Archive for September, 2011

Late September Ruminations

September 28, 2011 - 3:53 pm 1 Comment

My quarter-century birthday came and passed in the company of good friends. Despite the hectic lifestyle as expected of the “city that never sleeps”, the wonderful aspect of life in New York City is that you never run out of interesting activities to do. After a summer of wanting to go, I finally had a chance to visit the famous Bronx Zoo. Teeming with strollers and families, I found the zoo rather crowded, but that did not detract from the experience of seeing some of my favorite animals. I enjoyed the tiger exhibit greatly, along with the polar bears, mouse house, reptile house (brings back memories of high school!), and the giraffes, among many other animals. The most interesting fact was that there used to be 20 million buffalo roaming the United States before overzealous settlers killed them in mass quantities to near extinction – herds used to be 1 mile wide by 4 miles long!  We saw the famous baby cobra that escaped the reptile house (she was clearly the most hyperactive within the exhibit), and I even saw my favorite naked mole rat colonies. There were at least several types of mongoose at the zoo, but alas, no cobra vs. mongoose showdown…

Through Goldman Sach’s Community Teamworks program, I had a chance to volunteer for a day at Three Sisters Farm in New Jersey in a “Pony Power / Horses for Heroes” service project. Having never been around horses, at first, I felt a bit anxious about my own ability to contribute, but the day passed affably and comfortably. For the first half of the day, we worked with severely disabled children from a local high school, leading them around their horses for both mental stimulation and physical exercise for core muscles. For the latter half of the day, PTSD veterans came in from a nearby homeless veterans shelter to work with the horses, using the animals as a valve for relief, self-expression, and vocational training. Working with these two very disparate groups opened my eyes – both demographics don’t intermingle much with conventional society, existing within their own kind. The children seemed to enjoy the ride greatly in the moment, although they demonstrated little ability to recall their own experience just minutes after it ended. The veterans found comfort in the horses – in fact, some of them had owned horses before joining the war effort! In working with the staff of the farm, I learned a lot about taking care of horses, their personalities and tendencies, and their relationship with humans. The premise of Three Sisters Farm is to own donated horses for therapeutic uses – both exercise (insurance reimburses) and also psychotherapy. As much as I enjoyed the visit, I doubted the overall scalability of the effort, as horses are very expensive to maintain ($8,000+ per year) and the labor-intensity to conduct therapy sessions safely is significant (for each rider, 3 volunteers had to provide security and guidance, let alone the overall trainer). Even at a breakeven cost to non-profits and schools, Three Sisters Farms charges $60 per rider per hour! At this cost, on Givology, we can pay for a year’s worth of tuition for an elementary school student in a developing country! I communicated my views to my fellow program participants, who probably disagreed based on the principle that the project “seems to help”, but given my background in development economics and focus on the return on every dollar spent in aid, I felt that even though the principle was elegant, it’s simply not cost effective. Maybe for wealthy parents who can afford these sessions for their own children on a private basis, perhaps, but certainly a niche market.

Continuing on the theme of “Goldman Sachs Gives Back”, I participated in the Susan Komen Breast Cancer 5k Race that took place in Central Park. Despite being exhausted by traveling (came back late at night from my home in Virginia), I found an incredible, inspiring energy in the thousands that gathered to raise millions for their mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, colleagues, and friends. The sheer amount of goodwill and encouragement really overpowered me. On the backs of the runners, who swarmed Central Park completely, many wore plaques dedicated “in celebration of” and “in memory of” their loved ones, let alone the many survivors who led the pack in a great show of resilience and hope. Many of the runners had immensely personal causes to share, all united with a deep conviction to stamp out breast cancer.

Europe and Greece continue to weigh on investor minds – one day, it’s all doom and gloom, the next, all hope and the possibility of a breakthrough. Work has been progressing nicely – with my first year under my belt, I feel a lot more comfortable in my current position and have found efficiency gains in the speed in which I complete tasks (albeit I have to make sure I stop making careless mistakes)!

Givology progresses well – we have a new joint event with Shining Hope Foundation for December 3rd in New York City, which we hope will attract a lot of attention and attendance. Shining Hope has done some truly extraordinary work in the Kibera Slums of Kenya, from constructing water towers to help thousands in the community access clean, safe water to starting a school for girls focused on empowerment and achievement. The founders were undergraduates at Wesleyan University – CEO Kennedy Odede who grew up in Kibera himself, and his partner COO Jessica Posner, who now resides full time in Kibera to carry out their program. Both were awarded the prestigious 2010 Echoing Green Fellowship, and have been featured on Do Something, Dell Social innovation Competition, Clinton Global Initiative, among other channels. We’re very proud to support their work, especially since the Kibera School has helped some of the most at-risk girls achieve their aspirations, mobilizing creative curriculum and experienced teachers to deliver inspiration. Without this tuition-free school (the first of its kind within the community), many of these girls would have turned to prostitution or would have married young, continuing the cycle of poverty and abuse. By pooling our resources together, I expect we’ll throw a fantastic event to raise over $25,000 in one night!

Unfortunately, however, several key team members of Givology have departed, so we’re in the process of rebuilding parts of our core team. Alas, it’s the nature of a volunteer-driven organization to go through these cycles. Nevertheless, these team members have shown great dedication in assisting with the transition, and I expect that we’ll have these holes in our organization filled soon. If you are interested in learning more about the roles that are currently available or getting more involved with Givology, please contact me or leave a comment! There’s no one ever too young or old – everyone can join the team, inspire others, lead a project, and ultimately, make a difference!

My birthday in NYC passed in the company of my closest friends. From walking the newly extended High Line in Chelsea and sampling Korean-French tapas at Danji to visiting the Arts & Design Museum at Columbus Circle and gathering with friends for Argentine food, I truly enjoyed my birthday weekend in the presence of my favorite people. And now, I have a new Nook reader to conveniently take with me, and a netbook for all my mobile computing needs! Just yesterday, I received the sweetest cards from my mom and dad, reminding me that I have the strength to overcome my bad days and that regardless of any obstacles or challenges thrown my way, I have my family to count on unconditionally.

On a completely different note, I’m enjoying my new apartment immensely. Compared to the dingy conditions I endured for my first year, this new place feels like palace! My roommates are nice, which is a big plus, and Battery Park City is only a few blocks away for a beautiful and scenic run with the skyline of New Jersey and New York in full view!

Reflections on Washington

September 26, 2011 - 9:25 am 1 Comment

As markets go haywire, work dominates my mind, but overall, life progresses nicely. With political gridlock and brinksmanship in Washington over formerly procedural issues such as raising the debt ceiling, our political system has betrayed the confidence of the populace. Unlike Europe in which the Eurozone is structurally challenged by monetary union without fiscal harmonization, the US could easily avoid our self-inflicted pain by shoring up long-term finances through a balance of revenue increases and spending cuts on entitlements, while embarking on an aggressive short term fiscal stimulus to put the economy back on its growth trajectory. Instead, we find ourselves waiting for supercommittee recommendations, with Republicans stoutly pledging against all tax increases (even those on the wealthy) and the sequestration mechanism a looming overhang, disliked by all but seemingly unavoidable to the pessimists and pundits. My own perspective is that with Congressional disapproval rate at 88%, the supercommittee will come up with a package that evades the trigger and at least signals some Congressional progress, but very far from the structural 3.5-4T balanced approach that the country needs to take. Human incentives frighten me as we enter the 2012 presidential election year – given that jobs availability and overall economic conditions clinch the race for the incumbent, Obama and the Democrats have every impetus to boost spending and maximize recovery, while the Republicans…well, they benefit if we just do nothing and conditions deteriorate.

A NYT article revealed that rather than encouraging their senators and representatives to find middle ground after the debt ceiling debacle, ordinary citizens actually spent angry letters to their representatives on why they didn’t stick further to their guns! I’m frightened by some of the rhetoric that floats around – Rick Perry calling Bernanke “treasonous”, certain Tea Party members hankering for a government fiscal default. Even simple things that ought to have required little deliberation – such as passing the 2012 continuing resolution of which whose framework was already negotiated this summer – was derailed as Republicans cut spending for disaster relief programs. At some point, I hope Republicans will just stop saying “no” (even within their own coalition) to come up with middle of the ground solutions critical to our country’s health.

There are a couple of paradoxes on the micro scale that elude me – if you have any answers, please leave a comment to help me figure this out. First, given the Republican supporter base, I am confused as to why Obama’s proposal for taxes on millionaires would appear so repugnant. Sure, the wealthy tend to vote Republican, but they are also a small percentage of the total US population (households worth at least $1m are only 2.7% of the total US population while affluent households worth 500k or above comprise 4.4% of the population) and correspondingly, only a minority of the total Republican voter base. Given that the Republican party appeals strongly to social conservatives (red voting areas tend to be more rural where incomes often are lower), the vast majority of Republican voters would see no benefit from maintaining such low tax levels for the wealthy. On the contrary, raising taxes, shoring up US finances, and investing in supply side infrastructure to stimulate employment and productivity growth critical to US competitiveness would benefit everyone. According to exit polls in the 2010 elections that ushered in a slew of freshmen Tea Party members, those with household incomes less than $50,000 were 37% of the total who voted – a quite significant amount! Furthermore, elderly voting turnout is the highest, which favored Republican House candidates 59% to 38%, even though the elderly tend to subsist on a fixed income and fall into the lower income brackets. Hence, we have the paradox that the broadest group within the Republican base is middle class if not lower, yet remain diametrically opposed to revenue policies that would benefit them.

Yes, the easy answer out is the fact that 1) election campaign contributions come from the wealthy and that 2) on principle, the Republicans oppose all tax increases in the name of limited government. But I find this sort of argument unconvincing. The first argument suggests that the US in essence operates as a plutocracy – where election funding drives policy considerations. Although I’d be blind to claim that elected officials are immune from all influence, given the structure of our democratic system, even if large special interest contributions to elections foster certain views, they cannot mitigate that in the end, electability depends on the majority. In the absence of vote buying, the majority (as well as press & media) will scathingly discipline representatives who transgress too far. After all, in our society, falls from grace attract great popular interest.

As for the second argument, although perhaps elegant in nature, even if Republicans overall dislike tax increases, they must be willing to differentiate between different types of tax increases and their overall effect. As an instrument of policy, it would be willful negligence to claim that categorically, taxes create a pernicious effect. Let’s look some alternative analogies- the same concept applies. For example, killing in principle is wrong, but we make exceptions such as self-defense. Exercise is good for the body, but pushing too hard to the extreme can create damage. In this world, there are no absolutes – everything depends on the context.

Alas, lamenting does little good for this country. There are clear and concrete steps that the US government can take to restore confidence in the country, yet the degree of polarization remains so high that even simple, supposedly uncontroversial actions (such as passing the continuing resolution for which the terms were already supposedly set in early August) require an act of brinksmanship. If only the concern of ordinary citizens can suffice to incentivize the political system in Washington to keep moving forward!

July and August

September 1, 2011 - 11:23 am 1 Comment

Alas, I find myself falling behind on my blog again. Since my last update, the financial markets have roiled turbulently and my life (for the most part) has taken a step up in pace, but nevertheless enjoyably so.

Starting with Givology, our July 29th event very well – we had over 300 people attend the event through the course of the night, including our special guests and grassroots partners. By leveraging the contacts at the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation and tapping into a broader network, we raised over $8,000 in profit, of which 100% go to our partner schools! Not having much event planning experience in the past, I took up the seemingly Herculean task of coordinating the logistics for the event. Despite the many hours that went into the event and the late nights spent after work, I found the overall process incredibly rewarding and manageable, especially since I had the unwavering support of the entire NYC chapter, the wider Givology team & MNSF foundation staff, and my dad, mom, and sister. I learned some important lessons from the event, and drew inspiration from our network, the stories of the partners that we featured, and the power of harnessing visual creative arts to motivate action. Notably, we had Valentino Achak Deng fly in from Sudan to speak! Mobilizing a 100% volunteer driven organization is intrinsically difficult since you have to motivate people to give up their free time, but at the same time, the symbolic idealism is a lot more potent – none of us treat Givology as a profession, rather, it is our passion and we’re able to do more with the same amount of funding.

Special thanks to the NYC chapter for their tireless dedication, the MNSF team, our volunteers who did everything from serve food to run the registration desk, the Jubilee Project team, who helped capture our event at Union Square, our grassroots partners who braved the bad weather to come to NYC to support us, our wonderful board members, my family who took a day off from work and school to help me with event prep, and to Joey Kilrain, who painted our “Mark the World” mural. You can view more pictures and event re-cap here: www.marktheworld.org, and I’ve put down the two videos that we featured at the event:

Givology and MNSF Partnership Announcement:

Jubilee Project “Make Your Mark” Video:

Overall, our “Make Your Mark” finale gave us a lot of exposure and momentum for our next campaigns upcoming in the Fall, especially as Jenn and I met with key stakeholders in the ensuing weeks to bring on more supporters and to broaden our network! For example, I had a chance to visit 10×10 studios to discuss potential opportunities of collaboration, spoke with Great Nonprofits about being part of their “back to school” campaign, and I met Lawrence Downes of the New York Times, where we had a really fascinating conversation about the sustainability and oversight of development aid. As I try to update this blog more often, stay tuned for more details about our “Spirit of Giving” campaign and other new initiatives.

As for other updates (in no particular order) in my life:

The day after the event, I went to Baltimore with my family, where we enjoyed strolling Inner Harbor at night and absorbing the cityscape. Our original plan was to attend Otakon, but frankly, I was ill-prepared and exhausted, though seeing everyone else decked out in costumes and having a great time certainly made me wistful.  Regardless, I had a wonderful time exploring the Walters Art Museum and spending time with my parents and grandparents.

Outside of Givology, life continues more or less the same. I’ve discovered that unlike school in which time is episodic in nature, driven by nodes of activity and denouement, working full time is akin to a marathon in which routine becomes reality. Days disappear quickly, and just like that, I’m now on to my second year at Goldman. For the first two weeks of August, markets went haywire on concerns of Europe and fiscal/monetary policy actions in the US – I saw a bull market when I joined the group, now I’m preparing for the opposite.

After many months of my mother’s cajoling, my grandparents came from Taiwan to visit. As Grace studied intra-cultural relations, she had practical exposure at home where collisions of cultural mores erupted in sometimes violent ways. Although I admire my elderly grandparents’ insistence in their independence and capabilities on their own accord, I simultaneously sympathize with my mother’s harried concerns as she rightfully points out that their current lifestyle isn’t healthy (EX: my diabetic grandfather loves to eat simple carbohydrates and white rice). Blissfully rising above occasional household strife, my dad continues to expand his repertoire of recipes and culinary adventures; from falafel to grilled seafood, his most recent escapade brings him to the wonders of the crock pot. In describing his newfound techniques, my dad near waxes poetic about this re-discovered kitchen device. When both he and Grace came to visit me on Grace’s birthday weekend, I had a wonderful experience of sampling my dad’s dishes!

Grace turned 24 a couple weeks ago, and we celebrated in high fashion. I gave her my i-pad, as well as some other gifts of celebration. Alas, no matter how many years past, I will always view Grace has my dear little sister. I really wish she could visit me more often…the world somehow always brighter when Grace is around – the magic of a little sister! We went to the Natural History Museum, watched “Tricks the Devil Taught Me” (ugh), saw Cowboys and Aliens (very odd movie and concept), relished lots of tasty food (though I prefer my dad’s and mom’s home cooking), and enjoyed exploring the streets of New York together.

Hurricane Irene came and passed with much hooblah but little impact. As I live in Zone A, I had to relocate, but nothing really happened in Manhattan as the storm had lost its fervor by Saturday evening. Mayor Bloomberg had shut down the subway system in anticipation of a catastrophe and businesses decided to close, transforming busy Manhattan into a ghost town on a relative basis. All it meant was that I stayed inside and watched a marathon of the Godfather, along with other movies and television – some old fashioned rest and relaxation in a mindless manner!