Monthly Archives: January 2014

Jan 9-25, Monteleone Sabino at Ozu farm

[I plan to write a different post for every farm I visit. More than going to Italy, I’m visiting small parts of people’s lives for 2-4 weeks each. Volunteering through farming is a very different way to ‘travel’ because you worry about money way less, you live with locals, you can treat it as an apprenticeship, and you actually have a relationship with the food you consume, instead of having a typical tourist restaurant experience and seeing sights. The only sights I want to experience are people, for the most interesting thing I have ever done is get to know another person — and I suppose that will always be the case.

I fully expect every farm and family to be different, which makes more sense than trying to make any generalizations about “Italians” as a whole. So I cannot really answer the question “So, how was Italy?”; therefore I apologize in advance 🙂 I find the more I get to know people, the less I can make any final conclusions about them… the more we know, the less we judge; the less we judge, the more we live… ]

***

From Jan 9-25, I was in Monteleone Sabino, working at Ozu Cultural Centre (www.ozu.it)

It’s very easy to fall in love with the olive tree.

carismatica

carismatica

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the field where we work.

Before I realized it, I was swept up, lulled, enchanted — enraptured by her branches, her succulent olives and her graceful leaves. Yes, I believe in the olive tree, and I would be honored to care for her — for better or for worse, through sickness or health — even though she doesn’t need me. But maybe that is what love is: to love them without feeling the need to possess them, without being jealous when they love — or are loved — by others at the same time, for,

“there is more self-love than love in jealousy” – La Rouchefoucauld, Maximes, 324

Monteleone Sabino (‘mount of lions’, ~60 km east of Rome) is quite the quaint mountain town. The houses next to where I am are mostly stone-hewn cabins with chimney and sheds, most situated next to their own olive groves and vineyards. Wild herbs are not hard to find: my hosts pick rosemary,

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bay leaves, chili peppers, and various berries in the spring. When we have to go into the town to buy something, we talk of going “down to the village”.

the view from somewhere

This town was very isolated for centuries, as a road connecting it to another town was just built only in 1970. Before that, there was just one gravel road, that farmers used to get from town to town, by mule, which took around 6 or 7 hours to reach the end of. So, yeah, barriers can enclose us in bubbles if we let them. The surrounding towns share similar fates, so every region has its own distinct character, pride, cuisine, and dialect.

You can see a large swath of the Apennines, the mountain range that runs down the middle of Italy, from my bedroom window, as the fog sweeps over, and snow blankets the summits (when it rains here, there’s snow up there). It’s all very idyllic, really — even more so than you’d imagine. The winds are robust and howling, but the best part is all the birds that you can only find here in the mountains. How they maintain such a magnificent chorus through the entire day is beyond me. Davvero, che fortuna.

It’s almost depressing how difficult it is to capture the natural beauty — the many-sided beauty that you can feel, see and hear — of Monteleone Sabino; no matter how expensive the camera is, some moments and landscapes simply refuse to be captured, even as you beg otherwise.

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romance

i’m not convinced this picture is real

Yet, the desire to capture moments may be totally misguided in itself: the camera can easily prevent us from living in the present, as we try to bottle up the past. Can you even imagine a world without photos? Whether traveling or at a big life event, everyone wants to see the pictures. It almost seems that if you did something and didn’t take photos, it didn’t really happen. “Did you document it?” Everyone else wants to share the experience with you and you want to bottle it up for yourself — which is fine, but a world without photos is well worth imagining, if only because it did once exist, and still does for “primitive” tribes everywhere.

**Do photos make it impossible to live in the present?** (… as I drown in irony…)

Why not just stare and appreciate? I frequently enter spiritual raptures, and feel I can’t fully appreciate certain trees, dragonflies, bees, or pinecones — even after I’ve stared at them for hours. And believe me, I’ve tried. — And I will keep trying, because who ever succeeds at fully appreciating their mother(s)?

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what i see when i wake up

l'amore di nuovo

l’amore di nuovo

***

My hosts are Enrico Blasi and Paolo Simoni, and Ettore, their 6 year old who drags me to watch Kung Fu Panda, Storia del Giocattolo (Toy Story), and I Puffi (he’s obsessed with the smurfs). They regularly hosts artists and writers at their place, a cultural centre where they hold art and cooking classes in the summer. Tracy and Christina, my fellow volunteers were great, too, and it was a privilege to get to know them, and I hope we keep in touch.

i miei amici nuovi

i miei amici nuovi

christina toughing it out

christina toughing it out

Here is their description of the farm:

“We have 3,5 hectares of land with 350 olive trees, fruit trees and a vineyard, 60 km from Rome. The land is very steep in places and has been abandoned and is therefore overgrown with blackberries. Help needed with clearing, maintenance and with pruning the olives and vines. The woodland needs clearing… Meals are sometimes organic but are principally made using local produce, and we buy from farmers and the supermarket. We collect wild vegetables and fruit.” ( paraphrased)

We’ve had some interesting conversations so far: concerning different interpretations of original sin, ideological differences between America and Western Europe (someone said, “America has the very best and the very worst of the West”), the distinct cultural and linguistic differences between regions in Italy (it’s really like a bunch of small city-states, similar to India, where every region has its own flavors of cuisine and dialect), and why Monsanto is ruining the world, and i fascisti nuovi in some parts of Italia and many, many more…. If I could list them all, they wouldn’t nearly be interesting enough!

The 6 cats (hard to catch them all at once) gather for warmth most mornings, as they leer at Balu bothering them.

molto freddo

molto freddo

leering

leering

They (not the cats :p) patiently correct my Italian, and I help them with English (though they need less help than me). Even though I understand very little, it’s so useful to just sit there and listen to the intonations and inflections of the language. Accent means so much, especially in Italian. A little Italian goes a long way, and actually trying to make legitimate conversation beyond basic etiquette and ‘standard phrases’ is totally unexpected. It really opens up people who would otherwise treat me as just another tourist (American tourists are notorious for not trying to speak the other language), even if I stumble over trivialities and sound like a total dunce (which I always do). We say we don’t want to learn a language unless we can use it[1], but I really think it’s because we don’t want to look ignorant and awkward, as we are reduced to communicating solely by gestures and facial expressions, and constantly trip over subtleties that are so obvious to the native.

Pride goes before destruction, the Scripture says, and the fear and failure of learning something new is the classic example. We collect excuses in our closets, some have grown stronger over time as we’ve rearranged and redecorated them for new and improved cases, while others sport cobwebs as we’ve matured past them. Or maybe some lose their savor because the situation which supported them has changed, and not us?

“When our vices leave us we flatter ourselves with the idea that we have left them” [La Rouchefoucauld, Maximes, 192]

— and usually we manage to be proud of our excuses, as if they were born from logic, and not cowardice. As if our excuses were always won with hard-earned effort, and were last resorts when we have tried everything we could. I mean, really, what is the difference between an excuse and a reason? [2] Clear questions rarely get clear answers, while unclear questions get none. Certainty dies a thousand deaths, but only if we are honest. I’ve seen people keep certainty on life support; for them, it is more important that certainty live than they flourish.

****

Food

“Oil” here always means olive oil, and we put on everything, which is great for two reasons: healthy and great taste. The olive oil is so good it’s absurd: aroma, texture, etc; I truly felt spoiled and indulgent.  Il pranzo (lunch) is usually some variation on pasta, zuppa o i panini (panino is singular) — and lunch is almost always an event, to say the least. We picked wild broccoletti (totally unrelated to broccoli) for lunch and had guests over. We had espresso before lunch, wine during, scotch after, then another espresso. “Lunch” was from 2-7pm. Lunch at someone else’s house was from 1-6.

In Italiano, “pizza” refers to the style of bread that is prepared, irrespective of what is put on it. I’ve had pizza with le patate e il rosmarino, or with nothing but l’olio d’oliva e salsa di pomodori on it — no cheese or “toppings”.

The main antipasto throughout the day is freshly baked pane con olio e sale. Sometimes we soak fresh chili pepper in the oil, which gives a reddish, succulent hue. Wine is always there as an drink option, so now I’ve had wine for lunch every day, which in the states would be considered irresponsible and eccentric, if not downright alcoholic.

Fruit is the typical dessert: tangerines, mandarins, blood oranges, apples. My kind of people.

On a Saturday, they laid out a big block of wood on the table, spread polenta on it, then poured tomato sauce, sausage, and other meats on it, then gave everybody a fork, then “Cin cin!” (Cheers). That was the Southern style of polenta, then we had Northern style the next day of mixing it all together and eating like porridge.

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Paola laughed when I called this “corn on wood”

pouring the sauce on

pouring the sauce on

Also, I eat a lot of pepper (by my host’s standards), so they laugh at me. We grind the peppercorns by hand with something that resembles a small cudgel (a baby version of the one Cain used to kill Abel) and stone chalice.

the intimate process of grinding pepper with a cudgel

the intimate process of grinding pepper with a cudgel

Work:

The farm mainly produces olive oil, some they sell, but most for themselves. Lesser crops are wine, vinegar, various fruits.

Picking olives is quite peaceful and fulfilling. The raw olives are not usually eaten, but can be, and are spicy and bitter; the flavor is not at all what you would expect. They taste nothing like olives on American pizza or salad; I brought up the subject of olives in America and my hosts laughed with derision. With ebullient contempt, Enrico describes American pizza as ‘something on top of something else’.

If the olives are not pressed immediately for oil, they are cured. Curing the olives is a way to make them edible by placing them in salt for ~20 days to drain the bitterness, and then soaking them in olive oil, in a tightly sealed jar.

Pruning, the strategy of removing and shaping branches to alleviate the task of picking, is more of an art than a science. 50 different people can prune the same tree in 50 different ways, and they can all be “right”. Pruning is also related to health of the tree and quality of the oil, but mainly is done to make the picking process easier. At its best, pruning is a highly strategic and refined process that takes a while to get used to, because it seems counterintuitive: you’re killing parts of the tree to make it healthier. It seems another case of humans doubting that nature has its own intelligence. — But as I have more experience with it, I learn more about it, so I will keep an open mind.

I used a shovel to dump our firewood ashes around each of the trees. Apparently, forest fires are a natural occurrence, and have been discovered to increase plant and animal diversity through regenerating the soil — so we pour ashes as fertilizer to imitate nature. It seemed weird, but it made sense.

***

How some tried to talk me out of this:

I was warned repeatedly that “farm work” would be tedious labor that I would quickly become bored with. I needed a higher quality of intellectual work to sustain my brain! Farming is not for the illustrious ‘Stanford’ graduate! I shouldn’t sell myself short! I deserve better! (And obsession with money and social status hovers in the background of all these retorts and concerns). I don’t know what I want to do as a career, but it’s telling how many people seem repulsed and startled by the idea that farming would even be considered as a worthwhile career choice. We have so little regard for those who produce our food because most of us have no knowledge or experience concerning the process — we just want the result. We treat our food like we treat our internet browsing: we want a friendly and seamless user experience with little regard to who makes that experience, and how they work their magic. We want our food affordable and in a convenient location down the street, but we can’t (or don’t want to or know how to) grow it ourselves — the local supermarket has many of us in a chokehold, unless we can afford the farmers’ market.

In a way, knowing everything you can about your food is so basic, because your diet literally makes and sustains your body. Only the healthy are rich.

What a tired, false distinction between types of labor: that physical labor is less skilled than labor that pays well and needs a ‘degree’. Nearly all physical labor is consistently degraded as ‘unskilled’ labor, and farming is no exception. Sustainable and organic agriculture, for yourself or as a business, requires an extraordinary amount of strategy and patience: so much can go wrong, and you have to foresee all of it, or bear the brunt of the consequences — just like any other highly-touted, well-paid job.

On the contrary, the work is rewarding and stimulating. And even when the days are rough and long, it’s such a bonus to be outside in the fresh air. My body may be exhausted, but being outdoors and doing work that matters is a great combination.  And what could matter more than food? Work for food — not for money to buy food, but work directly for food — is the only essential work there is. — And so there is nothing more important than the quality of our food and the relationship we have with it.

***

On a side note, Balu is having a terrible day:

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So, yeah, I miss this place and the people, and already thinking about returning.

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Next? I’m going north to Tuscany region, but I am in Roma from 1/26-2/1.

Tell me your thoughts.

[1] Since when did practicality mean so much? Everyone enjoys things that are “useless”. But enjoying is the point! Usefulness is only useful in moderation.

[2] Maybe, the difference is that an excuse is something that neither party accepts as a valid reason. And we only concern ourselves with our excuses for failures and not successes, which, tangentially, reminds of something Mill said, “… success discloses faults and infirmities that failure might have concealed from observation…”

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Vergara v. California: The Agendas, the Facts, and Recommendations for California Law

Ted Boutros believes corporations that destroy lives with reckless policies should suffer minimal financial penalties in court.  Boutros’s partner, Marcellus McRae, proudly defends white-collar criminals.  Eli Broad pretended to support Proposition 30, a ballot initiative designed to prevent massive cuts to public education, while secretly funding the No on 30 movement.  All three of these individuals and the rest of their well-funded legal team, however, hope their deployment of nine California students as the listed plaintiffs in Vergara v. California will convince a judge that they care about the plight of low-income children.  Their narrative self-serving and convenient, they argue that the massive income inequality they actively exacerbate has nothing to do with the achievement gap, that it is instead “grossly ineffective teachers” who ruin poor kids’ lives.

The original complaint in Vergara, filed on May 14, 2012, contains a number of factual errors.  As one example, the plaintiffs contend that “schools that serve predominantly minority and economically disadvantaged populations…have a disproportionate share of grossly ineffective teachers” when their own expert for the trial, Raj Chetty, has acknowledged since that “the quality of teaching…does not differ substantially across schools.”  In addition, the research summaries and numbers the complaint presents are rife with the type of statistical misinterpretation and manipulation I’ve discussed previously.  Unfortunately, far too many people who care about low-income students have fallen for the plaintiffs’ inaccurate narrative and support their efforts in Vergara.

The case challenges three aspects of teacher employment law in California’s Ed Code: permanent status (commonly referred to as tenure), the teacher dismissal process, and seniority-based layoffs (commonly referred to as LIFO, which stands for “last in, first out”).  Elements of all these laws need improvement, but education “reformers” have frequently misled the public about their purpose and propose changes unlikely to improve teacher quality.  An analysis of each policy, the rationale behind it, and a more sensible revision proposal reveal that the agenda in this case is more about dismantling employee workplace protections than it is about improving the lives of low-income students.

Permanent Status (Tenure)

Current Law: Teachers begin their employment with a school district with probationary status.  The school district must decide, by March 15 of a teacher’s second school year, whether or not to grant the employee permanent status.  Before that point the district may non-reelect (fire) a probationary teacher without having to provide a specific reason.  “Permanent status” is actually a misnomer because teachers with permanent status aren’t permanently guaranteed a job; teachers who have been granted permanent status are only afforded due process rights when an administrator deems them unfit to teach.  Teachers with permanent status may be dismissed (fired) if they are unwilling or unable to address an administrator’s stated concerns.

Current Law’s Rationale: Tenure was originally established at the university level to ensure academic freedom – granting academics tenure enabled them to pursue research without fear of political retribution from major donors.  California’s permanent status statute was likewise adopted to safeguard teachers from arbitrary firings.  California Teachers Association (CTA) members, over the course of the organization’s history, have fallen victim to dismissals based on nepotism, political patronage, political bias, racism, sexism, personal vendettas, a desire to replace higher-salaried teachers with lower-salaried replacements, and other capricious reasons unrelated to a teacher’s ability to effectively educate students.  Teachers with permanent status can advocate for the interests of their students and teach potentially controversial topics like evolution without fear of retribution from school or district administration or parents.  Since principal turnover is also fairly common, permanent status can prevent a short-term administrator from drastically overhauling a staff, an important protection for students given the negative impact teacher turnover has on student outcomes.

How to Improve the Law: As the plaintiffs’ note, probationary teachers can sometimes secure permanent status after “a cursory performance evaluation, or sometimes none at all.”  That statement, however, is an indictment not of permanent status, but of both teacher evaluation practices and administrator incompetence.  Instead of ending permanent status, California should adopt the type of comprehensive teacher evaluation system, supported by teachers unions, that provides meaningful feedback to teachers, helps support ineffective teachers in addressing growth areas, and trains administrators on how to give productive feedback.  The legislature should then consider changing the timelines for permanent status.  When a district remains on the fence about a probationary teacher after two years, the district should be allowed to extend the probationary period an extra year.  And if a probationary teacher has a well-documented, amazing first year, that teacher should have the opportunity to earn permanent status early.

The Dismissal Process

Current Law: If a school district deems a teacher ineffective, the district must provide the employee with “written notice of the unsatisfactory performance [and 90 days] to correct his or her faults.”  Should the employee’s performance remain unsatisfactory following these 90 days, the school district must give the employee notice of its intent to dismiss the employee.  The employee may then request a hearing with the school board and, if desired afterwards, a subsequent hearing before a Commission on Professional Competence.  The Commission’s decision may be appealed to higher courts.

Current Law’s Rationale: The requirement that school districts provide employees with the opportunity to improve performance before potential hearings extends the 14th Amendment’s due process requirements.  But when someone is accused of doing something wrong, especially someone who has received at least two years of satisfactory evaluations from the same employer, that person should have the opportunity to hear the accusation, address it, and have a neutral party evaluate the accusation’s legitimacy.

How to Improve the Law: Incompetent and/or poorly-intentioned professionals exist in every profession and teaching is no exception.  All self-respecting teachers and unions believe colleagues who sleep during class or otherwise ignore students should be dismissed.  The plaintiffs surprisingly acknowledge, though, that these situations are anomalous: “the majority of teachers in California are providing students with a quality education” and even “grossly ineffective teachers [are often] well-intentioned.”  Not only is it unethical to fire well-intentioned people without giving them the opportunity to improve, teacher turnover, as mentioned above, is bad for students.  The focus of reform efforts, therefore, should be on teacher support initiatives like instructional coaching first and dismissal processes second.

That said, the dismissal process takes far too long and involves a plethora of potential appeals that can prove costly for both unions and districts.  To streamline dismissal of a teacher unable or unwilling to improve after provided with ample support, the evidence of both the teacher’s unsatisfactory performance and the support provided to help the teacher improve could be presented directly to a state oversight panel, similar to the current Commission on Professional Competence, consisting of three teachers and three administrators.  For the dismissal to move forward, a majority of both the teacher and administrator members of the panel would need to approve it.  The panel’s decision would not be subject to appeal.  Such a system would preserve due process, maintain the employer’s responsibility to help support struggling veteran employees, and reduce the timeline and cost of dismissing truly ineffective teachers.

Seniority-Based Layoffs (LIFO)

Current Law: When a district faces budget cuts and decides to reduce the number of teachers as a result, it is bound by the following section of Ed Code:

[The] services of no permanent employee may be terminated…while any…other employee with less seniority…is retained…[However,] a school district may deviate from terminating a certificated employee in order of seniority [if the] district demonstrates a specific need for personnel to teach a specific course or course of study…or to provide services [for which a] certificated employee has special training and experience…which others with more seniority do not possess.

Current Law’s Rationale: Though the exception for cases in which the district “demonstrates a specific need” is notable, the main benefits to seniority-based layoffs are the predictability and stability they provide for both employees and students.  While teacher experience correlates to some degree with effectiveness, this policy is the least sensible of those challenged in Vergara v. California.

How to Improve the Law: Most new teacher evaluation systems currently rely on unreliable and invalid student test score data and are thus inaccurate indicators of teacher effectiveness.  While seniority also fails to capture teacher effectiveness accurately, we should not replace one faulty system with another.  Instead, legislators should develop budget mechanisms that prevent teacher layoffs.  At the same time, legislators should implement the type of comprehensive, thorough teacher evaluation system discussed above and apply it when layoffs are inevitable.

The beginning of the first sentence regarding the dismissal statute in the plaintiffs’ original complaint reveals the true motive behind their opposition to these policies: “Unlike employees of private companies, public employees in California must be afforded certain due process rights.”  Since the large corporations represented by Boutros’s and McRae’s firm frequently underpay workers and illegally fire employees, these corporations view due process and other worker protections anywhere as a threat to exorbitant corporate profits everywhere.  They hope their ostensible compassion for students (some of whom were likely recruited by cold-calling TFA corps members; a 2010 TFA alum and friend of mine was called to see if he could recommend any students for the lawsuit) will provide cover for their overt attempt to undermine organized labor.

Opening arguments in the 20-day Vergara v. California trial began in downtown Los Angeles on Monday, January 27.  The plaintiffs have asked the court to act in the best interests of low-income students; Judge Rolf Treu should do so by rejecting the plaintiffs’ deceptive arguments and ruling in favor of the state of California.  Legislators should then work with teachers unions to enact evidence-based reforms that empower teachers to continue to hone their craft and improve their students’ lives.

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On Becoming a Bat

I have volunteered in almost a dozen hospitals and clinics on both coasts, worked thousands of hours in the ER, and I’ve been exposed to the hospital setting for just over a decade. But January 24th 2014 was the first time I was there on the other side of healthcare.

I was out to dinner with my girlfriend of over seven years, Amanda, and a med school friend of ours at a little restaurant around the corner from our apartment in Philly. While we were discussing the motivation and the merits of entering the field of dermatology, Amanda turned to me and calmly said that her face was tingling, pointing to her right cheek. Although Amanda has a long history of migraines this was an unusual presentation. As she was describing the sensation the right side of her mouth was drooping in a manner that I will never forget. Her eyebrows curled up towards each other as if to do the expressing of the fear that her brain and mouth couldn’t do for her–something’s wrong and I don’t know what it is. The look cannot be replicated without actually having facial paralysis, and it is the physical manifestation of a neurological haywire. I tried to remember my EMT training and go through the quick physical exam of a possible stroke patient, but we were in a busy restaurant and I could only ask what I believed to be the most obvious questions that came to mind. After about 15 seconds Amanda’s facial droop subsided and she reported her tingling was gone. Luckily we had already paid the check and we were on our way out after bundling up.

As we stepped outside into the 10 degree chill, we knew we were about the same distance away from two different ERs, and actually had the opportunity to choose. Amanda then thought that she should contact her insurance provider to see which hospital would be most appropriate. The fact that this even enters someone’s thought process during a possible emergency is a sad testament to how ingrained debt and healthcare pervade the American public’s consciousness. Amanda instead decided to call her mom, a nurse at one of the hospitals, and she said to just walk to the closest one, which we did.

Upon registering, Amanda and I sat in the clean, quiet, waiting room for a short while until Amanda’s name was called in for triage. Even though I know that patients that exaggerate their symptoms tend to get seen by the doctor sooner, I was hesitant to advise Amanda to embellish hers, because I somehow felt like this is insider knowledge and “tampering” with the doctor-patient relationship. If Amanda didn’t currently have dizziness or tingling I didn’t want her to lead the doctors on a breadcrumb trail of false symptoms so that she can be seen before other patients. She said that she felt like she may have had a stroke, an honest and serious enough problem that would garner immediate attention. After being sent back to the waiting room again, Amanda was called into a “multi-patient room” which I was not allowed access to. Sitting in the waiting room with a loved one not 100 feet away behind giant doors and a giant security guard and having no information as to when I’ll be able to see her or ask her how she’s feeling was absolute torture.

Having limited knowledge on what the possible causes for stroke-like symptoms are, the worst case scenario always runs through your mind. Trying to keep composure in front of Amanda and even claiming that it’s, “surely not that big a deal if it came and went so quickly”, it is much harder to be confident in what modest clinical skills you have when you are isolated. Having waited over an hour with no news on what the upcoming steps are regarding treatment, the only thing between me and insanity is a shitty TNT or TBS or FX movie with the sound off in the waiting room. I finally received a text from Amanda (I had been texting her asking for updates), telling me to go home and feed the cat because she saw the Resident who would be getting the Attending Physician and that it could be “a while”. I took the opportunity to get some fresh air and walk home (we only live a few blocks away) to gather some things that Amanda might want for a long night…and to feed the cat.

Walking back alone around 11pm on the icy streets, a light snowfall began and somehow made Amanda’s diagnosis even more dire in my mind and me feel more isolated and desperate for answers. How could a healthy 28-year-old who doesn’t have any risk factors suddenly develop partial paralysis out of the blue? Was it a brain tumor, a TIA, does something even more serious exist that I just haven’t learned about yet? Should we have rushed right to the ER, were precious moments wasted when we were weighing the pros and cons of our next move? My thoughts turned toward taking care of her if need be. Would this be a longterm thing? If I had to leave school is it even possible to just take a semester off? Would I have to decide to leave immediately or do I get some time, and who do I contact about this anyway? Perhaps my selfishness was getting the best of me, but every scenario concocted pushed me deeper and deeper into this hole of responsibility that I didn’t know how to get a grasp of. I reached the apartment, gathered my backpack, threw in our phone chargers, brought a book to study and the iPad for Amanda to help pass time. It was 11:15 and I received a text from Amanda saying I was allowed to join her in her room in the ER. I flung my backpack over my shoulder and headed out again, this time a thin layer of snow covered the ice on the cobblestones allowing me to step right on them for traction rather than daintily avoiding their glassy palms. Ah shit, I forgot to feed the cat.

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When I met up with Amanda, she was alone in a corner room of a quiet ER, blood already drawn and an empty urine cup beside her gurney. I gave her a hug as she caught me up on this situation. A resident, followed by the Chief Resident then the Attending Physician had been in to see her and asked her many of the same questions that the nurse, registration and triage had asked her earlier. The next step was for Amanda to get a CT scan of her brain. We chatted away as midnight came and went. The worst part of waiting in the exam room is that you have no idea what is going on around you. As far as we knew, ER techs would be coming to take Amanda to get a CT, but we weren’t given a specific time. Working in an ER, I have dealt with patients that want to know what’s going on, and usually nurses and other staff can really only say just sit tight, we haven’t forgotten about you. Although I knew what the answer would be before the nurse told us CT will come by “soon”, the ambiguity of the answer almost made me feel like these people don’t know what they’re doing. The fact that this even crossed my mind made wonder what the lay person thinks, since I know that the staff is often over-worked and usually is buzzing around from patient to patient, but I still had the audacity to wonder if the ER techs were standing around making small talk. This was my foray into the other side and it didn’t sit well.

Techs came and took Amanda to CT in a wheelchair. She was back within 15 minutes and more waiting ensued. Still with no answers in sight we were told after about an hour that the neurologist would be coming to speak with us at some point to discuss the CT results. Is this good or bad, I wondered? I was trying to piece together the clues that would lead me to how serious the doctors thought Amanda’s condition was. Well, she was not under close supervision–that’s good. She also wasn’t hooked up to any monitor for vital signs–I guess that’s good. She didn’t receive any other meds besides Tylenol–that’s also good. At the same time, is this just standard practice in a neglectful, busy ER where patients are always forgotten and maybe even sometimes left for dead? Also, why would a neurologist need to speak to a patient with a completely normal CT scan, couldn’t the ER doctor just tell us the news? I feared that I knew too much in making me wary of the situation, but not enough to recognize that everything was fine and the hospital was just following it’s standard procedures. Does a family that has no medical background and no idea what could be going on take solace in that their outcome is strictly in other’s hands, or does that make it even more nerve-wracking?

What was taking the neurologist so long? Were they verifying the CT with other expert neurologists in the area giving their thoughts on a rare disease, were they debating how best to deliver terrible news? The longer we waited and the more in the dark we were, the worse it seemed. At 1:30am the neurologist came in to speak with us about what they believed happened–which was nothing. The neurologist was 27 years-old, smooth and confident. I’d like to be like that one day, well except for the 27 part, which I can never be again, but I rather like the smooth and confident part. Amanda had what the neurologist believed to be a “complicated migraine”. Nothing serious it seemed, but Amanda would need a follow up appointment. It’s apparently one of those things that can simply happen to someone that has migraines for no explicable reason, and this could be the only incident that ever occurs in Amanda’s entire life. The doctor performed a neurologic exam, asked if we had any questions, then said she would be back with the discharge papers. About an hour later a different doctor came in with the discharge papers for Amanda to sign. While we were waiting we had thought of some questions to ask about her condition, but when it was a different physician that had entered the room we thought that was a little strange. Amanda asked some questions and the resident said he didn’t know how to answer them because he wasn’t a neurologist and that Amanda would have to call them on Monday. But, but, but the neurologist said she’d be back “shortly”, and not only was it not her that came back, it certainly wasn’t “shortly”. I am truly grateful for the attention and care Amanda received and I realize that in these situations, nothing is ever enough. I get it, 30 years ago if you said you could walk up to a hospital, people could take images of your brain, a doctor could look at it and diagnose you, and you’d be out of there in a few hours, you would be incredulous. This is not lost on us.

As far as I remember, I don’t recall any loved ones having cancer, a dramatic disease, or even getting a phone call about a serious traumatic incident. I am very lucky. I don’t know what it’s like to have someone I love seriously ill, let alone lose someone so close. Every now and then while working in the ER I would come across a patient that would remind me of someone dear to me. A 60-year-old man that has no history of heart problems that suddenly has a heart attack and dies. I think about my father and what it would be like to lose him. Empathy is funny in that it can make you feel profoundly, but that emotion is not genuine. I can think about how sad it would be to lose Amanda, but until I came face to face with that prospect there’s no way to make it real. Every now and then I think of philosopher Thomas Nagel’s paper, “What is it Like to Be a Bat?”, that I read in an undergrad class. The gist is that a human being can never feel what it is like to be a bat, they can only feel like what a human feels like it is to be a bat. This is an important distinction. Prior to getting accepted to medical school I would frequently fantasize about what it would be like to open my mailbox and see a large envelope. Would I jump up and down and shout like a nut, or would I play coy and act like this is to be expected and it’s just a bit of good news? Even when I look back on how happy an event it was, I can never replicate that exact feeling–I can only recall what that feeling felt like–which is not nearly the same thing.

In medical school we are taught and trained to be empathetic and exhibit compassion towards our patients and those that we are providing care for. We spend time in the classroom and watching videos online and writing short essays that exhibit what we’ve learned about how to better understand patients. I have spent countless hours amongst patients in various capacities, and I always thought that I was empathetic towards them, when really I was only sympathetic. I don’t believe it is possible to train someone in empathy. They can learn the tools to becoming empathetic, but without experience we are just doing the best we can. We shadow doctors and even see patients as first year students but unless we have experienced what the patient has experienced we don’t know what it really feels like to be in their situation. Does empathy from a provider really affect patient outcomes, and how would that even be measured? The staff at the hospital Amanda and I went to were courteous, professional, and performed their jobs well. But something in healthcare is missing, and it’s like being a bat. Is spending all the time and resources on trying to get students to become caring individuals actually making better doctors, or better actors? Being on the receiving end of healthcare it is easy to see which providers are going through the motions and which ones are feeling what you’re feeling. Although Amanda and I didn’t admit to each other at the time, while silence filled the hospital exam room between ominous beeps sounding from foreign machinery in the early hours of Saturday morning, we were both terrified. I could describe the feeling to you in as much detail imaginable but you would never know what it was like in that room unless you experienced something similar yourself. And for me, I could try to remember the emotions I felt in the pit of my stomach that night while flipping through a textbook, reading the same sentence over and over again, as I sat next to an energy-depleted best friend–but it will never be as frightening as it was in that moment.

We shuffled home at 3am, hours after we embarked and thankful that nothing serious came about this trip to the ER. Amanda felt fine now, just tired. The heat was left off in the apartment but it was still much warmer than outside. The cat was fed and all was right in the world.

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Starbucks’ Greed Versus San Jose’s Living Wage

Living Wage Cartoon

The San Jose City Council will soon decide whether to condone corporate greed and poverty-level wages for workers or apply city law to Starbucks and a large developer who want to lease property at the San Jose Convention Center.  San Jose would normally require businesses leasing the property to pay employees a living wage, but the City Manager’s Office recommends an exemption for Starbucks and the developer because, among other reasons, the businesses “have indicated to City staff that imposing any wage policy requirements in [their] leases…creates financial and competitive hardships in the operation of their respective businesses.”

The dark irony is that Starbucks, the company claiming “financial hardship,” raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits in 2013 in “the best year in [its] 42-year-history” while the absence of wage policies like the one Starbucks is currently trying to circumvent consistently causes families to operate at or near the poverty line.  And though Starbucks is unwilling to sacrifice some of an individual store’s profits for the benefit of working families, the company is perfectly happy to sacrifice an individual store’s profits when doing so helps drive out neighborhood coffee shops.

That the San Jose City Council is even considering such a request speaks to the success of corporate think tanks in confusing the public about wage ordinances.  Even though the vast majority of recent research shows no downside to minimum wage laws and most economists support minimum wage increases, too many people still buy inaccurate and unsubstantiated claims that wage requirements hurt businesses, reduce available jobs, and must necessarily raise prices for consumers.  In addition to bad research, however, standard teaching of mainstream economic theory on price floors is also to blame for the misinformation about minimum wage and living wage laws.

Economist Jim Stanford describes the paradigm taught in most introductory economics classes:

I was taught early on at university that minimum wages screw up an otherwise efficiently-functioning marketplace for labour. You see, there’s a demand curve for labour, and it slopes down. There’s a supply for labour, and it slopes up. The two lines cross in the middle, at the sweet spot where supply equals demand.

Now draw the minimum wage: a horizontal line, positioned above the cross. It’s plain as day. Too much supply, too little demand, too much unemployment. Well meaning but foolish bureaucrats should leave the market alone to perform its autonomous, masterful balancing act.

The story is simple. It’s elegant. And it’s wrong. But you have to progress far beyond Economics 101 to find out why. And in the meantime, that simplistic supply-and-demand diagram gets deeply imprinted on too many impressionable minds.

As Stanford goes on to explain, the model doesn’t apply well to labor markets because supply and demand for labor work a lot differently than supply and demand for goods and services.  For example, employers don’t magically require fewer employees the moment wages increase.  But even if we pretend the model is accurate, the policy conclusions drawn from it would still be unwarranted.  First, the argument that the minimum wage is inefficient is based on a concept called deadweight loss, defined as the overall money that could have been made by both producers and consumers of some good under the free market equilibrium condition (in this case, the condition in which no minimum wage exists).  Deadweight loss is essentially meaningless when it comes to assessing the impact a minimum wage policy has on people’s lives.  Though it’s rarely discussed, even the deeply flawed, standard economic model generally shows a net increase in the overall money made by workers when a minimum wage is introduced.

Second, and more importantly, the standard model assumes that employers are willing to pay only what they can.  In reality, large employers frequently operate with enormous profit margins and award exorbitant compensation to executives.  The suggestion that minimum wage laws would force companies to raise prices or lay off workers is an outright lie – most companies can absorb the costs elsewhere quite easily.  Starbucks, for example, could hold prices and profits constant and hire over 1000 new workers at San Jose’s living wage by reducing the salaries of its top five executives to the measly total of $2 million a year each.

Opponents of minimum wage and living wage laws want us to believe, despite their faulty model and a large body of research suggesting otherwise, that wage requirements harm the people they’re designed to help.  They’re wrong.  Minimum wage and living wage laws are quite simply a choice between the welfare of lower-income people and the greed of a wealthy few.  So let’s challenge our professors when they falsely portray minimum wage as an economic problem.  And let’s hope the San Jose City Council keeps the living wage ordinance intact and strong – developer Don Imwalle and Starbucks can afford to pay their workers enough to make ends meet.

If you’re interested in having an impact on this issue, SumOfUs is circulating a petition asking Starbucks to drop its request; the company has responded to intense public pressure over unethical practices before.  You can also find San Jose City Council contact information here.

Update: This article ran on The Left Hook on Tuesday, January 28.

Update 2: The San Jose City Council voted later on Tuesday, January 28 to grant the exemption to Starbucks and Imwalle.  Though Ash Kalra, Kansen Chu, Xavier Campos, and Don Rocha voted in the interests of the citizens of San Jose, the rest of the council, led by Chuck Reed, Sam Liccardo, Madison Nguyen, and Rose Herrera, ignored the interests of their constituencies.

Update 3 (6/16): Starbucks apparently denied that they ever asked for the exemption on January 22, 2014, an assertion that is directly contradicted by the city memo that was also linked earlier in this piece.

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Financial Incentives and Social Good: Dan Pallotta’s Faulty Assumptions

At the suggestion of WOVIN founder Darius Golkar, I recently watched Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk on the nonprofit sector.  Golkar recommended this video to me when I asked him why WOVIN donates only 50% of its profits to charitable causes.

Golkar founded WOVIN because clothes we donate to Goodwill, The Salvation Army, and other charities rarely have the effect we intend.  Our hand-me-downs often enrich international “clothing recyclers” who exploit the poor in countries like Ghana and Nigeria.  WOVIN addresses this problem by reconstructing donated jeans into bags, key rings, cardholders, and wallets, selling these products, and then giving a portion of the proceeds to organizations that assist impoverished people.  I sincerely admire this work.

When I first read about WOVIN, however, the 50% number bothered me.  And while Pallotta’s TED Talk may explain why Golkar chose to incorporate WOVIN as a for-profit company, Pallotta’s paradigm reflects many inaccurate and problematic assumptions we have about business.  Several of these assumptions pertain to executive compensation.

Pallotta begins to discuss compensation 3 minutes and 11 seconds into his talk.  He says:

So in the for-profit sector the more value you produce, the more money you can make.  But we don’t like nonprofits to use money to incentivize people to produce more in social service.  We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people.  Interesting that we don’t have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money not helping other people.  You know, you want to make fifty million dollars selling violent videogames to kids, go for it, we’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine, but you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria and you’re considered a parasite yourself.  And we think of this as our system of ethics, but what we don’t realize is that this system has a powerful side effect, which is, it gives a really stark, mutually exclusive choice between doing very well for yourself and your family or doing good for the world to the brightest minds coming out of our best universities…[T]ens of thousands of people who could make a huge difference in the nonprofit sector [are] marching every year directly into the for-profit sector because they’re not willing to make that kind of lifelong economic sacrifice.

He then uses the chart below (the Stanford MBA figure is the median salary for someone ten years out of business school and the CEO figures are averages) to argue, “There’s no way you’ll get people with $400,000 talent to make a $316,000 sacrifice every year to become the CEO of a hunger charity.”

Executive Compensation Bar Graph

While I agree with one aspect of Pallotta’s analysis – current economic and social incentives in the United States disproportionately advantage businesses that contribute little to society over more altruistic endeavors – Pallotta erroneously suggests we can fix this problem and better promote social good by making charitable organizations more like typical U.S. businesses.  This paradigm recurs during his analyses of several topics and reflects an overarching view of economics I plan to address in future posts.  For the purposes of this post, however, I will focus on four faulty assumptions he makes while discussing executive compensation:

Faulty Assumption #1: The value individuals produce in the for-profit sector correlates highly with the salaries they earn.

We erroneously believe personal success indicates remarkable personal characteristics – that belief is a well-documented psychological fact.  Yet chaos theory, regression to the mean, and intelligent analysis indicate that luck and privilege influence success considerably more than talent – even narrow definitions of luck in recent economic analyses show that luck plays a much larger role in market outcomes than most people think.  Whether it’s even possible for someone’s “talent” to produce the kind of value Pallotta describes is a hotly debated question.

In US society, our lack of regulation and accountability for moneyed elites helps promote inflated CEO salaries even when the individuals receiving these salaries have very clearly reduced a company’s value.  The bank bailout of 2008 and the huge profits reaped afterwards by executives directly responsible for the financial crisis clearly demonstrate the inaccuracy of Pallotta’s assumption.

Faulty Assumption #2: People make career decisions based primarily on monetary incentives.

Money certainly drives some people’s career decisions, but many people care at least as much, if not more, about some combination of prestige and ethics.  Teach For America (TFA) is an excellent example of an organization that knows this fact – while TFA can offer corps members only beginning teacher salaries in its placement districts, the organization attracts the top graduates from the best colleges in the country.  Why?  Acceptance into TFA impresses nearly everyone, looks fabulous on a resume, and helps corps members feel like part of a larger “movement for educational equity.”  While it’s certainly possible that some corps members join in hopes of the long-term payout TFA’s connections might provide, the vast majority of corps members I know applied because of TFA’s mission and status.

Faulty Assumption #3: High levels of compensation promote increased productivity.

Education research suggests that incentives only improve performance when they focus on behavioral inputs– to improve, students and teachers need to know exactly what behaviors they must produce to receive rewards.  They must also have the ability to execute desired behaviors.  Examples of input-based incentives that have produced desired outcomes include paying students to read books or paying teachers to relocate to more challenging schools.  Students and teachers who are instead offered prizes for behavioral outputs like student grades or test scores, on the other hand, do not improve their performance. Executive salaries and bonuses, like student grades and test scores, are often based on outputs (like company economic performance) and therefore unlikely to increase productivity.  I believe this phenomenon helps explain why researchers agree that merit pay initiatives are misguided.

Even when incentives are offered for clear, achievable tasks, the magnitude of the incentive drastically changes its impact.  Recent research suggests that when incentives are very high, performance actually declines.  Behavioral economist Dan Ariely conducted an innovative study which found that individuals offered substantial amounts of money for winning games succeeded considerably less often than individuals offered low to moderate amounts of money (Ariely believes that the stress we experience when confronted with high stakes causes this effect).

Faulty Assumption #4: High levels of compensation in the nonprofit sector will motivate more people to work for social good.

Wealthier individuals are, on average, less empathetic than the rest of society.  As Chris Hayes (in Twilight of the Elites) and Daniel Goleman have suggested, powerful people tend to surround themselves with other powerful people and often forget about or are ignorant of the circumstances of those less fortunate.  But psychology also plays a role – the mere mention of money predisposes people to behave less altruistically.  Since external incentives also erode internal motivation, a focus on salary in the nonprofit sector could potentially diminish compassion in that sector.

Our current incentives are highly problematic regardless of the flaws in these assumptions – on that point Pallotta and I agree.  But the remedy isn’t to embrace a business model that promotes selfishness and greed while failing to generate clear economic value.  In terms of executive compensation, a better solution would reduce exorbitant salaries across the board, call selfish career decisions what they are, and use psychology and behavioral economics research to increase the prestige associated with more ethical jobs.

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Something for Nothing

College football bowl season is upon us once again and around this time every year there is the discussion of how screwed up the Bowl Championship Series system is (we’ll be able to argue about the playoff system next year), how corrupt and slimy the recruiting process is, and how college players should or shouldn’t be paid. All collegiate athletes in the U.S. have amateur status, meaning that they don’t (well, a more accurate phrase is “aren’t supposed to”) get paid for playing or from endorsements. The reason there always seems to be so much controversy with college athletics is because the fans are passionate and expect the world from their players, but they are also expected to be students first and athletes second. College athletes straddle the line between the glamorous world in which they are playing in front of thousands of adoring fans, and the drudgery of waking up before sunrise each day for training and conditioning while taking classes and attending practices. With what can seem like the weight of the world on their shoulders they are expected to act like every other teenager at their university. Pro athletes, however, are on an entirely different planet in terms of being pure physical specimens that they are totally and utterly unrelatable both in lifestyle as well as body dimension to the average fan. There is this feeling that college athletes are still pure and similar to the average 18-21 year old, that is until they transcend to the next level where endorsements and fame can take hold. Additionally, with college sports there is a more tight-knit community feel to the local team that doesn’t permeate to the big leagues. Most prominent public school college football coaches are among the highest paid state employees, so whenever you pay taxes you’re doing your part to get your team to a bowl game, or to a 2-9 record.

CF1

Earlier this season the high-profile quarterback for Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel, was accused of accepting money for signing autographs for a memorabilia company, which is considered payment, and therefore strictly prohibited by the NCAA. An investigation ultimately turned up nothing, but the bigger issue about whether or not college athletes should be paid took on a different angle as even former college football stars (who normally keep quiet concerning under-the-table payments) began to openly discuss the temptations to get paid early and the difficulty living on what is essentially a meager stipend, according to Houston Texans running back Arian Foster. In September, Time magazine ran a cover story proclaiming that now is the time that athletes should be paid and even Electronic Arts Sports, maker of the popular NCAA Football video game announced that it would no longer be partnering with the NCAA due to disputes over the use of player likenesses. The game will no longer be manufactured, and when such a big moneymaker has its production suddenly and unexpectedly halted, there must be big changes in the landscape of the college athletics on the horizon. Recent revelations show that the NCAA is now suing EA Sports because they were “unaware” that player likenesses were being used in these games for over a decade.

The NCAA understands that its stars drum up a lot of revenue and earlier this season when searching for a particular player’s name on the NCAA merchandise website it would take the user to the webpage where that player’s number (but not name) would be sold on jerseys and other items. When this was pointed out that the NCAA ended linking players names to their jersey number in order to distance themselves from the idea that they directly profit off of individual players.  It has become obvious that college sports, and more specifically college football and basketball, has too much money at stake and the NCAA is trying to pare any heads sucking at the teat of their revenue stream. Like the hydra, every time the NCAA cuts out one bad apple, two more programs replace it.

CF3

The debate about whether collegiate athletes should be paid or not has been discussed ad nauseam but almost exclusively singles out football among the dozens of other sports, and is generally a very shallow take on the situation. Although football programs are the biggest revenue generator for schools, it only has a small slice of the number of student-athletes overall. What happens to the other students that train just as long and hard at their craft?

Whether or not student-athletes get paid is much bigger than the realm of sports. This has to do with how society views labor and what role universities should play as educational institutes or modes of producing wealth that also aim to educate as an aside. If someone or a body of people are producing a product or service that is not being compensated justly then this is considered exploitation. People will often cite that college athletes have their tuition, room, and board paid for, but what solace is that if they are generating millions upon millions of dollars for their school’s president and board members? This is akin to saying you get a $100,000 salary from your employer and you make your company $100 million on your own, but you should be happy because $100,000 is still a lot of money. This may not strike many people as inherently wrong but it is the definition of exploitation.

The national debate stops at whether or not to pay college athletes- some say yes, others say no- for a variety of well-intentioned reasons. The issue can get very complicated when you try a thought experiment on actually employing the payment of college kids in sports. If I were put in charge of ending the amateur status of college athletes, where do I begin to answer some important questions? First of all, who does the paying? Would the NCAA be in charge of paying the athletes by increasing each university’s entrance fee into the NCAA (a non-profit organization), in which the money then gets pooled together and evenly distributed to the schools to disburse to their students? Some schools are much more profitable than others and also have a much larger endowment from which to pay the players. Does this mean schools that are able to pay more to their athletes actually get to give them larger paychecks? Additionally, does each player on a team get paid the same amount, regardless of whether they are a starter or a backup, and regardless of the position played?

CF2

Secondly, who gets paid? From a business standpoint (and as Temple University can attest to), very few sports teams within a school actually are profitable or break even. Does this mean that only the sports which provide capital for the university should be paying their sports stars? This may drive students from the sport that they love because they will try to pursue a sport in which they receive financial compensation and harms the spirit of intercollegiate athletics.

Perhaps the biggest question of all is how much should these “student-athletes” be paid? Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy (awarded to the most outstanding football player in college) in 2012 and reportedly Texas A&M had fund-raised $740 million that year, surpassing its previous fundraising record by nearly $300 million. Texas A&M Foundation President Ed Davis had this to say regarding the extra fundraising boost in 2012 and its star quarterback:

“People ask me all the time if you have a winning football team, do you raise more money? In normal times, the statistical data wouldn’t support that, but in an era where we are in, effectively, in the news everywhere and you have a young man like our quarterback who has been a media magnet and you have the success you have, I do think that euphoria does spill over into success in fundraising. I’m hoping we can keep it up.”

From jersey sales, ticket sales, merchandising, TV contracts, and national recognition, Texas A&M can attribute upwards of hundreds of millions of extra dollars to their school, athletic program, and research facilities because this 18-year-old kid decided to throw the football in College Station, TX rather than Gainsville, FL or a number of other top tier football programs. While it is true that he will move on to the NFL to make tens of millions of dollars himself, not every National Championship team member or even Heisman winner will even be drafted to the NFL and cash in on their success, yet they will still make millions upon millions for their school. So it is clear that athletics bring in lot of money for schools, but how should these players be compensated? Should they be awarded bonuses specified in their contracts? Because the college players are between the ages of 18-22, many of them will require financial advisors or agents at this juncture because they need to be equipped to handle the pressure and adversity that comes with getting large sums of money as a teenager in college and handling it responsibly. Because the schools are potentially the employers of these students and won’t always see eye to eye on payment amounts or bonuses, these advisors must be third party, which also begs the question, will the student athletes form a union like in every other major U.S. sport, and what kind of structure would it take?

As a strong proponent of fair labor practices, if player A is producing at a higher level than player B and is in turn making more money for the school by his/her performance then I believe he/she should be adequately compensated. However, many sports in college are team sports and require teamwork for success. How would the NCAA or school gauge the value of different players on different teams? Would players sign three or four year contracts or would their salary be negotiated on a yearly basis? If they settle on a 4 year contract, is that money guaranteed if there is an injury, or even if the student performs poorly and is cut? Will academic standards become less rigorous for the athletes to ensure that the school’s investment can spend even more time away from the classroom so that sports will be even more of a main focus?

If every athlete within all schools and within all sports is paid the same amount (let’s say $30,000 a year), then what happens to the extra money raised by star players by the nature of them being on the team? Does this extra money simply go to the school or the NCAA to do whatever it wants with it (with the majority going into the pockets of the higher-ups), and isn’t this still a form of exploitation? Additionally, $30,000 to a student at West Virginia University will go a lot further than $30,000 in a school like Georgetown where the cost of living is much higher in Washington D.C., so schools in urban settings will be at a natural disadvantage in this regard when it comes to recruiting, which I’m sure they would fight against.

How will state schools pay their student athletes versus private schools? As a former taxpayer in New Jersey, I was well aware that I was paying the salaries for all the coaches, trainers, athletic directors, etc. involved in making athletics possible for my state schools. If all college players get paid, taxpayers will be forced to pay the salaries of teenagers to play a sport. I can imagine that a lot of people will have a lot of problems with this. Some state schools are much larger than others, so how can we reasonably expect the smaller schools to afford the salaries of the athletes, or will the state subsidize the shortfalls of these schools? It seems if college athletes were forced to be paid then even more schools would cut sports all together or make conditions nearly unplayable for the players and more team boycotts across the country may ensue.

Lastly, universities are no longer just institutions for higher learning, they are businesses and avenues for making money for those in the administration. Does paying student athletes make it the final straw in making the U.S. college system just a wealth-generating tool rather than a knowledge-generating tool? What does this mean for the psyche of the college student who is not playing a college sport? What would a student who is paying full tuition and saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt think of the basketball player sitting next to them in the same class learning the same material and getting graded in the same manner but actually making money while sitting there? Of course there is always the big man on campus stud athlete that everyone knows is the star player who you would know if they were in your class, but what about when you don’t know who is getting paid and who isn’t? This is not like a scholarship in which the athlete is getting housing and an education in exchange for their athletic prowess, this is getting paid to be there, which is something entirely different. The argument could be made that because of the athletes, your school is getting more recognition and will hopefully be able to fundraise more money which will go towards improving various facilities (that obviously you won’t be around to see) that will increase the prominence of the school to make your degree more “valuable”. I get that, I don’t necessarily buy it, but I get it.

I have only scratched the surface in discussing the challenges and questions that face an impending sea change in college athletics. This is a very complicated issue that is much bigger than sports. I have not even considered how paying college players will impact tuition rates, which could be an essay all on its own. The bottom line is that the NCAA and universities across the country are making billions of dollars off of their pupils on the sports field and this simply doesn’t sit right with me. It’s not as if the money is going back into the school system to promote better research facilities or libraries. Rather, the money is going to those with prominent roles in the university, and it is also going towards updating the athletic facilities in order to recruit better athletes in order to get better on-field performance in order to get more money from ticket sales/merchandise/TV contracts in order to line more pockets with money. How to go about implementation towards rectifying the situation is riddled with more ethical and logistical questions, but no doubt committees and other layers of bureaucracy will be involved. I would love to hear thoughts on any of the issues or questions raised in this post and what the ideal situation may look like for the future of college athletics.

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