Student Voice - Jessica Kaushal
I came to Pomona identifying as a progressive liberal, a feminist, a woman of color, and an idealist. I was a debater in high school, and that’s why I chose to take an ID1 with content that was unapologetically in favor of everything I thought was wrong with the world. I was enrolled in Professor Hueckel’s “Virtuous Markets,” a class focused on the controversial work of economist-philosopher Deirdre McCloskey, who in her book Bourgeoisie Virtues, makes perhaps the most shameless defense of the morality of capitalist systems I have ever read. Capitalism and industrialization have not only brought the world great social goods, she contends, but also, offer perhaps the most virtuous form of economic exchange possible. And thus began one of the most incredible critical inquiries I engaged in in my four years at Pomona. For a semester, I was forced to question and answer why exactly I thought capitalist markets were implicated in particular issues of social justice. Over time, these questions became more nuanced. I took a step back and asked instead about the function and role of markets, the definition of capitalism, and the relationship between free markets and poverty reduction. These questions were permanently etched in the back of my mind in my subsequent economics and history coursework, and although I didn’t realize it then, heavily influenced my course selection and writing interests.
In my sophomore year, I took a class entitled “Infrastructures of Justice” with Professor Auerbach at Scripps. There was one, central course question: “do markets result in just outcomes?” My classmates and I spent the semester dissecting case studies, attempting to understand the market as an ethical force in its own right and as an instrument for change that operates within other preexisting institutions. I conducted a term project that explored the power dynamics of the Punjabi ethnic economy of small entrepreneurs in California –less formally known as the network of 7-11s across the IE-- and a topic that’s very personal given that this is the ethnic community with which I identify. At the same time, I was writing a term paper on the ethics and economics of surrogacy contracts for a philosophy course with Professor Weinberg. To say I was conflicted on what I thought of the interaction between ethics and economics is an understatement –I didn’t know what to think at all anymore. From this point forward, I started to worry less about “capitalism” and other “isms,” and think more about the conditions under which I thought markets produced just outcomes.
In my junior year, I was still very taken with McCloskey’s work. I was also very taken by her then-recent trip to Pomona College. I remember sitting in a brief talk with her on the third floor of Carnegie and I had the opportunity to ask her if she thought exploitation exists. She said, flatly, that she did not, and took the next question. I wasn’t surprised by her reaction so much as by the simplicity of her answer –especially because I knew she had written extensively on the topic. How it could be, I thought, that the economist says no, yet any person on the street would look at me like I was an idiot for asking the question in the first place. It was in order to understand this tension that I returned to Professor Hueckel hoping to develop an independent study. I wanted to resolve these questions about economic justice within a conversation on “exploitation,” since this term was ubiquitous in the critiques of market systems I had been reading. So, that semester, Professor Hueckel, Madeline Jenks, and I set out to develop a curriculum. I was increasingly drawn to issues of international development, which capture these debates quite nicely –whether we’re talking about the introduction of Nike factories or “sweatshops” in Bangladesh, the proliferation of surrogacy clinics in Gujarat for predominantly Western clientele, or the breakdown of winners and losers when free market policies wreak creative destruction. This was also a well-timed exploration that heavily influenced my decision to apply to study abroad on a program on sustainable development in India –after which I also developed interests in issues of financial inclusion, asset building, and poverty alleviation.
So now I’m a senior. You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to tell you what capitalism has to do with virtues, because I still don’t know. What I do know, though, is that I’ve experienced more intellectual and personal growth on this academic trajectory that I ever could have anticipated when first I applied to Pomona. It was the multidisciplinarity of my studies that exposed me to the most intelligently articulated yin-and-yang views on markets and exploitation. I didn’t declare PPE until my junior year, when the major found me and taught me to ask questions with nuance, to engage with divergent standpoints, and to accompany the analysis of a problem with the implications for policy and political change. I will still be leaving Pomona identifying as a progressive liberal, a feminist, a woman of color, and an idealist –but I also leave as PPE student –an inquirer, a deliberator, a listener, and an agent of change who always asks, “so what do we do now?”