Radix malorum est cupiditas

It seems I’ve been channeling the Bursar this evening.

Are you looking for a prestigious internship for your teenage child? Are you worried that, despite your best efforts to make Junior respectable in public, the interview skills aren’t quite where they need to be? Do you think s/he would benefit during a college admissions interview by referring to “that time [I] interned at an energy consultancy”?

You’re in luck!

My high school, Westminster School, is offering internships at auction as a means to raise funds for its capital building projects and its Bursary Programme. On offer are internships in retail, finance, law, energy, and consultancy, among others. Fabergé? No problem. Coutts Bank? Roll up! We can serve all your needs here.

Ok, you’re interested? Great! All I’ll need is for you to 1) cough up hundreds of Her Majesty’s Pounds Sterling (I know, I know, can you really put a price on your child’s future? It’s priceless, after all. But then again, in addition to being a self-evidently valuable life experience, why not show people how valuable these internships are by making them prohibitively expensive?), 2) be a “member of the Westminster Community, aged 18 or over, unless previously notified otherwise. This includes Parents, Former Parents, Old Westminsters, Staff and Former Staff.” After all, if you aren’t somehow attached to the School, your money clearly doesn’t have the same pretty lustre to it. Marvellous, I’m glad you understand.

What’s that, you say? There might be a problem of nepotism? Some people who might otherwise be qualified might not be able to participate in the auction?  And some pupils who are attending the School on the Bursary Programme (designed as similar to a need-based stipend) for which the auction is intended as a fundraiser might themselves struggle to afford the internships?

Nonsense!

The School has already issued a clear statement that such apprehensions are unwarranted:

The option of including work placements was raised early on by our donors, and in the end it was felt that as this had for some years been a common practice by other organisations and as the places offered would be in addition to, and not in place of, existing positions, we would go ahead.  Each work placement donor was asked if they would be willing to provide 2 places – one to be auctioned and one for the School to pass along to a pupil at one of our partner state schools – and some have chosen to do so. While these places have been created solely for the auction, we are hopeful that the businesses will be inspired to maintain these new positions and will openly recruit for candidates going forward.

Fine, fine, I suppose that statement wasn’t entirely convincing for all involved. I suppose that the fact that one high-profile bank has withdrawn its internship offer in response to the bad publicity (Exhibits A, B, and C) means that we can’t please everyone. But look, at least the School has had a dedicated commitment to social mobility in the past, yes? Surely this doesn’t set back all the positive gains that have been made thus far? I really don’t think Nick Clegg’s vocal opposition to internship culture in the past has anything to do with it. Nor does it matter that he went to Westminster. Or that he acquired an internship through nepotism himself.

[Calls off, stage right]

Junior, remind me: what is it you said you wanted to be when you grow up? A lawyer, eh? Yes, yes, don’t worry. Daddy will take care of it.

Breaking character: No, I won’t be giving them money — for an auction or as part of alumni giving — until I’m convinced they have their act together.

EDIT: On reflection, the title of the post is rather OTT. But it was ringing in my ears, in the voice of my English teacher from Westminster, when I read about the auction.

Another Peculiarity of British Politics

An American friend who favours abolishing the UK House of Lords suggested a blistering public awareness campaign revealing that “It’s archaic, filled with eccentrics, and brimming with peculiar rituals and quaint customs”. He was disappointed to learn that such a message would be taken as a ringing endorsement of the institution by most British people.

Among the cherished and likely everlasting peculiarities of British politics is that Members of Parliament are not allowed to resign. What to do then when someone, for example Louise Mensch, wants to quit mid-term?

No worries. Flip open your law book to the three centuries old Act of Settlement and the solution is as plain as pikestaff. A member of parliament may not accept a remunerative office from The Sovereign. One therefore need only appoint the MP to some obscure sinecure, which effects removal from parliamentary office.

Congratulations therefore to Ms. Mensch, the new Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead.

Here by the way is a charming 1949 postcard photo of Peasholm Lake in Yorkshire, underneath which the Manor of Northstead is believed to be buried.

The World’s Most Boring Museums

I was working in Lebanon this week, and did some tourism on the break periods. This included a visit to the Museum of Soap. It was a finely constructed building and, as one would expect, a very clean one. I learned how soap is made, shaped and stamped. I even saw some sculptures made of soap bars!

The only question in my mind was whether this was the most boring museum I had ever seen. Upon reflection, it’s not. It’s third place. I am going to put the ones I consider higher ranking here and am asking all museum-going readers to add their own nominations.

Second most boring museum in the world, IMHO: The Pencil Museum in the Lake District. Every wonder why a Number 2 pencil is called a Number 2 pencil? How they make erasers? What this whole lead vs. graphite distinction really means? Me either, but I learned all these answers and more at the Pencil Museum. The British friend who took me says that it is because it is so boring and strange that it is so great, and as a result he goes every year. Once will hold me for this lifetime.

The MOST boring museum, which doesn’t even have the redeeming weirdness of the Pencil Museum, is in my view the Museum of Cork in Palafrugell, Spain. This part of the costa has to compete with warmer stretches down south, and every city on it must compete for tourists with each other. Hence, the city fathers came up with a real corker: A museum devoted to the history and creation of corks of all sorts. Cork boards, bottle stoppers and those little pads that stop the chair legs from scraping the wood floor are all here for you to enjoy. A siesta writ large for the whole family.

Your own nominations please…

Of Rampaging Ligers, Molasses Floods and Exploding Lakes

State Senator Troy Balderson is proposing restrictions on ownership of exotic animals. He is reacting to a terrible tragedy in which an apparently disturbed man who collected wild animals released them and then committed suicide. To protect the public, the authorities had to shoot some rare Bengal tigers and other innocent, magnificent beasts.

I am confident that with this law passed, such an incident will not recur. However, I am also confident that it won’t recur if the law isn’t passed, and, that irrespective of whether it passes or not, something equally awful and weird that has nothing to do with exotic animals will happen in the future.

It is difficult to accept that bizarre and heartbreaking things happen. Mass death is frightening; even moreso when it seems so strange and unlooked for.

In Boston in 1919, 21 people lost their lives due to a molasses flood. In 1986, a lake in Cameroon erupted, releasing a massive cloud of carbon dioxide that suffocated 1700 people. In both cases, people scrambled to prevent a recurrence (a lawsuit about defective molasses tanks in Boston, some underwater carbon dioxide draining experiments in Cameroon).

That human beings have the impulse to prevent “the next one” is part of the settled order of nature and therefore not to be bemoaned. But by definition the next completely unpredictable tragedy is one that none of us can conceive of, or prevent, right now. We just have to go through life hoping that we will not be ravaged by a marauding liger, drowned in a sea of molasses, or strangled by an exploding lake.

Dreaming of the State

This past Sunday, I flew home to Los Angeles from Thanksgiving with my relatives in Montreal (actually, it was a bat mitzvah since Canadian Thanksgiving occurred six weeks ago but you get the idea).  The Sunday after Thanksgiving is the busiest flying day of the year, with millions of passengers criss-crossing the country.  And I had to connect through O’Hare, the second busiest airport in the world.  I was dreading the experience, and half-expected to be stranded in Chicago on Sunday night.

And nothing happened.  The flight into Chicago was fine; the flight out of Chicago was fine.

And as far as I can tell, the same thing happened in thousands of flights all over the nation.  Flights were generally on-time arriving and departing, despite rainy and cloudy weather conditions.

Now, I don’t know how this occurred.  Airports run by state and local governments and regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration all coordinated tens of thousands, if not millions of different activities, events, and flights throughout the United States.

But…but…we all know that this just isn’t possible, because the government is invariably inefficient, incompetent, corrupt, slow, bureaucratic, and completely incapable of nimbly managing these millions of transactions and activities, unlike the private sector.  (That’s why it’s so great that the Republicans want to cut the FAA’s budget).  There is simply no way that any of this could have happened.  I really have no idea how I got home from Montreal.

So at this point I’m figuring that I must have dreamed up the whole thing.

Why I Could Never Be An Entrepreneur

A Saturday Night Live sketch from the late 1970’s featured a store that only sold Scotch tape.  Not tape — only Scotch tape.  Then, when the economy went bad, the sketch said that the store did well because everyone needed Scotch tape for their “Going Out Of Business” signs.

It was a pretty funny sketch; how ridiculous to only have a Scotch tape store! 

Well, the last laugh’s on me: around the corner from my house is a franchise of a hair salon chain that proudly announces that it does not cut hair.  It does not style hair.  It does not wash hair.  It dries hair.  That’s it: it blow-dries your hair.  For $35.

I’m suppose that there is something deeply non-ridiculous about this, although I can’t imagine what it is.  Maybe I’m not sufficiently in touch with my feminine side.  Or, as the post’s title suggests, I just have no entrepreneurial sense because I can’t understand why anyone would pay $35 for someone to blow dry their hair.

Or maybe it’s just that some people have too much money.

Candide meets leverage

Ian Ayres to indebted graduates: buy stocks on margin!

You are a recent Chicago graduate, and you left college with outstanding student loans of $50,000. You have savings of $10,000. What’s the best use of them?
Here is seriously meant advice from Dr Pangloss Ian Ayres of Freakanomics fame:

Most young college and professional school graduates have amassed significant student loans, and many more take on home mortgages. But Barry [Nalebuff] and I now believe that many of these savers would be wise to expose themselves to leveraged stock risk rather than merely use any savings to pay down existing debt.

What can I add to this?

  • On your second date with someone you really like, use your margin investing to illustrate your financial acumen.
  • If the investments go sour, and Enzo and Igor come calling from the debt collectors, remind them civilly but firmly that you can’t get out of your student loans by bankruptcy.

Commenters are invited to offer further advice to young Candide.

On the Seven Deadly Sins and Relative Preferences

The Seven Deadly Sins aren’t very deadly — and that’s a very good thing if you’re in the public policy business.

Apologies to Andy Rooney, but have you ever noticed that none of the Seven Deadly Sins are particularly bad?  Think about it.  The Seven Deadly Sins are (in no particular order): Anger, Greed, Envy, Lust, Gluttony, Sloth, and Pride.  All of us have large dollops of them.  Maybe that’s why they are considered deadly: we have them, and we die, and thus these are the Seven Deadly Sins.  But that seems too pat.

If we were really serious about bad character, I’d replace at least three of them with: Cruelty, Deceit, and Malice.  Perhaps I run with a particularly good crowd, but none of the people I know have any of these really in more than negligible amounts.  In any event, these three are far worse than the traditional Seven.

Now, maybe the whole point of the Seven Deadly Sins is that they are so normal — they are our “ordinary vices,” a phrase that Montaigne coined in his essay “On Cannibals.”  They eat away at our character because they are part of our everyday existence, and before we know it, we are terrible people.  That makes sense.  In other words, it is their very mildness that makes them so devastating.

I couldn’t help thinking about this upon finishing Bob Frank’s wonderful book Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class.  Bob has been writing for years about “positional goods,” that is, goods whose value depends upon on how much of the good other people have.  The classic example is that lots of people would rather have a $200,000 house when everyone else has a $150,000 house, instead of a $300,000 house when everyone else has a $400,000 house.  In Falling Behind, Bob is at pains to show how this is not the result of that Deadly Sin, Envy: people want houses priced relatively highly not because they are envious or snobbish, but rather because this means they will be in better school districts.  Reality is not Lake Wobegon: not every child can be above average, and so everyone wants to be in the highest cohort.

All true.  But it seems to me odd that the central critique of the theory of positional goods and relative preferences is essentially, “we can’t have public policy cater to people’s Envy, because Envy is bad.”  Virtually the entire classical theory of economics supports policies that appeal to people’s Greed: they will produce more if you pay them more for it.  I find Bob to be completely persuasive that taking account of positional goods is not about Envy, but if it is, so what?  They don’t call it the dismal science for nothing.  And if you object to any public policy that caters to the Seven Deadly Sins, that doesn’t leave you with many arrows in your quiver.

Last thing: I was first introduced to the Seven Deadly Sins by, of all things, the Muppet Show.  The Muppet Show’s 1974 pilot, “Sex and Violence,” featured the “Seven Deadly Sins” competition.  Midway through the show, a Muppet appeared to Kermit and told him that she was “Leafy Green Vegetables.”  After some confusion, Kermit explained that she wanted the Seven Main Food Groups competition down the hall.  Then Lust started chasing after Leafy Green Vegetables.  All good fun.