say to Laypersons and Students

Most of us know Fred as Mr. Rogers from the children’s television program “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”. Now, you might find it strange or even a bit juvenile of myself to invoke Mr. Rogers as an opportunity to teach interested laypersons and students of MMT. But rest assured, in my view, it is neither strange nor is it juvenile. Quite the contrary. It is very much adult swim here. In fact, were someone to ask me whom I thought was the greatest American in history, my answer would be Fred Rogers. Here was a man who ran a children’s show on public television whose funding was threatened by Congress. Fred fearlessly went before a congressional committee to give testimony in opposition to those cuts and did so in such a direct, honest and gentle manner that the committee, being entirely impressed with him, did not cut funding. Had he been entirely unsuccessful, most would probably not even remember Fred Rogers.

Here was a man who kept a fish tank on the set in the kitchen. One day, a fish died. Any other TV show would have thought the fish so insignificant that they would have thrown it away without even the slightest afterthought. Fred? No. He was determined to make that fish part of a show, insisting that he talk about death to children. He did so and became the first children’s show to address it.

Here was a man who made it his life’s work to tell children, no matter if they were white, black, Asian, Hispanic, handicapped or whole, sick or well that they were special; that they had meaning in this life and they should not think of themselves in any other way. You want to talk about a gentle, kind and compassionate human being? That was Fred Rogers – the American bodhisattva of compassion; a man who emulated the teachings of Jesus to such a great extent that his existence made people such as Pat Robertson, Robert Tilton and Ted Cruz’s odd ball father out to be the vulgar con artists that they are.

Fred Rogers died a rather painful death, succumbing to abdominal cancer. A man of Fred’s compassion deserved a better end, in my opinion, transitioning peacefully in his sleep from old age, rather than one that should be reserved exclusively for criminals. But that is life and Fred Rogers made the best of it whilst he was here. Because Fred Rogers focused on children and taught them with puppets, a change of shoes, Jazz piano, a zip-up cardigan and fish, most cannot imagine that Fred would have something important to teach adults. They would be quite wrong and it is here that I have another teaching opportunity. I wish to impart to interested laypersons as well as macroeconomics students studying MMT – In fact, everyone involved with MMT and 21st Century macroeconomics – a lesson from Fred Rogers.

Those who know me personally understand that I enjoy a good bit of humour and that also includes me making jokes about myself. Humour teaches. It helps. Now, I’ve long since retired from public service where at one time, I did teach briefly. But that enjoyable stint ended as my “employer” (we shall call it), decided in its infinite wisdom (sarcasm) that it would be far better for myself if I served in another capacity.

Anyway…

During office hours it was inevitable that a student would come to me detailing their confusion regarding a particular topic. Some of these students would end up talking about their intelligence in a very degrading way; in a way not conducive to generating self-confidence and certainly not with the intent of humour. I would hear statements such as, “Well, I don’t think that I am capable of…”, “I just don’t think that I’m much of an…”, or “I’m kinda stupid, so I’m sorry that I have to ask, but..”

Those who know me know that I cannot have things like that. But let’s be clear – when people say those things to me, it doesn’t make me mad, rather, it makes me want to reprimand them in a nice way and then explain why they are better than they think. I have, to a great degree, Fred Rogers to blame for that. I’m not embarrassed to admit it either. I have my own way of encouraging students, but today, let me use Fred’s method, because it is quite powerful.

Since retirement, I’ve spent a great deal of time on social media teaching laypersons and students as well and again, I’ve come across laypersons and students who do not think that they matter all that much in the grand scheme of things and who put themselves and their intelligence down with degrading words. They so desperately want to take the message of hope found in MMT to the world and make a difference. But they feel as though they are just one voice, or they do not have enough knowledge to make a difference. Both I and Fred Rogers would disagree. Let me tell you something right now – That is nonsense. Just your willingness to learn and understand macroeconomic reality means something to everyone. You are one less person that is willing to buy into mainstream nonsense. You can see things as they truly are. You are immune to bullshit. I’ll step aside and let Fred Rogers do the talking then I will clarify:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

Whether you are just now starting out in your undergraduate studies, or you are a layperson interested in MMT wishing to make a difference in the world, but you think that you do not matter, Fred’s words apply to you. We all do our part and a person’s “significance” has nothing to do with anything. Whether an economist, student, or a layperson who participates on Twitter and Facebook or writes blog posts – it does not matter. We all do what we can do; we all do our part. Again, just your willingness to learn and understand macroeconomic reality means everything. So, I wish to be very clear:

You are not stupid.

You are not insignificant.

You are helping.