Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Back to Work

Exactly a year ago I took a flight down to Alabama to spend the summer working at the Equal Justice Initiative, helping indigent defendants through the death penalty appeals process. This morning I set out to begin my second summer as a law student, when I hopped on a bus down to Washington, DC to come work as a summer associate at Venable, LLP, a commercial law firm that was originally founded in Baltimore, MD. Admittedly, I don’t feel the same level of excitement as I did last year when I embarked on my journey to the Deep South, probably because I don’t expect this summer to be as unique, challenging or inspirational as the last one. (That, and the fact that I won’t have the same opportunity this summer to stuff myself with grits.)

Nevertheless, I do anticipate this summer to involve more than just being taken out to nice places for lunch, which is a reputation associated with many summer law firm experiences. (Not that I would complain if people want to take me out to lunch. Or dinner, for that matter.) Having worked in the corporate world already, I know the benefits of working in settings where project resources aren’t in short supply and where entrepreneurship or hard work isn’t hindered by bureaucratic red tape. By working at Venable, I’m also looking forward to getting a healthy sampling of the DC legal and political scene. Six years ago I spent a summer interning on Capitol Hill, and I loved every minute of it: the dynamic politics, the substantive issues that I helped to tackle, and the history that reverberated around me as I walked through the Senate office buildings’ hallowed halls. This summer I plan on replicating some of those same feelings and experiences, through my work at the firm and through simply living in DC. I also plan on looking ahead and considering more seriously how I want to apply my law degree in the future, and whether DC is where I ultimately see myself. And who knows….maybe along the way I’ll be able to find a decent bowl of grits. DC is technically in the south after all.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Ace Glasner, Pet Detective

Someone has been stealing my newspaper.

During the week I read the New York Times and the Washington Post (both somewhat obsessively) online. However, I take a break from using the computer on Saturdays because of my Sabbath observance. I also think there's still something nostalgic about reading a hard copy of the newspaper. So, since I moved into the city 5 1/2 years ago, I've had the New York Times delivered to my imagined front stoop, i.e., downstairs in my apartment building by the mailboxes or in the hallway in front of my apartment door, on Saturdays and Sundays.

For the last six months, delivery to my front stoop has been spotty at best. Thanks to my almost-weekly phone calls complaining that my paper wasn't delivered, I'm now on a first name basis with the customer care managers at 1-800-NY-Times. The Times also has a sizeable computer file detailing my history of complaints, the notes sent to the delivery man with the exact location (down to the inches away from my apartment door) that the newspaper should be delivered each weekend, and a picture of me so everyone at the Times knows how good looking I am.

Due to a series of (un)fortunate events, however, my naive trust in the good behavior of all New Yorkers, especially the ones living in my apartment building, has sustained a severe hit. As I convalesced at home the day after my ear surgery, I had no activities on my normally busy social calendar except to receive visitors who were checking on my well being, to sleep, and to read the newspaper. Much to my chagrin, however, no paper was on my imagined front stoop when I woke up in the morning. After extensive conversations with my customer care friends at 1-800-NY-Times, I extracted a promise that the paper would never be mis-delivered again; a promise that was promptly broken when they failed to deliver a replacement paper that afternoon. (Fortunately that's not the main point of this story. It only gets better from here).

The next morning, my mother had the good fortune of running into the newspaper delivery man, Frank, at 6AM. Mom explained to Frank all the problems I'd been having and Frank promised he regularly delivered the paper at 6:30AM every Saturday and Sunday and that he couldn't understand what was going on. It took me 6 months of spotty delivery, a college degree and half a law school degree to suddenly realize that perhaps someone in my apartment building was stealing my paper.

Since I had a lot of time on my hands (and still have, as you can probably tell by this posting), I decided that this most serious discovery could not be taken sitting down. Catching a paper thief called for slick detective work, methodological analysis of all the evidence, a call to CSI if necessary and a healthy dose of good luck. Enter Ace Glasner, Pet Detective.

To confirm my hypothesis that someone had in fact been stealing my paper, the following Saturday morning I dragged myself out of bed at 6:30AM. The paper was indeed on my front stoop when I checked. After looking both ways in the hall to make sure nobody was looking, I grabbed the paper and within no more than 30 seconds (yes, I timed myself) had replaced it with the previous week's paper covered by two sections from that day's NY Times. The naked eye would be unable to tell that the paper in front of my apartment was not the real thing. Then, I went back to sleep.

Two hours later, having fully recovered from the heightened drama of my early morning activities, I woke up and went to check on the status of the decoy NY Times on my front stoop. Confirming my original hypothesis, the paper had vanished!! A thief was on the prowl in my apartment building!!

This discovery placed a severe dent in my trust of all my fellow tennants in the building. For the whole of the following week I couldn't help but suspect every neighbor I passed in the hall of being the guilty party. Did they have a motive? Opportunity? The guts to steal my paper???!

Further detective work was, of course, again called for, and Ace Glasner was ready to step up to the challenge. For the second consecutive Saturday morning I dragged myself out of bed at 6:30 and conducted the lightning fast switch that I had completed the previous week. This time, though, I attached a string to the bottom of the decoy paper and threaded it through the bottom of my apartment door. Then, instead of going back to sleep, like I had the previous week, I sat in a chair that I had placed right next to my door and held the string that was attached to the paper, waiting for the culprit to pounce. (While I was waiting I read the paper. Of course.) At the slightest sound from the other side of the door I was on my feet looking through the peephole and ready to catch the perpetrator red handed. I even had my camera nearby so I could collect hard evidence of the thief's actions when he or she tried to steal my paper.

Unfortunately, two hours later I had finished reading the paper. Only four people and two dogs had passed by my apartment door and no one even took a second glance at the decoy paper when they were walking by. This could mean that the perpetrator was scared off by the trick I played the previous week, and that she or he decided to retire from the paper stealing business. But it also means that the thief is still out there, lurking somewhere in my apartment building. This thought makes sleep difficult to come by for me these days. I'm only reassured knowing that there's always this upcoming weekend for Ace Glasner, Pet Detective to step up to the plate and help restore the trust I once had in the good behavior of my neighbors, co-tenants and fellow New Yorkers.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Rock the Vote

Hillary's campaign has recently called for the peoples' voices to be heard, and for their will to be known through online balloting, in order to make an extremely important decision. That's right, she needs help picking her campaign song.

Not to discount the seriousness of Hillary's decision, or the potential implications of the ultimate outcome for her campaign and for this country, but in the spirit of Hillary's difficult choice, I've started giving some thought to what song I would choose to represent my campaign if I ever run for public office. I've put the following list together. Since I haven't yet figured out how to run a proper vote on my blog, feel free to post your vote as a comment, or to send them to me directly. Other suggestions not included in this list are of course also welcome.

-Rocket Man (Elton John)
-I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) (The Proclaimers)
-Not Ready to Make Nice (Dixie Chicks)
-Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (Toby Keith) (only if I run as a Republican)
-The chorus of the title song to the Litttle Mermaid
-Estoy Aqui ("I'm Here") (Shakira)
-The Real Slim Shady (Eminem)
-Ready or Not (Jackson 5)
-Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares) (Travis Tritt)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Common Cents

My goal today is to try to solve one of the mysteries of life: why do completely rational individuals make irrational decisions? (Though it's tempting, this posting is not about why this country elected President Bush to a second term.) In the last few months, I've been made aware of two specific instances where people have voted to make decisions that make no objective sense and yet, have still prevailed. Why?

The first example that I'm thinking of took place a few weeks ago at the Manhattan Center for Science and Math (MCSM), which as a matter of disclosure is the high school where my brother teaches. Schools like MCSM that have a certain percentage of students below the poverty line are entitled to receive additional funding from the federal government, known as Title I funding. Though Title I funding is initially targeted to students who are considered academically "at risk" by the government, the school faculty can vote to apply the funds to the whole school instead of just the at-risk population. Besides the increased flexibility in deciding how the money is spent, switching to schoolwide funding for schools like MCSM, which have a high percentage of poor students but very few at-risk students, means that all of the Title I funds will be deployed by the school, instead of having to consider returning the unused portion of the funds back to the federal government.

The last three years, however, MCSM has done exactly that. A majority of the school faculty has voted to keep the Title I funding targeted to at-risk kids, and as a result the school has returned over $400,000 dollars to the federal government. This decision makes no sense on several levels. First, it turns away money that would directly benefit the students by providing additional resources. Second, in this case the teachers are acting in an economically inefficient manner because the funds would allow the school to hire new teachers and lower class size. Thus, by turning away some of the money, the teachers are increasing their own work load.

Another example of irrational decision making has been on display recently in Virginia's decision to extend the Washington area Metro to Tyson's Corner, an area that is now known as an extremely traffic congested office park, which also features two big malls. (Also as a matter of disclosure, my father works near Tyson's Corner). The main sticking point is whether to construct the rail line on an elevated track above ground, a la Chicago's El train, or to put the train line underground. On the face of it, the governor's decision to go with the former option contains at least some logic. Building above ground is cheaper by about $200 million and means the project would be finished a year earlier than if the train line was put underground. However, once you dig a little deeper (pardon the pun) it becomes clear that the decision, like the MCSM example above, makes no sense.

First, the vast majority of people involved in the project - citizens, developers, and public officials - favor building the tunnel. The governor stands almost alone in choosing to pursue the elevated track option. Second, the tunnel is cheaper in the long term because it costs less to maintain and will last longer than the elevated track. The tunnel option is also cheaper in the short term because it would allow the county to sell the air rights for buildings over the roadways near the proposed underground stations, which would help finance the construction costs. Lastly, the ultimate goals of extending the rail line is to eliminate the gridlock that has plagued Tyson's Corner over the last decade and to create a downtown pedestrian area so that Tyson's Corner becomes more than just an office park. Whether or not the city and state will ultimately succeed in this urban transformation is up for debate, however, everyone agrees that putting in an elevated train track will make it much harder to succeed because it will interfere directly with the county's ability to put in a pedestrian-friendly street grid.

The governor has defended his position by arguing that changing the plans to build the tunnel could jeopardize $900 million in federal funds that have been committed to the project. That argument doesn't explain why the tunnel option wasn't picked in the first place, before the federal funds were committed. And it also appears to be more of a threat than a reality. None of the numerous newspaper articles I've read on this issue provide any backup support for the governor's statements.

Now that I've hopefully made my case about why the decisions that were made in both of these examples represent irrational decisions by supposedly rational economic actors, the question remains why did these people make these decisions?

At MCSM, the underlying motivation behind the faculty vote was the pervasive adversarial culture that exists, particularly among the older teachers and those involved in the teacher's union, that leads them to oppose the school administration at all costs. Put another way, the teachers are willing to cut off their nose to spite their face in order to stick it to the school principal. Does this mean that the teachers are acting irrationally? I could frame their decision in rational terms: a majority of the teachers place a high value on challenging the administration and a low value on making decisions in the best interests of their school. So, they're willing to pay for their decision with an increased burden on themselves as long as it means that the administration suffers with them. Though this reasoning explains the teacher's motivations, it doesn't mean that they acted rationally, at least from an economist's point of view. The bottom line is that the teachers' decision costs all parties more in hard dollars and cents and is therefore economically inefficient.

In the Tyson's Corner example, the governor's decision can potentially be explained away by the fact that the contractor that "won" the no-bid contract to build the elevated track, Bechtel Infrastucture, is a political heavy weight in the state. (Sounds a little like Haliburton, no?) In this light, the governor's decision makes sense because it rewards an influential special-interest group. However, as an elected official, the governor's decision still appears irrational because he is acting in a countermajoritarian fashion by ignoring the majority of his constituents, who ulitmately will be responsible for keeping him in office when elections roll around.

The last fitting explanation I have for how common sense was thrown out the window in these decisions, is that individual decisions do not take place in a vacuum; rather, they are made in group contexts. Thus, people make bad choices because other people, who are often misguided themselves, exert pressure on them to go along for the ride. In other words, individuals lose the ability to think rationally for themselves and instead become followers. Adam Smith, the grandfather of capitalism, suggested that the "invisible hand" that guided group decisions should lead to a positive economic outcome. I'm not suggesting that capitalism is bad; on the contrary, I'm a firm believer in its values. However, based on the examples I've just described, and the countless others that I'm sure other folks can cite (including electing Bush for a second term!), Adam Smith's invisible hand doctrine does not always create a positive economic outcome.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Sun and the City

Summer (at least mine) has begun, and I figured no better way to start it off than with a survey of who was in my immediate vicinity while I was relaxing on Central Park's Great Lawn this afternoon at 2PM, in sunny 75+ degree weather. Almost made me think I was in California.

#1: This is the obvious one - about 5 mothers with their kids, all of whom were under the age of 2. Having a chance to stay home with the kids on a day like today must be a pleasure compared to most days. Not suprising, but definitely interesting that I didn't say any fathers around. I imagine they were at home preparing dinner so that their respective families could eat together when the moms got back from the park. Or something like that.

#2: A group of 15 high school kids came and sat nearby about 3PM, right after school got out. I don't think they all went to the same school, but they all appeared to come from similar backgrounds; that is, they were all caucasion and were fairly well off. At one point they bought 15 water bottles from the cart vendor nearby just so they could have a water fight. I felt like I was watching one of those moments that capture how New York City kids, especially privileged ones, are different from kids that grow up in other parts of the country. Plenty of kids have water fights, so it wasn't that. I can't exactly put my finger on it. Kids just seem to grow up faster here in Manhattan than elsewhere. Perhaps it's because most of them don't rely on carpools or yellow school buses to take them from home to school and back. By the time they're in middle school or the beginning of high school , school kids here take the buses and subways by themselves to get to where they want to. I wasn't able to go anywhere on my own until I got my driver's license, which was the end of sophomore year. Perhaps it's also because the whole city is the equivalent of these kids' school parking lot. Most schools in the city don't have a whole lot of room for kids to just sit in the grass, loiter around, etc. And going back home to apartments on a gorgeous spring day isn't an attractive option either. So, NYC kids hop on the bus and go to the park, or walk around different city blocks. And while they do that they see the 10 million different faces of New Yorkers; they see how people are always rushing around; they constantly suffer from sensory overload because of the noise of honking cars and buses squealing when they make a stop; the crowds of people that always materialize; and because of the smells of food carts, restaurants, cigarettes and more that all mix together. And by the time they go home at night they've done more and seen more than most kids growing up in the suburbs do in a month.

#3: The rest of the people I saw were folks that fall into the category of "I have no idea what you're doing here in the middle of the week, in the middle of the day when you could be somewhere else studying, earning some money with a paying job, or applying to places where you can earn some money through a paying job." Obviously, it's possible that some of the people in this category were indeed students or have jobs that allow them to go to the park in the middle of the day for a couple of hours. This group of people included two guys who came to catch a few rays and play some frisbee without their shirts on, not because the cloth would have prevented them from catching the frisbee but because they wanted to impress the two year old kids above referenced. One couple (as in boyfriend-girlfriend) was there with some towels and a couple of beers and looked like they really thought today was a Saturday or Sunday. Another couple (also boyfriend-girlfriend) was there who seemed so intent on getting a tan that they looked more interested in the sun than they were in each other. A bunch of other people were sitting on the lawn either by themselves or with others, just hanging out, reading books and enjoying the weather.

#4: It didn't really occur to me then, but in retrospect, I don't recall seeing any retirees hanging out in the vicinity. It's possible that they choose to get their tans at Sheeps Head meadow, a little farther south than I was. Or it's possible that they just weren't out today, or that I simply didn't see them. But maybe I'll see them tomorrow when, assuming it's nice out, I'll take my blanket to the park and read a book or play some frisbee or just take a nap. It is summer vacation after all.

Friday, May 04, 2007

'Ear Today, Gone Tomorrow.

By the time most people read this posting I'll be fast asleep on an operating table having surgery on my ear - the second stage in an operation that I first had exactly a year ago. When I wake up, however, I'll have had what I hope is the last operation on my ear for a long, long, long time. I'll also be done with the chronic infections that plagued my ear pretty much since 5th grade until last year, and as an added bonus will have drastically improved hearing, at least in the short term.

Though I wear a hearing aid, I don't really consider myself hearing impaired because my right ear works perfectly and I figure that's enough for the label not to apply to me. Nevertheless, whether I'm officially hearing impaired or not, the truth is that for the last fifteen years I have perfected the art of nodding with a smile pretending as if I heard the whole conversation I'm in the middle of having with the person standing across from me. I've gotten accustomed to quietly nudging my brother and saying "what?" when I'm in a group and don't hear someone talking and my brother is nearby. On the phone I'll speak much louder than most people unless I remind myself that not everyone has trouble hearing what I say. And if I can't hear what people are staying then I tend to just tune out, not necessarily the best habit to pick up for someone intereseted in politics. On the plus side I've also adapted to sleeping on my good ear, so I have no problem falling asleep in noisy situations. (Of course, that means that my alarm clock has to be set so loud that people sometimes mistake it for an air ride siren, most notably my college roommates.)

(On an unrelated note, if I had to pick hearing loss or eyesight loss as a condition that would effect me, I'd probably go with hearing loss. The main reason is that you can fall asleep wearing a hearing aid, but it seems like it's really annoying falling asleep wearing glasses or contacts in your eyes. If I had to choose between being profoundly deaf versus completely blind I would also go with the former option. Though both deaf individuals and blind individuals face social stigmatisms I think I appreciate the world more consistently through my sense of vision than through my sense of hearing.)

Anyway, I'll still have some hearing loss after tomorrow, but it will probably be nowhere near the severe loss that I now experience in my left ear. It's amazing what modern medical science can do. The thing I'm most curious about is what it will be like to reenter the world of hearing - where I'll hopefully be able to catch more of the sounds and voices that I've gotten used to just passing me by. But I guess I'll have to save what it feels like to hear better for a future posting, when and if I go from being hearing impaired to hearing mostly-un-impaired.

PS I'm not 100% sure how coherent what I just wrote is since I'm tired and I have to be up very soon. But I do like my subject heading.