Apr 132013

Nicholas Chrils, a Yale grad who started his career at Lehman, didn’t take long to realize he was a complete misfit in the investment banking industry. For instance, he read books. And had a soul.

What I discovered, quite starkly, is that the part of Wall Street that I worked in was simply transferring wealth from the less sophisticated investors, often teachers’ pension funds and factory workers’ retirement accounts, to the more sophisticated investors that call themselves proprietary trading desks and hedge funds. Of course, the traders had all sorts of excuses and jargon to deal with this truth. “Oh no,” they would say, “We are important providers of liquidity that create stable financial markets. We’re a crucial part of a system. And besides, if we don’t do it, someone else will.” These are the lies that people tell themselves so that they can buy larger homes.


 Posted by on April 13, 2013 at 11:24 am
Apr 082013

One of the last, and best, classes I took at Dartmouth was called War and Peace in the Modern Age. Though taught in the government department by an expert on nuclear weapons, it turned out to be one of the closest things to a comparative literature course that I took in my four years of undergrad. Nearly all of the course readings were first-person accounts of warfare, often in novel form. Here’s a bit of what the syllabus had to say about the assigned works: 

The readings are generally personal accounts that I assign to convey to you – to the extent possible – first-hand descriptions of what war is like. The biographical accounts of what took place in several wars are designed to help you develop a mental picture of war as a process conducted, for the most part, by people your own age. I hope the readings give you a sense of war through the eyes of 20-year olds.

Still, after reading My War Gone by, I Miss it So (which devoted fans of The Wander Years [hi mom and dad] will remember as the book that inspired me to go to Bosnia – you can read about that here) about halfway through the term, I started to wonder why it was important for anyone to have that “sense of war,” not necessarily as future policy makers, or writers, or military officers – not even as voters – but rather, simply as human beings. Of what value is it truly to expose ourselves to the frontiers of the human condition? I felt doing so was important to me, but could I make that case universally? Over the past four years, I’ve had a handful of “eureka” moments when the case for the “direct experience,” the exposure of our selves to the limits of humanity, has been abundantly clear. But the logic tends to slip away as quickly as it arrives, and I’m left again with nothing more than my personal conviction, the conviction that this exposure helps define what it means to be alive, and that finding this definition is one of life’s greatest goals. Recently, a dear friend gifted to me an out-of-print collection of some of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s essays and news dispatches. Besides writing The Little Prince, Monsieur de Saint-Exupéry spent time as a war reporter, covering among other things the Spanish Civil War for a handful of French newspapers. More than just answering the question of whether The Little Prince was an isolated incident of genius, his reports from the Spanish fronts bring us closer to understanding the significance of human consciousness:

Human events display two faces, one of drama and the other of indifference. Everything changes according as the event concerns the individual or the species. In its migrations, in its imperious impulses, the species forgets its dead. This, perhaps, explains the unperturbed faces of these peasants. One feels that they have no special taste for horror; yet they will come back from that clump of trees on the one hand content to have administered their kind of justice, and on the other hand quite indifferent to the fate of the girl who stumbled against the root of the tree of death, who was caught by death’s harpoon as she fled, and who now lies in the wood, her mouth filled with blood.

Here I touch the inescapable contradiction I shall never be able to resolve. For man’s greatness does not reside merely in the destiny of the species: each individual is an empire. When a mine caves in and closes over the head of a single miner, the life of the community is suspended.

His comrades, their women, their children, gather in anguish at the entrance to the mine, while below them the rescue party scratch with their picks at the bowels of the earth. What are they after? Are they consciously saving one unit of society? Are they freeing a human being as one might free a horse, after computing the work he is still capable of doing? Ten other miners may be killed in the attempted rescue: what inept cost accounting! Of course, it is not a matter of saving one ant out of a colony of ants! They are rescuing a consciousness, an empire whose significance is incommensurable with anything else.

Inside the narrow skull of the miner pinned beneath the fallen timber, there lives a world. Parents, friends, a home, the hot soup of evening, songs sung on fast days, loving kindness and anger, perhaps even a social consciousness and a great universal love, inhabit that skull. By what are we to measure the value of a man? His ancestor once drew a reindeer on the wall of a cave; and two hundred thousand years later that gesture still radiates. It stirs us, prolongs itself in us. Man’s gestures are an eternal spring. Though we die for it, we shall bring up that miner from his shaft. Solitary he may be, universal he surely is.

Addendum: The more I learn about it, the more I realize how significant an event the Spanish Civil War was, despite the prevalent narrative about very little happening in the world between the World Wars. At the very least, it inspired some great literature and art, including Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. And while I’ve never been a student of art history, Guernica is one of the first paintings I can remember learning about.

Addendum: On the subject of war reporting broadening our understanding of humanity and all its definitions, I can’t help but to include this passage from Anthony Loyd’s My War Gone by, I Miss it So: 

As darkness fell a young woman staggered weeping up the street and collapsed into the arms of those sheltering behind the Swedes. Friends managed somehow to extract the story of what had happened to her – the rape – and told the Swedes that her paralyzed father still lay in the apartment block. We went with a Swedish patrol to find him, carrying him back to the other Muslims for his final night of life. The idea of some things is enough to jam your mind, let alone seeing the reality. If you read about it in the newspaper you may not feel it, you may fall for the empty sterility of the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ without ever understanding what it really was: persuasion through terror. After the war had finished one of the columnists who wrote about Bosnia without ever having been there offered the opinion that ‘ethnic cleansing’ was a good idea as it led to the definition of peaceful borders similar to those between Britain and Scotland. He seemed very pleased with this comparison. Perhaps if he had his youngest child raped beside his death bed, he would have a different view.

 Posted by on April 8, 2013 at 3:48 pm
Mar 292013

When I was a student at Dartmouth, recruiting and admitting first-generation college students (which Dartmouth defines as students whose parents do not hold 4-year degrees) was an institutional priority. Our president at the time, Jim Wright, had been the first in his own family to attend college, and he recognized the barriers first-gen students face in gaining entrance to any college, let alone the nation’s elite institutions. With the extra effort and attention paid by the admissions office, these students made up about 13% of each class in the latter years of Wright’s tenure. When he retired and was succeeded by President Jim Yong Kim, the first-gen population fell to around 9% of the class. It was a tragedy.

I’ve always had a difficult time articulating my collegiate search and experience as a first-generation student at Dartmouth, one of the world’s top universities. But in an op-ed published today in the New York Times (online yesterday), Claire Vaye Watkins eloquently gives voice to the process in which rural poor students select – or don’t select – the colleges they attend. I went to Dartmouth because it came back as the top match on Princeton Review’s “Counselor-o-Matic” (now defunct, it seems, though there are numerous similar tools available), and because my sister had a friend who went there. When I interviewed for an internship at the admissions office my junior year, and again when I interviewed for the assistant director position, I conveyed my excitement to have the opportunity to recruit students like me – a notoriously difficult population to reach. But then President Wright retired, and, well…

Anyway, a couple things stand out from this article. The first is that Watkins was able to attend the University of Nevada, Reno on a state-sponsored scholarship. Even though she started there just 8 years ago, the financial access poor students have to higher education has dropped precipitously since then. To wit, Arizona has cut higher education funding an inflation-adjusted 50.4% compared to FY 2008. New Hampshire (live free or die) is next at 49.9%. Watkins’ home state of Nevada has reduced funding 31.2% over that period; in fact, 36 states have decreased funding more than 20%, and only two states, Wyoming and North Dakota, have increased funding since 2008 (all according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities). Meanwhile, Paul Ryan wants to freeze Pell Grants, an incredibly important resource for poor students, at their current level for the next ten years.

The other thing I want to point out is a reader comment that, though I didn’t grow up in rural Appalachia, perfectly captured one of my reactions to this article, and something I’ve known for a long time:

As someone who grew up in rural Appalachia and hit the lottery by getting into the Ivy League, where I soon realized I was the “token” rural kid and felt incredibly isolated and misunderstood by my prep-school colleagues, I’ve been waiting years for someone to write a column like this, though never expected it would be done so well. Thank you for raising awareness about something that every American rural teenager already knows, but no one in NYC or any other large metropolitan era seems to have ever considered: Geography is destiny.

I welcome any reactions you might have to this post or Watkins’ article.


Dartmouth’s admitted group this year includes 11% first-generation students, and 68% of admitted students qualify for financial aid with an average scholarship of $40,000. Still, rural poor kids are being left behind on a national scale.

 Posted by on March 29, 2013 at 5:59 pm
Jan 092013

I come from a small town hamlet in upstate New York that’s both very white and very blue collar. It’s the kind of place where every family owns a gun, and, as we discovered when a major flash flood wiped out our road in 2004, at least one ATV. As you’d expect, my neighbors lean strongly libertarian, though many are quite socially conservative. While it’s been a long time since I’ve lived there, Facebook connections remind me regularly of my town’s prevailing political/economical sentiment: that all our financial problems could be solved, if only the fraudulent money-grabbers were given fewer handouts. Because these handouts cost trillions. And also our freedom.

Enter The Economist, the communist, propagandist rag traditionally conservative magazine, to thoroughly debunk that claim. Quoting from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

People who are neither elderly nor disabled — and do not live in a working household — received only 9 percent of [entitlement] benefits. Moreover, the vast bulk of that 9 percent goes for medical care, unemployment insurance benefits (which individuals must have a significant work history to receive), Social Security survivor benefits for the children and spouses of deceased workers, and Social Security benefits for retirees between ages 62 and 64. Seven out of the 9 percentage points go for one of these four purposes.

Read the rest of the article at The Economist.

As John Adams once said (as pointed out by a commenter on the article), “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

But I’m not optimistic that facts have any bearing on my townsfolk’s politics these days.


 Posted by on January 9, 2013 at 12:56 am
Jan 082013

Atlantic senior editor and author Robert Wright has concluded a year of blogging with an absolutely brilliant sign-off in which he discusses his upcoming ventures and leaves us with three well stated core beliefs. The first, he writes, is “The world’s biggest single problem is the failure of people or groups to look at things from the point of view of other people or groups–i.e. to put themselves in the shoes of ‘the other.'” I couldn’t agree more; I’ve long felt that civil debate has broken down in America because all too often, people can’t even articulate the other sides’ arguments. Wright correctly points out this is a problem on a global scale.

Robert’s third point I read with much pride, as it’s essentially what I just wrote an analytical application essay about: “If the United States doesn’t use its inevitably fading dominance to build a world in which the rule of law is respected, and in which global norms are strong, the United States (and the world) will suffer for it.” All I can say is I’m glad the application was due before Wright published his piece, because he took the words right out of my mouth. From my own essay:

Regardless of the advantaged position the U.S. holds in the world today, no international power structure has persisted for long. America should be thus working to create a world order that limits the ability of any one state to exert its influence over others so that rising powers eventually find themselves restrained by international laws and norms.

Instead, in some important arenas, the U.S. is doing just the opposite. Nowhere is this more apparent than with our covert operations in the long war against terrorism, particularly drone strikes and extraordinary renditions. In attempting to address the terrorist threat, America’s policies may ultimately establish dangerous precedents that it will almost certainly come to regret in the long run.

You can read the rest of Wright’s final post here. It’s well worth your time.

 Posted by on January 8, 2013 at 11:41 am
Jan 082013

Hint: It’s all about the externalities.

Republican economists, like Mankiw, normally oppose tax increases, but many support Pigovian taxes because, in some sense, we are already paying them. We pay the tax in the form of the overcrowded roads, higher insurance premiums, smog and global warming. Adding an extra fee at the pump simply makes the cost explicit. Pigou’s approach, Mankiw argues, also converts a burden into a benefit. Imposing taxes on income and capital gains, he notes, punishes the work and investment that improve society; taxing negative externalities allows the government to make money while discouraging activity that hurts the overall economy.

The congestion tax Mike Bloomberg proposed some years ago was DOA. Will we ever see a gasoline tax sufficient enough to address driving’s negative externalities?

Read the rest at the New York Times.

P.S. I just read Mankiw’s textbook for an online economics course I took. It was everything I’ve wanted in an economics explainer: paced quickly, and assumes an intelligent readership, while starting from zero.

 Posted by on January 8, 2013 at 8:35 am
Jan 082013

As the gun debate has raged in America over the past month, it’s been difficult to sort through the half-baked logic (of both sides of the argument) and find actual data that describes the relationship between guns and violence. Elizabeth Rosenthal’s piece in the New York Times is therefore a helpful and welcome addition to the conversation.

Scientific studies have consistently found that places with more guns have more violent deaths, both homicides and suicides. Women and children are more likely to die if there’s a gun in the house. The more guns in an area, the higher the local suicide rates. “Generally, if you live in a civilized society, more guns mean more death,” said David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. “There is no evidence that having more guns reduces crime. None at all.”

Read the rest here.

In my view, the preponderance of evidence suggesting that stricter gun control will reduce violence is incontrovertible. I agree with Adam Gopnik that at this point, the issue boils down to a moral choice:

They have made a clear moral choice: that the comfort and emotional reassurance they take from the possession of guns, placed in the balance even against the routine murder of innocent children, is of supreme value. Whatever satisfaction gun owners take from their guns—we know for certain that there is no prudential value in them—is more important than children’s lives. Give them credit: life is making moral choices, and that’s a moral choice, clearly made.

Read the rest of Gopnik’s initial response to the Newtown massacre, “Newtown and the Madness of Guns,” at The New Yorker.

 Posted by on January 8, 2013 at 8:11 am