Jamshid Damooei: The Joy of Learning for Learning’s Sake

Jamshid Damooei: The Joy of Learning for Learning’s Sake
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With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavor. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Jamshid Damooei.

Jamshid Damooei is Professor and Chair of Department of Economics, Finance and Accounting and Director of the Center for Leadership and Values at California Lutheran University. He focused his graduate work in England on issues of international trade and the inability of the traditional theory of trade to capture the influence of giant firms in international trade (what we now know as New Trade Theory NTT). After completing his PhD, he returned to Iran and worked in the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Finance as the Director General of Economic Studies and Policies from 1982 to 1985. He left Iran in 1985 and after working as a professor of economics at Cal State Northridge and later at California Lutheran University; he accepted the position of Senior Economist with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Jamshid’s research studies includes a wide area of economics of social issues. His research endeavors on the topic of investing in children resulted in publication of multiple pioneering studies on the economic impact of Boys & Girls Clubs of America in a number of states and metropolitan areas within the USA. In all of his studies on children and youth, there is a strong emphasis on the impact of socio-economic status (SES) of children on their academic performance and social behavior and their opportunity to be successful in their lives as they grow up. Damooei strongly believes that we need to put human face on every public policy discussion and without it the work is meaningless.

Damooei received his B.Sc. in Economics from Tehran University. He completed his graduate studies with use of scholarship from the Iranian Government in England. He received his M.Sc. from the University of Surrey in U.K. Started his MPhil in Economics at University College London (UCL) and completed his PhD in Economics at University of Surry in the United Kingdom.

Tell our readers where you grew up and walk us through your background. How did your family and surroundings influence you in your formative years?

I grew up in Rasht, a city in northern Iran in the Caspian Sea region. My father was the administrator of a maternity hospital and my mother was a teacher. I was one of five brothers, and sisters, - an age difference of nine years between the oldest and youngest. By the standards of those times in where we lived, we were a middle-income family. Doing well at school was always a non-negotiable expectation of my mother for each of her children. My father was the opposite of my mother—he would pamper us and cut us slack on anything that we wanted. But, he would never protect us against the dismay of our mother if we did not live up to her standards.

It is hard to say who influenced me most during my adolescent life. However, I was quite certain that my parents loved us and cared about how we were doing. This was, in many ways, the backbone of my life as a child, and I can say the same for all my other siblings. I learned from my father how to initiate a conversation, how to listen to others and be considerate. As a child, I was impatient with him—how he took so much time when dealing with others to make them feel better. As I grew up, I realized that what he taught me at the time was what we call “people skills”. We were a functional family and very close to one another. I knew very well at a very young age that I would go to university and probably end up with a degree in any area that I chose to study. This was pretty much the same for all of us.

What has been your personal key to success? What were the biggest inspirations for your career?

I never thought about success as a journey that you start and at some point come to a destination called “success”. I was, and still am, quite certain that I can complete a task successfully, if I like the task and make a commitment to do it. If this is the case, I have to say self-respect, confidence, and believing in my own ability are the keys to being successful in my work.

The other practice that has helped me in my life is to set aside my ego as fully as possible in my professional life. The power of determination and focus on the task at hand rather than myself was the key to every opportunity that I made possible for myself. I also believe that a person’s work must be based on their values. Working outside of one’s own values must be like living in prison, and I cannot accept that any person would never try to break out of their own imprisonment.

I chose to study economics primarily for my long-time interest in politics. When I completed my studies in England, I had the opportunity to stay on at university and work on a post-doctoral research on the emerging EU. It was tempting, but I decided to go back to Iran. I went back and worked hard—without feeling that I was working hard—and I was rapidly promoted to a senior administrative position. Then came the time that I felt that I could reach a better level of productivity in an international setting. After working for a couple of years as a university professor in the United States, I joined UNDP as a senior economist. Finally, I made the transition to academic work; in so I felt that I could do much better as an academic with a clear voice, determination, and the ability to communicate with students and the larger community. The common thread in everything that I have done and will be doing is that I believe that my work should serve a cause, a purpose, a group of people, and something larger than my own life.

How do the liberal arts are contribute to success in the economic sector? To what extent is their role foundational?

A liberal arts education in the practical sense can instill many abilities, insight and skills desperately needed in the workplace while preserving the joy of learning for learning’s sake. The industrial revolution of the two and half centuries ago laid the foundations of the transformation of the education system from humanistic to scientific. It is not hard to understand why formal education has become a means to secure financial advancement. In order to secure greater material well-being, one must compete in school and in the workplace.

Today, in most universities, we have classes to teach professors to be facilitators in their classrooms; students are regarded as end users of knowledge for specific production purposes. They are often seen as consumers of knowledge, a pseudo-concept that has no real meaning and functionality as one thinks about consumption, knowledge, and their true meanings.

This is a concept that, while according to some may simplify a quality control issue (as education is seen in such mindsets as a mere private service), in reality has caused many problems that reduce the quality of education.

On a personal level, a liberal arts education can help us build the art of listening, bring self-confidence, and teach us the importance of others’ perspectives. On an intellectual level, liberal arts can help one find intellectual enthusiasm, quality of thought, the ability to make connections between ideas, and critical skills to challenge assumptions and look for the truth. On a professional level, it helps one to make connections between ideas, developing problem-solving tendencies when placed in the existing setting, think interdisciplinary, and be able to pursue critical and analytical thinking.

On an emotional level, it allows us to appreciate diversity, learn how to encounter others without resentment, learn the beauty of self-realization, and appreciate the value of human interaction in finding one’s happiness and contentment. On an ethical level, it helps to associate ideas with value, not be apprehensive about asking questions irrespective of the difficulty of their answers, appreciate the value of the living environment and its preservation, and see ethics as a functioning and integral part of our lives.

Is social mobility still going strong in America, the “Land of Opportunity?” Is the American dream alive and well?

The clear answer is no. Social mobility identifies the ability of people within an economy to move up from their existing economic status to a higher level. Inter-generational social mobility is the level of dependence or independence between income of children and their parents. Unfortunately, all recent studies show that a significant group of Americans may never move from their existing income group to a higher one. It is also true that a child born into a high-income family may continue to stay rich, regardless of his or her own economic efforts.

Americans raised at the bottom and top of the family income ladder are likely to remain there as adults, a phenomenon known as “stickiness at the ends.” Only 4% of people stuck in the bottom of income bracket ever reach the top. Just to have a comparison, between the US and Denmark, the difference between the income of sons versus those of their fathers is about 47% less in the US, whereas this ratio in Denmark is only 15%. This suggests (as one British academic suggested) that American Dream is likely to be found in Denmark rather than in the United States.

The reason for such negative development is widespread inequality and lack of opportunity for our children to grow up in an environment, that their talents are recognized and nurtured. As a result, children in low-income families are typically 12-14 months behind the national average in pre-reading and language skills when entering kindergarten. While 70% of children in foster home hope to go to college, less than 3% go on to earn a four-year degree—this is the real story of the dreams of children in foster homes that never come true.

Education is a key driver of intergenerational persistence in wages. Socio-economic background has a considerable influence on students’ educational achievement and thereby on intergenerational wage persistence. The school environment plays an important role. Early childhood education and care could promote intergenerational social mobility.

Could you please elaborate on the impact of the Peace Education Program around the world?

Peace education is an effective way of learning to coexist with one’s fellow members of society. I like to think that using a peaceful approach is within our instinctual capabilities as human beings. To find peaceful solutions to our problems is to strive for balance in what we look for in our lives. For many of us, reaching peace requires introspection, which is very important in supporting our personal, familial, and social lives. It is hard to imagine that someone without inner harmony could be an instrument of peace for their community.

However, on a functional level, using a peaceful approach is essential in discovering some of the most profound principles of humanity. There is a direct relationship between social justice and peace. Opting for a diplomatic resolution to the problems that we face in our life is not a mere fantasy, it is the outcome of learning to use peaceful methods in dealing with one another. It helps us to develop positive relationship with others. It enables us to develop social skills, realize the choices we have in our lives, discover our inner strengths, become hopeful, and feel contentment regardless of changes in our living conditions.

Currently, the focus on peace education primarily comes as an element of correcting the problems we face in our political and civil lives, which are very important but discordant. Nonviolent struggles for change have proved repeatedly to be the only method for sustainable peace. Our apparent inability to live in peace and harmony with our community and environment has changed the continuation of life on Earth as we know it. Our non-peaceful political environment continues to bring us to the verge of a nuclear disaster more often than we ever imagined not long ago. More than ever, we desperately need to learn and teach others how to protest and ask for change in no other way than peaceful and non-violent resistance.

There are several peace education programs for young people or adults who are in correctional facilities, in addition to some used to heal long standing political problems that separate people from one another. More recently, many schools and colleges are paying close attention to principles of peaceful resistance. However, we do not have to resort to teaching peace only when we are faced with dire problems and severe strife. It should be an inseparable part our curriculum in every school, staring from kindergarten all the way to university.

You have said “Investing in our children is wise and will bring high returns on investment”? Please elaborate.

The phrase “children are our future” is not a mere political slogan. It is a reality. Some may not realize that human assets are the most important asset in every society. Like any other type of accumulation of capital, we must invest to create the assets we desire. Investing in human development is by far the most important kind of investment that a society makes. It is also important to realize that the most productive period of investing in a person is the first three to four years of their life. Unlike many other types of investment, investing in early childhood development does not have any rationale concerning the timing of such investment. There is no business cycle to follow or market structure to observe. The investment is to take place when the child is born and arguably sometimes before the child is born—the time that the mother is pregnant. This underlies the fundamental difference between investing in early childhood education and other types of investments; not investing at the right time is considered as disinvestment.

The scientific reality of childhood education show that our society is ignorant of its vital importance. For example, some 85% of children’s brain development occurs before the age of four. Nationally, less than 10% of investment in education and development are spent on children ages four or younger. In California, the proportion of investment in early childhood is less than national level. The average cognitive score of the nation’s most affluent children entering kindergarten is 60% higher than that of the nation’s poorest children. This shows that our collective ignorance sets up millions of children born to low-income families for failure in the very early stage of their lives. By age three, children of affluent families will on average have heard 30 million more words more than children in low-income families. This difference is likely to contribute to future achievement gaps, as children’s vocabulary development by age three has been shown to predict school achievement in third grade. Research suggests that more than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students can be explained by unequal access to enriching summer activities. When enter kindergarten, children from low-income families are typically 12-14 months behind the national average in pre-reading and language skills.

Let me answer your question in a clear and irrevocable way: it appears that our collective thinking as a society, with the help of our misguided political machinery, has been blinded to the reality of our lives—we are prepared to sell the future our children for close to nothing at present time.

Can we build a better as a society by balancing our budget at the expense of supporting low-income families? To what extent can we trust the free market and believe that “it will take care of everything only if we let it”?

The two issues in your question are in my opinion interrelated. First, balancing our budget on the back of our low-income families, which in essence is denying the public sufficient investment in the well-being of our people and settling for higher tax cuts to the rich that do not need it, passing the burden of budget deficit, and later larger national debts, to the future generation. The second one is the misguided and voodoo economics of the last forty years, trickle-down economics—that by taking care of the top, everyone in the bottom will experience prosperity. The empirical evidence of these policies is clear for everyone to see; the results are an ever-increasing national debt, lowering of economic growth, longer periods of long-term unemployment, and terrible income distribution showing a massive transfer of wealth from lower-income sectors to much higher-income individuals, causing a rise in the number of billionaires.

A third and interrelated dimension of your question is that of trusting the “free market” to take care of our problems. In my 45-plus years of studying, teaching, and practicing economics, I have never seen a bigger public misconception that the claim that we have a “free market.” Free market principles suggest a number of conditions that are hard to find in any place. For example, a free market suggests that we do not have any externalities. An externality is the presence a third party, which is likely to occur in a transaction between two parties (seller and buyer). A good example of it is the cost of pollution, which is imposed on everyone, regardless of their participation as an economic entity in the creation of pollution. The other important condition of a free market is availability of free information to all at no cost. A cursory look at the existing conditions around us tell us that this is an empty claim and very different from the day-to-day reality of our lives.

Furthermore, even if we had a so-called free market, we can find many circumstances where the market fails. Market failure comes from the inability of companies to make profit—when their service or good is essential, but there is no clear possibility of making profit from investing in that field. In the same way, certain goods and services are essential for a human society, but not everyone can afford to purchase them: elementary and secondary education, health care, shelter, food, and essential medications. These are public goods and services and everyone is entitled to have them. Therefore, we need to resort to what are known as the “second best policies”: the design and imposition of public policies, which can address these problems and look for more cost-effective way of resolving them by using a social cost-benefit analysis. A good example of such measures is the use of appropriate public policies to solve environmental problems, which often must be brought up in their appropriate international setting to be effective.

Finally, we should be mindful of the needs of a society when establishing the social benefits of certain policies. For example, we have standards when it comes to production and distribution of commodities and services. It is naïve to believe that companies can be self-regulating and there is no need for government to be present or control them. The clear evidence of such is the countless violations of the existing environmental standards by various companies. Leaving them alone will certainly result in the degradation of our environment and exploitation of our people who work for them. We need to be proactive as a society and come up with policies that promote or demote the production of certain services or good for the betterment of all, serving the common good.

Can you tell our readers how to create a future economy which is productive, sustainable, just, peaceful, and fiscally sound?

This is a great question and I have referred to segments of it a number of questions ago. After decades of work in different capacities as an economist, it is more than ever clear to me that creating a balanced and better world starts with providing a free, high-quality early childhood education for all families in the nation. I am NOT advocating for the creation of a daycare for our children (although some may desperately need it). It must be high quality early childhood education. The logic is simple and much empirical evidence support it. If we do not take care of our children in that early part of their lives, we lose the opportunity of helping them to live up to their potential. When this opportunity is lost, we have to pay for our failure many times more and in different ways. They range from unnecessary remedial education, to the inability of our children to secure an economically successful life when they grow up, and even paying several times more in terms of cost of health, loss of productivity in the work place, the cost of criminal justice system, and dependency on government assistance. This does not include the pain and suffering endured by individuals and their families and the loss of hope in life for millions of people in this country.

The other important component of a sustainable economy is strengthening the role of science and science-based education in the curriculum of our schools. This can help our society in several ways. The teaching of science is likely to promote inquiry in our children, in what they observe and learn. Science is likely to promote curiosity and encourage logical and critical thinking and deductive reasoning. It is also important to realize that the future economies on the one side are based on scientific discoveries, and on the other on the relevance of innovative and creative thinking. Liberal arts education goes a long way in bringing up this right frame of mind in our educational institutions.

Justice has an important place in our future balanced and sustainable economies. We need to uphold justice, as without it there is no peace and no basis for a sustainable life on earth. The positive signals of the future are that life is more likely to be based on the principles I am referring to. But, at the same time, the power of the existing, often outdated establishments overshadows the light of the brighter future that await us. This is the very essence of what we call the reactionaries of our times—that the old establishments with outdated ideas find it hard to lose their control.

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