From New Wave to Punkonomics

Professor Benjamin Balak’s life has been anything but typical.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) If you know where to look, you can find the video on YouTube. You may not be able to understand it (it’s in Hebrew) and it is certainly of its era (the mid-’80s), both the music and look. There are familiar music video tropes—the singer, with his dark sunglasses and dour appearance, coolly dragging on a cigarette; a second-too-long close-up of a woman’s derriere—but the music still holds up well nearly three decades on.

This was, the singer recounted many years later, the first-ever Hebrew language music video, made with “borrowed” Israeli military equipment. The band’s earlier work had been more punk-inspired, but this New Wave sound was a deliberate effort to go pop, to reach a more mass audience. And it worked—not on a global scale, perhaps, but certainly around Tel Aviv.

This afternoon, a Monday in early August, that clean-cut singer is in the WPRK studio, with sprawling hair and a five o’clock shadow, wearing a wrinkled shirt that says “Level ?? Humanoid” and talking about the new Dr. Who, who will not be a woman, which he says is indicative of a misogynistic system. The show is Punkonomics, a weekly public affairs program leavened by professor Beni Balak’s cynical humor and passion for social justice. And so, on this program, which features a conversation with a local immigration reform activist, you hear Balak say things like “Our show is committed to equal opportunity hate. It is our founding principle.”

Balak, now a professor of economics at Rollins, abandoned his rock star dreams the second he finished his mandatory three-year military stint back in Israel. He was an electrical engineer in the military, steering clear of combat by virtue of being his mother’s only son. His job, essentially, was to repair equipment, which he did by day and played music by night. But when he was done, he was done.

“I warned everybody ahead of time,” he says. “I need[ed] to see the world.”

There was a record contract dangled in front of him, but no sooner was he discharged than he hopped a train to France. Being the front man, that pretty much killed his band. (The members still remain in contact and occasionally record over the Internet, including a song they wrote a couple years ago in support of Occupy Wall Street. Their tunes are still played on Israeli oldies stations, Balak says.)

His parents were then in Paris, where his father ran a fashion marketing business. They had years before been a family of diplomats. Balak’s mother, in fact, was an assistant to then-Foreign Minister (and later Prime Minister) Golda Meir. They were on a diplomatic assignment to Madagascar when Balak was born, though they didn’t stay there long enough for him to form any memories of the place. His parents became critics of Israeli foreign policy, something that rubbed off on their son. “The Peace Now movement basically started in my parents’ kitchen,” Balak says.

In Paris, Balak learned French, and then became taken with the American notion of a liberal arts education. He went to the American College (now University) in Paris, where the school cafeteria’s beer taps would open at 1 p.m. His fondest memories revolve around drinking with his professors after class, something he regrets not being able to do at Rollins, as he learned as much during those sessions as he did in class. He first wanted to study business administration—he was a “major fashionista” in the late ’80s, though you wouldn’t know it to look at him today, and hung out backstage with models; back then, he thought about taking over his father’s company—but found it dull and switched to economics.

I really like the whole learning thing,” he says. “I’m a professor because I stayed in school.

His senior year marked the beginning of the end of Communism—1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. He spent lots of time in East Berlin, this undiscovered country that had for so long been walled off, mainly on weekends. “It was really exciting times to study economics,” he says. They would take class trips behind the old Iron Curtain to compare curricula and had a front-row seat as the European Union took shape.

He wasn’t quite sure what to do after that. Balak ended up in England, at the University of Kent, where he did a year of postgraduate work. It was, in a sense, something to do, a way to pass the time in school. When he was done, he and his now-wife Charlotte Trinquet—they met socially in Paris, but didn’t become a couple until later—decided that they wanted to pursue PhDs in America. (She also now teaches at Rollins.)

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) “But that takes time,” he says. “So we went to live a year in Prague. It was wild times. Wild, wild times. I have pictures from that era. Some things that cannot be shared.”

They ended up at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where Balak earned a PhD in economics and Trinquet earned hers in French literature, and they had a child. For practical purposes—so that Trinquet could keep her health insurance while on maternity leave—they went to Las Vegas when she was seven months pregnant and were married by an Elvis impersonator.

Academically, Balak had somewhat peculiar interests. “I learned enough math to learn that most of it is [expletive] when it comes to economics,” he says. He was more focused on the history of economic thought and methodology, looking at the field in a more philosophical way. This wasn’t a traditional approach. But UNC supported him nonetheless, and before he graduated he was a teacher’s assistant and then taught his own microeconomics course—and in the process, he fell in love with teaching itself.

After graduation, he took a yearlong visiting professor gig at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. The school offered to renew his contract, but it didn’t have any permanent positions available. With his experience in the classroom, he began looking for a permanent home. He found it at Rollins, which didn’t offer him just a job but also a chance to innovate in the actual teaching of economics. For much of the last half century, he says, undergraduate classrooms have been giving students bad information, relying on outdated modalities and textbooks. He wanted to change that.

Since the ’90s, when I was a graduate student, there’s been a movement of reforming economics education because it’s a sham,” he says. “These guys [at Rollins] were well ahead of the curve.

He arrived in 2002. Over the last decade, Balak has taken a two-pronged approach to reform: First, broadening the department’s content beyond traditional neoclassical economics theories to include other perspectives; and second, to bring in more technology—documentaries, video games, and so on. (He’s something of a big gamer; in fact, he brags about playing the very first video game, Star Trek, back in the mid-’70s. It was all text and no graphics. Today he plays video games with his kids.)

Balak was also an early adopter to Facebook, and began teaching in Facebook groups. The groups were closed to the general public, so as to protect students’ privacy, but every once in awhile an outsider would catch a glimpse. “You’d have people like, ‘Oh, my cousin checked out the group, he thought it was so cool.’ There was always that buzz of like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to open this up a little bit.”

That sentiment, he says, led to the Punkonomics radio show. “I feel really good about it,” Balak says, “because I do think there’s a role [for faculty at WPRK].” That show—though he has no idea how many people listen to it—is his way of being a “public intellectual,” an academic whose thoughts and insights don’t live solely within an ivory tower.

“It’s a lot of work,” he says. “It’s a labor of love.”