Math Quiz at Stanford

Joel Beinin, the Stanford history professor and immediate past president of the Middle East Studies Association, offers an on-line course on the Arab-Israeli conflict, for an e-learning consortium run by Stanford, Yale, and Oxford. In the introduction to the ninth lecture of the fall semester, he told his students that American aid to Israel since its establishment had come to one trillion dollars—a fantastic sum, at least ten times the actual figure. One student, a Yale alumnus named Jonathan Leffell, wrote to Beinin to ask just how he arrived at the trillion-dollar figure. A bristling Beinin added up the aid. “That’s $100 billion or $1 trillion,” he concluded triumphantly. “Since the math wasn’t so hard,” he chided the e-student, “you might ask yourself what it was that prevented you from seeing this.”

Incredibly, Joel Beinin, Stanford’s expert on all matters related to Israel, U.S. policy in the Middle East, and regional political economy, didn’t know that a trillion dollars is $1,000 billion. He thought it was $100 billion. Well, he knows what a trillion is now, thanks to Mr. Leffell. (Leffell suggested to Beinin that he ponder “how you could have made this mistake, which is one of an order of magnitude, in the first place.”)

Beinin apologized, but did no pondering. To the contrary: “Israel has received far more in U.S. aid than any other country in the world.” But this isn’t the point. Far more interesting is what must have gone through Professor Beinin’s mind whenever he heard a trillion or a hundred billion.

For example, the annual U.S. budget is about two trillion dollars. Did he imagine that Israel had gotten something like half of that vast sum over its lifetime? The aggregate GDP of the Arab states is a bit more than $500 billion, a figure every serious student of the Middle East should know, especially since it was highlighted in the Arab Human Development Report. It’s a GDP just under Spain’s. But if Professor Beinin thought the Arab GDP was five trillion—well, that’s about half the GDP of the United States.

I could go on, and the mind boggles at the possible permutations, but the bottom line is this: until a few months ago, Joel Beinin could not possibly have had any sense of the relative scale of the U.S. economy, the world economy, or the Middle East’s economy. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for an earlier generation of Marxist political economists. You didn’t agree with them, but at least you had one thing in common: the ability to count.

As for the content of Beinin’s course, I hear it was a model of bias, but that’s not surprising. If you’re curious, take it yourself. It’s being offered again, beginning February 18.