This nation is built on trust and self-serve fountain beverages

A couple weekends ago I sat down with my laptop in a Panera where we live. I had a little bit of work to take care of, and Panera is my default choice to get stuff done. The wi-fi is free, the food is decent by casual dining/fast food standards, and you can get your tea or coffee in an actual mug rather than a paper cup (a rare treat). And the one I go to tends to have plenty of seats and never be overcrowded.

In any case, this particular visit got me thinking about something extremely important: fountain sodas. Usually when I visit places like this, I go for tap water instead of something sweet. I love soda and all, but for lunch I don’t really like paying the extra $2-3 for something I probably consume too much of anyway. At Panera, the way this works is that they give you an annoyingly small clear plastic cup that is completely different looking from the cup you get when you buy a fountain drink, and then allow you to fill this cup with water on your own at the fountain soda area.

I find that a lot of these casual chain do this now; that is, they give you a water-specific cup rather than one usually intended for a fountain drink. I suppose part of the reason is to encourage people to buy drinks rather than asking for free water with their meals, given that you can only fit what seems like 0.8 ounces of liquid inside one of those tiny cups.

But another reason, I guess, is the idea that having different-looking cups would make it harder for the soda free loader types, the ones who ask for a free cup only to fill it up with something they were supposed to have paid for, simply because it would be more obvious when someone’s dumping Cherry Coke into a cup that’s clearly intended for water. That seems to be the thought process at Chipotle, which gives the same size cup for water as it does for soda, but slaps an mistakable label on their water cups to make it perfectly clear what’s what.

chipotle_cup2

The Chipotle water cup: yup, pretty clearly for water

The whole point of this is that there’s a clear element of trust involved here. Even with those simple deterrences in place to prevent people from stealing soda from fast food joints, it’s not like doing so is hard. We’re not talking Ocean’s Eleven here. In fact, at that particular Panera that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the fountain drink area is way in the back, where no one at the front counter can see. Really, the only way to get busted is for some employee to pass by your table and spot you, and then of course to decide that, despite being exhausted and probably making just above minimum wage, it’s worth publicly shaming a customer into what cost the Panera shareholders about ten cents. In other words: not gonna happen.

But think to yourself: When was the last time you pulled off this sneaky trick, despite how easy it would be? Continue reading

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America has a race problem. What am I going to do about it?

A couple Saturdays ago, my wife and I hosted a prayer gathering and discussion in our home on the subject of “race, society, and spirituality”. We read some sacred writings together and prayed, watched a short video, and had a discussion over some good food. People shared their personal anecdotes and experiences along with their heartache, their joy, and their concern about where we are going as a nation and as a human race. A friend whose dad is Kenyan, mom is white, and step dad is Persian told of a childhood of conflicted identity growing up in Upstate New York. A Polish immigrant shared her experiences of living in America for the past decade. A black neighbor told us about raising a daughter in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood in Greenwich, CT after growing up in Harlem. A Jew from Brooklyn shared his sadness over the needless suffering currently being felt in Israel and Palestine.

The two of us have hosted these prayer gatherings/discussions sporadically in our home for the past few years, but more recently we’d been contemplating dedicating an evening to the topic of race in particular. One reason is that unity is perhaps the single most important theme in the Baha’i Faith — Baha’u’llah once declared that “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illumine the whole earth” — and thus opposing racism and prejudice naturally becomes an important component of being Baha’is in America. But this wasn’t the only reason. The other was that the two of us have become tired of listening to friends and colleagues decry racism without an eye towards an actual solution, and in tones that seemed to accomplish nothing more than to fan the flames of suspicion and distrust.

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Does science need religion to be effective?

Sharknado church

The recent outbreak of measles in California and the ensuing debate over vaccines has got me thinking about how we as a society interact with science. As you’ve probably read by now, the fact that an outbreak of measles — a disease that was declared eradicated in the US in 2000 — is even possible is attributable to a low vaccination rate among some communities of parents, many of whom blame vaccines for a variety of diseases and other maladies. Those beliefs have always stood on shaky scientific ground, but were dealt a major blow in particular when a 1998 study purporting to find a link between the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine and autism was found to have been fabricated (after years in which other researchers were unable to reproduce the results). Nonetheless, as the current outbreak reveals, the consensus of the scientific community that vaccines are safe — and, importantly, do not cause or precipitate autism — has, for some parents, fallen on deaf ears.

Even as anti-vaccine parents are at the root of the recent measles outbreak, I still don’t believe they deserve the full measure of vitriol that’s been aimed at them by some in the media in recent weeks. People who elect not to vaccinate their kids are neither dumb nor crazy, even if some of their beliefs are based on flimsy-at-best science. For one, vaccines can in rare cases cause adverse reactions, even though it doesn’t appear that autism is one of them. And plenty of smart people are anti-vaxers. One of them is the birth instructor whose classes my wife and I attended when we were expecting our first child, a woman who was once a university professor and enjoyed a great deal of success in the corporate world before her second career. Those who hold views on vaccine that fall outside of mainstream science, in other words, are often otherwise educated and sensible people.

But never mind that. The main reason I think we need to take it easy on these people is that they are not alone in rejecting the findings of the scientific community. The reality is that the case of vaccines is just one example of our society’s collective lack of respect for science.

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The problem with freedom

Gender and society satire from the 1890s

A satirical cartoon on gender roles in society from the 1890s

In the 1920s, tobacco companies sought to increase the number of women smokers. So for the Easter Sunday parade of 1929, a group of public relations and marketing experts hatched a brilliant plan on their behalf. They paid a group of young, attractive, fashionably-dressed women to march in the parade and, in unison, light up cigarettes. The women proudly exclaimed to the parade goers that they were smoking “torches of freedom“. Photos and stories of the women circulated wildly. Almost overnight, smoking had become a symbol of female independence and liberty.

I learned about this historical event years ago when I was in grad school. But it recently came to mind once again, amid the debate about freedom of expression following the attack on a French satirical newspaper earlier this month.

Rightfully, following that event there has been an outpouring of sentiment in favor of free speech and in defiance of terror and intimidation. I won’t get into my own thoughts on the specifics of this event, or some or the more controversial details — namely, the arrest by French authorities of dozens of individuals for hate speech following the free speech demonstrations, or the allegedly hypocritical policies of some of the demonstrating world leaders — subjects which have been covered ad nauseum already. (A good approximation of how I feel on these subjects is here.)

On the other hand, what I haven’t seen to this point, and what I personally am yearning for, is an intelligent discussion about not only our legal rights as citizens, but what it truly means to be “free” as a human being. And I think this is a discourse that religion, and especially the Baha’i Faith, can help move forward in a big way.

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Learning about honesty from your neighborhood car dealer

car_salesman

A couple of months ago my wife and I bought a car from our local Volkswagen dealership. We needed a new car after our second child was born, and we ultimately settled on a Jetta Sportwagen, which I highly recommend for any parents out there who need a car big enough to fit two car seats, but are desperately trying to disguise the fact that they’re no longer cool.

After we agreed to buy the car and all the paperwork was signed (mostly by me, as my wife was home with the new baby), the salesman gave me a head’s up that I’d be receiving a survey via email about my experience at the dealership. “We’d appreciate it if you could give us 9s and 10s”, he said, referring to my survey responses.

At the time I didn’t think much of this comment, and just assumed he and his colleagues would benefit from some positive feedback. But when the time came came to fill out the survey — a simple, straightforward electronic form that I can only assume most people go through in a minute or less — I grappled with my answers. Did I really think the presentation and cleanliness of the car showroom, for instance, was “truly exceptional”, which is what the survey instructions indicated that a 9 or 10 response was supposed to mean? The honest truth was that the experience at the dealership was good but nothing to call home about. I had bought a car from another VW dealership a few years earlier, and I found it hard to decide which buying experience left me more satisfied. How could I honestly say that this last one was something “exceptional”?

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Is kindness economically efficient?

When I was a sophomore in college my microeconomics professor talked about gift giving as an example of an economically inefficient cultural practice. The lesson of the day was on how human beings efficiently allocate their resources. When we have the freedom to choose exactly how to spend our money, economic theory tells us, then we can maximize our own personal well-being. But when given a gift, some of this freedom is removed; in efficiency terms, it would be much better just to give cash and let the recipient figure out on his or her own how to spend it.

There was one important caveat: As my professor put it, when two people exchange a gift there are some “warm fuzzies” involved, a benefit that we can’t easily quantify. It’s one thing to go out and get what you want, but it’s particularly special and heartwarming when a loved one is thoughtful enough to get it for you. On a related note, let me digress for a moment and offer some free advice to all men reading this: Don’t ever give your wife or girlfriend cash as a gift, no matter how big an econ nerd you think you are. You run the risk of injury, death, or worse.

For whatever reason, recently I’ve been hyper-sensitive to all the subtle ways that economic efficiency and basic humanity butt heads, just as is the case when it comes to gift giving. And when it comes to this subject, the example that keeps smacking me in the face is my morning commute to work.

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What is my problem with poor people?

Homeless man and dog

Recently, I decided to try out a Greek food truck for lunch that’s down the street from the office. The line was long, but I didn’t mind. It was nice outside so I was happy just to wait patiently and surf with my phone in the meantime.

While waiting, a lady approached those of us who were in line and asked for money for something to eat. Her speech was irregular and she smelled of booze. The other people in line ignored her. As I’ve tried to do in the past in similar situations I decided to at least acknowledge her; that’s the minimum degree of respect you can show a person asking for money out on the street, I’ve always figured. She asked if I would buy her some food, and I said yes. I had a ten-dollar bill in my pocket (as usual I’d left my wallet at my desk at work), so I had enough for two sandwiches. Plus, I’ve always tended to feel more comfortable giving food, rather than money, to those asking for help.

After that point it was chaos. I asked her what she wanted to eat, and she told me she wanted a chicken platter, which was $7. I told her I didn’t have enough money for that plus my own lunch, but I could buy her a sandwich instead. She agreed, but only after some awkward back and forth that drew curious glances from the other customers (it wasn’t that she was stubborn, but rather that she didn’t seem in the right frame of mind to understand the logic).

When I got the counter, I ordered one sausage sandwich for myself and one chicken sandwich for my friend. While the staff were putting these together (assuming they were both for me, I guess), they saw the lady, who it seemed was familiar to them. “What can I get you, honey?”, one of the cooks called to her, as she was standing off to the side. I opened my mouth to speak, about to explain the situation to him, when I heard her exclaim over my shoulder, “A cheeseburger!” I shut up. I paid for both sandwiches, gave one to the lady (who thanked me), and I was on my way.

It’s experiences like this one that complicate matters for me — and, I assume, many of those reading this — when it comes to giving money, food, or whatever to the poor, and especially to beggars. There is no way to write about these things risking sounding arrogant, paternalistic, or just plain dumb. But not discussing them is a worse alternative. This blog entry is more meditation than manifesto; I have no definitive answers, only personal experiences and scattered thoughts.

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Here’s what your Baha’i friend thinks about Islam

There seems to be a debate going on within American liberalism as to whether it makes more sense to defend Islam against its detractors, or criticize it in light of all the terrible things perpetrated in its name. (I say “liberalism” only, because I think the answer within American conservatism was decided long ago.) So I thought I’d just share some personal thoughts on this.

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What’s missing from the conversation on income inequality?

Income inequality is a hot topic these days here in the US, and for good reason: over the past generation or so, real gains in income for those at the bottom and middle of the spectrum have been practically nil, while those at the top (especially the very top) have risen rapidly. As a consequence, income inequality by some measures is at its highest levels since the 1920s.

cbo-inequality-after-tax-income

If income inequality has been rising for so long, why is it only recently getting so much attention? I think the main reason for the recent attention was the housing bust and financial crisis in 2008 (duh), which provided a shocking contrast between widespread home foreclosures and mass layoffs on the one hand, and generous bank bailouts on the other. But since then, we’ve had plenty of other things to keep our attention on the subject. I’m thinking the Occupy Wall Street/99% movement; the 2012 Presidential election, which forced a national dialogue on the subject; and the near-celebrity status of economist Emmanuel Saez, whose recent book has attracted huge media attention.

Within that debate, economists continue to fuss over a longstanding question: Sure, inequality is rising, but what does that mean for economic growth? Do societies in which the rich take a bigger and bigger slice find it more difficult to grow the whole pie over time?

The Washington Center for Equitable Growth has a new paper summarizing the research, both old and new, on exactly this topic. It’s a good read even if you’re not into economics, especially the overview section, which gives some nice context for this question. Among the report’s conclusions are:

Most research shows that, in the long term, inequality is negatively related to economic growth and that countries with less disparity and a larger middle class boast stronger and more stable growth. Some studies do suggest that in the short run, inequality may spur growth before hindering it over the longer term, but overall there is growing evidence that, in the long run, more equitable societies are associated with higher rates of growth.

It’s always important to differentiate between positive and normative questions in economics, and this subject is no exception. The former asks something about how the world is; the latter, how the world should be. Economists like to focus most of their time on positive issues: Does inequality constrain growth? That is an important question, and researchers and organizations which focus purely on answering it objectively and honestly are doing very important work. Nonetheless, what seems to be missing from today’s debate about inequality is a second, more normative question: If the economy continues to grow while remaining very unequal (or becoming more unequal), is that ok?

For two reasons, I’d say the answer is No (surprise!). The first reason has to do with economic theory. The second has to do with the very purpose of our lives as human beings. Continue reading

The Entourage theory of financial management

Entourage

Am I the only one that misses Entourage? The former HBO series, which closed shop a few years ago after eight seasons, was my escape from the drudgery and boredom of responsible living. Yes, Entourage was over the top, to put it mildly, but so is pretty much everything else on TV. It was at times just plain dumb (the series finale was a hasty tying of years’ worth of plot loose ends), but the show had a lightheartedness and carefree vibe that’s been missing from television ever since.

At the heart of what made Entourage work, of course, was the character of Vincent Chase, loosely based on Mark Wahlberg’s early career (when he was still Markie Mark and doing stuff like this, which some of us refuse to forget). Vince’s is the happy-go-extremely-lucky story we all love to root for: Poor kid from a blue collar town makes it big, achieves fame and fortune, and lives life in the fast lane while never forgetting his true friends or where he came from.

At this point you may be thinking, What does this have to do with finance? I’m glad you asked. (Let’s pretend you asked.) On many occasions in Vince’s fictional life, when he is warned about the imminent possibility of losing it all — by his accountant, his agent, his manager, whoever — he utters some version of the following statement:

What’s the big deal? If I lose all my money I can always go back to Queens. I was happy before when I had nothing. If I have to go back to that, so what?

This is the part in the blog post where I remind myself that Vincent Chase is not a real person (oh yeah). But a part of Vincent Chase lives inside all of us. That’s because we all, in various ways and to varying degrees, practice what I call the “Vincent Chase theory of financial management”. That is, we are all on occasion tempted to “stretch” our money, saving a little less than we probably should towards getting that bigger house, that nicer car, that more glamorous vacation, etc. After all, when times are good and the money’s flowing, why not? We can always go back to the more modest lifestyle we were perfectly happy with before, if the twists and turns of life force us in that direction.

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