When he reflects on his days at UGA, Balaji Narain will be able to say he discussed economic policy with a former president ... of the United States. Narain, a 2007 graduate who majored in economics and international affairs, was one of four UGA Honors students with ties to the Economics Department who presented economic policy recommendations at an historic UGA conference titled "The Carter Presidency: Lessons for the 21st Century" that was held in January.
After analyzing the tough economic times of the 1970s, Narain and his fellow students -- Ben Cannon, Meghan Claiborne, and Kristen Tullos, each of whom are majoring in economics -- took part in a panel discussion with Carter. To prepare for their roles in the conference, "the students devoted long hours without academic credit," said Department Head Bill Lastrapes, who served as the team's faculty advisor. "The panel was an excellent opportunity for them to apply principles learned in their economic classes to the real world, and to challenge real policy-makers."
Undergraduates from other departments presented policy recommendations on a variety of topics. The economics team focused on productivity growth, deregulation, and price stability. "We wanted to provide constructive criticism," said Tullos, who served as team leader, "but also highlight some positives, like deregulation."
The team gathered data from several sources, including documents from the Carter library in Atlanta. The students had a tight turnaround, with just two months to prepare for the conference. "Timing of the project was difficult," said Tullos, "because most of the deadlines overlapped with finals and winter break."
Narain was chosen to make the three-minute oral presentation. He thanked Carter on behalf of all the students for the chance to study his administration. In critiquing economic decisions Carter made, the group wanted Narain to use just the right inflection, so as not to offend Carter but to still drive home their key points.
Their first recommendation was that the legislative and executive branches shouldn't interfere with monetary policy. "Currency stability is so crucial to economic growth," said Narain, "that the prospect of political influence on the process could be disastrous."
Next, the group noted that Carter's deregulation of the oil, finance, rail, trucking, and airline industries can serve as a lesson for today's leaders. Possible applications include "supporting freer international trade, promoting market solutions to health care, refraining from intervening in oil markets and replacing minimum wage laws with more efficient means of wealth redistribution."
Finally, the team reported that the Carter administration focused on short-term unemployment, yet its economic stimulation package increased inflation, according to the students' research. However, the students noted that some of Carter's actions laid the foundation for prosperity in later years.
In his response, Carter jokingly expressed "partial thanks" to the students. He said he admired them for their diligence, and he was delighted to hear their insights. When planning the conference, the only request he made was that he get to interact with students.
"We did have a very serious problem during my presidency on the economy," he said in response to the economic team's presentation. The problem escalated when conflict in the Middle East doubled oil prices in just 12 months creating "runaway inflation" worldwide, Carter added.
"We tried to maintain a proper balance between the benefits of the economy for working-class people compared to the wealthiest people in the world," Carter said. "If anything, we favored the working class and poor people above the richer people."
The students praised Carter for his honesty and admitted they were in awe of his stage presence. "He exudes this inner strength despite the fact that his administration didn't always go so well," said Narain. "That brought it home for me that this is a president of the United States."
Patti Ghezzi is an Atlanta freelancer. This article first appeared in the Spring 2007 Terry magazine.