Archive for October, 2008

Week 2, Michaelmas Term

October 28, 2008 - 11:11 am 1 Comment

Now that I’ve settled into Oxford for approximately a full month, I’ve developed a much better sense of my new life here. As always, so much has happened over the past week. After a disastrous tryout for the Oxford Union debate squad (worthy of a mental cringe each time I remember), I joined an alternative debating society. I found an internship at Opportunity International (http://www.opportunity.org.uk/index.php), the UK’s largest microfinance agency, where I will assist with baseline surveys in sub-Saharan Africa and the development of a new savings product. I also joined Oxford Entrepreneurs, and will represent the university in the SIFE social enterprise competition (http://www.sife.org). This past Sunday, I bought a bike to increase my mobility and facilitate my exploration of the beautiful trails leading outside of the city.

Last Friday was the annual Rhodes dinner for all first year scholars – an elaborate and festive affair. This Friday is the annual Google party in London for all Rhodes and Marshall Scholars. As any semi-serious student soon discovers, the social events calendar here is almost too overwhelming.

Last week, I attended two very interesting seminars, and had the chance to question and engage the speakers. The first was a presentation by Howard White, Executive Director of 3IE, the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation. To maximize the potency of aid and effectively tackle issues in development, social impact assessment is vital because it provides a rigorous examination of the actual effects of an intervention and potential areas for improvement (http://www.3ieimpact.org/). In light of my involvement in the founding of YouthBank and Givology, the lessons Dr. White discussed are particularly important. Simply throwing money at a problem, crafting a theoretically beneficial project, or relying only on qualitative performance review may waste resources or fail to identify important areas of improvement.

The second seminar I attended was a roundtable discussion about the economic and political trajectory of Venezuela. Given the controversial nature of the Chavista regime, the discussion was profoundly incendiary with hotheaded proponents and dissidents clashing dramatically.

As always, my macroeconomics, microeconomics, and econometrics classes progress at lightning speed. I am now officially four or five textbooks behind…I’ve learned to adjust my expectations accordingly. When I was in Boston, I remember reading that a “MIT education is like drinking out a fire hose.” Well, the same holds true for Oxford, particularly because terms last only eight weeks. My first tutorial occurs this Thursday with the topic of discussion centered on an essay that I recently finished on the design and evaluation of water subsidies. If you are interested in reading this essay, please let me know, and I can send you a copy.

On Sunday, British Summer Time ended, leaving the evenings much darker than before. The weather inspires a little bit of gloom. Yesterday night, I had dreams of going shopping at Tysons Corner with my mother and father, and watching anime at Virginia Tech with my dear little sister (after pigging out at D2). I also dreamt of sitting in the Huntsman Program Office in between classes, holding debate meetings in the basement of Williams, and engaging in a case discussion in Corporate Finance at Huntsman Hall. I miss it all! It was not so long ago, but memory leaves only a faint, phantasmatic sensation that I was once there.

Matriculation

October 18, 2008 - 6:22 pm No Comments

Today, I officially matriculated as a student of Oxford University. Donning “sub fusc” attire, all the Balliol freshers gathered at 8:15 AM to assemble for a picture and walk to the Exam Schools together for the ceremony. Lining up for the picture took about two hours; the actual speech and ceremony lasted no more than 15 minutes (extraordinarily efficient for Oxford, but certainly out of necessity given that there are 38 independent colleges). Since Balliol was founded in 1263, our matriculation ceremony was one of the earliest. Afterwards, we all gathered at the MCR for a champagne brunch.

For an international student like me, the depth of tradition is what makes the Oxford experience magical. Objectively, dressing up for these ceremonies constitutes nothing more than a formality, but the adherence to such rituals confers an ineffable gravity.

Wikipedia entry about Balliol College: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balliol_College

Carlos Salinas and Hogwarts

October 15, 2008 - 5:25 pm No Comments

This evening, I had a chance to hear Carlos Salinas de Gortari (former president of Mexico from 1988-1994) speak at St. Antony’s College on Mexico’s Lost Decade (1995-2006). Surprisingly, the event was rather sparsely attended. Promoting his new book (http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/notas/503981.html), Salinas criticized neoliberal policies that contributed to Mexico’s crisis in 1995, and contrasted the austere structural adjustment reforms that were imposed on Mexico as a condition for bailout with the current bailout of the international financial system. Needless to say, Salinas presided over a very difficult time in Mexican history – a time of economic stagflation as a result of the debt crisis of the 1980s and great uncertainty about the future. His passage of NAFTA transformed the Mexican economic sector…for better and worse.

Salinas is a controversial figure. At the start of the event, a woman stood up with a sign condemning Salinas for human rights violations, interrupted his speech, passed out dissident flyers, and left in a dramatic fashion, proclaiming that since Salinas silenced his opposition party, she would not listen to him. His remarks also needed to be taken with a grain of salt. Although he made a convincing argument in showing the reversal of US policy on what constitutes a fair bailout package and the factors that led to the economic crisis in Mexico, he was unabashedly unapologetic for his own contribution to the destabilization of the economy and passage of neoliberal policy (At the time, Salinas supported many reforms of the Washington Consensus, which he now criticizes, and most notably, conducted a series of controversial privatizations of state enterprises). The fact that he left office one month before the December Mistake of 1994 does not absolve him.

As Denise Dresser wrote in a review of the book, “’It wasn´t me, it was somebody else’ says the child´s rime that describes the position of Carlos Salinas in his new book. Along 557 manipulative pages, full of half truths, he tries to locate the responsibility for the “lost decade”, between 1995-2006, on everyone´s shoulders, except his. He enlists the effects without explaining the causes. He attributes mistakes without accepting how his government contributed to produce them. But the thing that can be mostly criticized is not the abdication of the ex-president but his self-deceit: Salinas defends a “modernizing” project, bad conceived and wrongly instrumented with harmful results that the country stills suffers. He condemns neoliberalism but precisely his six years on power gave it a bad name. Today is difficult to build a consensus to reform Mexico, because of the toxic legacy that Carlos Salinas left behind.”

Salinas published an article addressing Dresser’s criticisms, which I can send you if you’re interested. In my opinion, the truth is somewhere in between. Although Salinas did indeed promote neoliberal policies that contributed to Mexico’s crisis (and potentially committed electoral fraud as well), he also governed during a period of extreme economic difficulty. As a result, his decision must be understood within the framework of the time. Given the failure of prior administrations to freeze inflation, reduce unemployment, and balance the fiscal deficit, Salinas had to explore new options and policies. NAFTA, albeit unpopular and detrimental to farmers, did indeed open a new tremendous export market for Mexico to support its export-substitution growth strategy.

Regardless, I enjoyed the event greatly and found him to be a rather agreeable politician. Despite being overconfident and self-righteous, he diffused the anger of the crowd with grace and invited the audience to criticize his policies and engage in a conversation about the issues. I had a chance to ask him a question about my senior thesis topic, which was the effect of increasing Chinese competition on Mexican exports to the United States. Given that Mexico’s lost decade corresponded with the rise of China, which directly competes with Mexico’s export-substitution strategy, I asked him about the reforms necessary for Mexico to remain competitive, especially given low trade diversification (70% of exports go to the United States) and increasing Chinese presence in export sectors of former Mexican dominance, such as auto parts, textiles, and manufactured goods. I think he misunderstood the question (I think he only heard “what reforms are necessary?”), but he discussed the need to change the Mexican mentality and encourage well-educated Mexicans to return to Mexico.

Afterwards, I went to a guest dinner with some fellow Rhodes Scholars at Christ Church, dressed in my official academic robes. As you know, the Christ Church dining hall was used as the Hogwarts Great Hall in the movies. What a splendid, magnificent dining hall! It felt as if I was actually at Hogwarts. Grand portraits completely covered the walls, from Henry the 8th to John Locke, all famous fellows of Christ Church. I enjoyed myself thoroughly – the food was quite good, but the company and the splendor of the dining hall were tremendous. Afterwards, I met my colleagues from the Economics for Development program for some drinks and conversation at a local pub.

What an exciting day!

Freshers Week and the Start of Term

October 14, 2008 - 4:41 pm No Comments

Life has been extraordinarily busy since my arrival at Oxford on October 2nd. Fresher’s week was filled with a variety of networking and social events, from a formal dinner at the dining hall (think Harry Potter) and port and chocolate afterwards, to a cartoon-themed dance party (known as a “Bop”) and quiz night. The MCR (Middle Common Room) at Balliol is extraordinarily active – during Fresher’s week, we had at least two events per day, and throughout Michaelmas term, we expect to have at least three events per week. The web-site of the Balliol MCR is: http://www.balliolmcr.com/. In general, the graduate student body is very diverse, spanning all continents. I’ve made new friends from all over the world – together, we explored the colleges, parks, and quaint downtown districts of Oxford. I also had an orientation session from Rhodes House, where I was able to meet international Rhodes scholars, get helpful advice from current scholars on stipend, and finally get acquainted with Rhodes House staff.

Fresher’s fair occurred last Thursday, where we had a chance to learn about the different student organizations at Oxford, which all convened at the Examination Schools. What an overwhelming number of clubs! In light of Oxford’s decentralized system and substantial student base, I estimate that the number of student organizations exceed that of Penn by at least a factor of four times. In addition, given the plethora of student advocacy organizations, I got a distinct impression that students at Oxford are much more engaged civically and environmentally. As a graduate student, however, I felt a bit distanced – given new academic challenges and commitments to Givology and YouthBank, I am unsure how much free time I will have available. This academic year, I want to devote myself to my research and studies, as well as volunteer for the UK’s largest microfinance agency, which happens to have a branch office at Oxford. Nevertheless, I look forward to attending the events held by these clubs. Tonight, I went to the fresher’s kick-off event by the Oxford Entrepreneurs, held at a local lounge, and was truly impressed by the professionalism and grand scale of the occasion. (I suppose that since undergraduates have much fewer hours of structured class time, they have plenty of freedom to participate in clubs!)

Although Balliol is not a beautiful college compared to Magdalene or Christ Church, it has a reputation for its academic rigor. (Magdalen and Christ Church are awe-inspiring – the striking architecture, expansive sculpted gardens and grounds, and magnificent chapels and cloisters have the ability to render a visitor completely speechless. As you may recall, Christ Church inspired many scenes of Harry Potter, and Magdalen is situated right next to the River Thames and contains the famous Deer Park.) Luckily, Balliol is conveniently located in the heart of the town. As a graduate student, I’m currently living in a nearby annex of the main site, which happens to be right next door to my department, Queen Elizabeth House (Department of International Development). I live also quite close to University Parks, which is a beautiful place to run.

Classes started this past Monday. I have much to write about my experience so far. The British education system substantially differs from that of the United States, which I will explain in a later post. It’ll certainly take some adjustment, but I look forward to the challenge. Frankly, I’m starting a bit behind, as I do not have as much of a background in Economics in comparison to my peers. (Alas, the discipline of Finance does not help me much in my current course…)

To learn more about the MSc in Economics for Development program, please visit: http://www.economics.ox.ac.uk/index.php/graduate/degree/msc_in_economics_for_development/ Lectures notes and course guide can be downloaded from this site.

Bon Voyage Weekend

October 5, 2008 - 5:15 pm No Comments

So much has transpired since my last post – nearly impossible for me to encapsulate in a single blog entry. Before leaving the United States, I worked as a research assistant at the World Bank in the Finance and Private Sector Development Group. My crash course introduction to STATA was challenging and extremely helpful – I now feel very well prepared for the research I will conduct in my Economics for Development course at Oxford. The senior economist I worked for at the World Bank was extraordinarily supportive – throughout the short six week duration, I gained exposure to a variety of fascinating projects pertaining to international capital raisings.

Last week, I joined the American Rhodes Scholars for Bon Voyage Weekend, held conveniently in Washington DC. What an extraordinary five days! Not only did we have a chance to engage Justice Souter of the Supreme Court, we had breakfast with Senator Dick Lugar, Senator Paul Sarbanes, and other members of Congress for breakfast the day after the first proposed bail-out package failed to pass. In addition, we had a variety of interesting panels on politics, human rights, and advocacy, coupled with a tour of the Philips collection and receptions / dinners with local scholars. Some speakers included: the COO of Planned Parenthood, former mayor of Baltimore, senior researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, Hilary Clinton’s chief speech writer, among many others. Each would have been a keynote speaker on his or her own right! I felt so lucky to be able to ask questions and probe the minds of these speakers on a personal level. I had a chance to discuss issues that I cared about, such as the rise of illiberal democracy, collective security in an increasingly polarized world, human rights as a guise for national interest, and the American judicial system in relation to the development of rule of law abroad. Each day, we had a packed schedule of activities and panels, but we still had time to make new friends – memories that I will never forget.

Bon Voyage weekend ended with a rousing luncheon at the Cosmos Club and an inspiring speech by Nicholas Kristof, one of my favorite columnists. He spoke about his harrowing experiences in Darfur and the conflicts he encountered while covering human trafficking in Asia and the Middle East. I had a chance to ask him a few questions that had been sitting on my mind for a while, leading to a truly fascinating discussion on the ethics of the consequences of his work. I take the message he shared very seriously – to achieve true happiness, we all need to find a cause much larger than ourselves. With so much inordinate and unjustified suffering in the world, it’s the responsibility of those with privilege to do as much as we can – we cannot take for granted all that is provided to us, for we are no deserving than any other human being. From experience, I agree with him wholeheartedly – without my involvement in YouthBank and Givology and my aspirations to promote economic development in areas of need, my life would feel much emptier.

We all boarded a plane that day to Oxford. I cried at the airport when my mother came to send me off – for the first time, it really sank in that I would be gone for two years. Now that I have arrived at Oxford, the majority of my worries have been assuaged (despite missing the majority of my pre-sessional math course). There is so much to look forward to!