Column 50

I spent most of my life wanting to be more alone: wanting to leave neighborhood pickup whiffle ball games early so that I could instead go read a book, wanting my own bedroom at home instead of sharing with my brother, wanting to leave home for college and, once here, waiting anxiously to have a single. No roommate for me; I just wanted to be alone.

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That fantasy of seclusion is deeply carved into the American psyche, built into the narratives of every successful politician and every movie superhero. Even the Bible sends its protagonist to the wilderness for rebirth. We aspire to retreat into the backwoods when all else fails, and then to wall ourselves off in gated houses ringed by hedges when we succeed. While we work towards that lofty vision, we make do with white wires that plug music into our heads and lounges that have been converted into dorms because we don’t value the space that we provide as much as we value the contributions of a few more paying customers.

Even in our romantic efforts, such as they are at this place, we tend towards the solitary. There is no lonelier moment than the long walk home the day after a meaningless encounter, no deeper connection in a single drunken rendezvous with a stranger, where the conversation is scattered, not remembered, or entirely absent. We say that we would like to fix this, but we never take action to change.

We have become far too skilled at being alone together.

This is my fiftieth and final column for the Campus. While turning in my thesis last week might have seemed a more momentous occasion, these pieces stacked on top of each other would make a taller pile. In a little over a week I will ski down the Snow Bowl, pack my possessions into my car, and hope that it doesn’t break down on my way out of the state. I will finally have the option to be completely alone. I could call it soul-searching, or recharging, tell everyone that I need some space. But at long last, perhaps later than I might have hoped, I know that is not what I want.

We blaze trails not so that we might escape the world, but so that others might follow. Life is better with companionship. We are not born alone nor do we die that way; we are born into the embrace of our families and when we die they gather around to recount the happy moments of our lives, and the moments in between where we steal solitude from company are the moments most likely to later bear the tinge of regret.

As I move on into the next chapter, I do not regret the excesses of my time in college: the times that the night ended and the sun rose over the Green Mountains while my friends and I sat and talked about everything and nothing, the hours spent in Proctor over many tiny courses, or the morning classes that I blew off to head to make fresh tracks at the Snow Bowl. What I do regret are the times that I held back. I regret waiting until junior year to try out the sailing and debate teams. I regret waiting to join my social house and the Campus editorial staff until my senior spring, content for too long to contribute only this column. I regret valuing solitude and down time over team spirit and hard work.

The best friends that I have made here have been when I have taken a chance and given other people the chance to reject me flat out or welcome me into their circle. That may seem like an incredibly obvious point for a final column, but it is one that we only think about at orientation and I know too many people here with that same problem. Instead of complaining about hookup culture, ask somebody out the dinner, drinks or skiing. A shocking number of my male and female friends complain about the lack of dating at Middlebury. Too many seem to fear that the sheer act of asking reeks of desperation, but the regret of not acting far outlasts whatever embarrassment it might cause (especially if you don’t write about it in the Campus). Middlebury only changes when we do.

Some last shout-outs from my bully pulpit: Hannah — I was convinced that we would be at each other’s throats, but I have really looked forward to working with you every week to put this section together.  Kyle and Alex — you have done an amazing job this semester. Middlebury — fossil fuel divestment makes financial sense. Rachel and the SGA — please reconsider the community education requirement. Dining services — more taco days! To everyone who read “Apply Liberally” over the past four years — it’s been a pleasure. I leave you with the words of President Josiah Bartlett (D-Sorkinland):

What’s next? 

Illustration by Nolan Ellsworth

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One Strike and You’re Bankrupt

The day that I was supposed to head home for winter break and the holidays, I put my foot down on the brake pedal of my car and it didn’t stop. It was a scary moment that could have resulted in serious damage, so I decided to take my car to the mechanic before braving the 300 mile journey to Western New York. Two days later and $1200 poorer, I finally made it home.

I didn’t buy that car. I never had to scrape together enough savings or make a monthly car payment. When he bought it new in 2002, my grandfather had — rightly — called it the last car that he would ever own. It was my first.

I don’t pay the insurance on that car, either. My parents cover the cost of that through their policy (and if they haven’t given that recent thought, this will be a very expensive column for me). I pay for the gas and the maintenance costs, and for small repairs. But when calamity strikes, my parents are still my first call. This does necessarily not make me lazy; when my parents wanted to buy their first house, they too called their parents, who probably never could have called on their own for such a favor. If the goal of each generation is to leave their children better off, then success is not something that happens overnight. It builds over years, through family, across generations. We benefit from the hard work and good fortune of those who came before.

Most people in the United States do not have this option. Their ancestors weren’t on the boat as early, or were denied the same opportunities, or were unlucky. If they run into car trouble around the holidays, they must take it out of the money that they might otherwise spend on Christmas presents for their kids, on family trips, or on visits to the dentist. Or they scrap their car and hope that a bus comes along. Millions of Americans live just one piece of misfortune away from utter financial ruin. Some of them may be lazy or unimaginative. Some of them might not have given their bootstraps a tug. But the vast majority are pulling with all of their might, and their fingers are getting sore, but they stay locked in poverty, struggling to make things work out somehow. Until one day their brake pedal sinks to the floor and it all falls apart.

In the alleged economic recovery of the last few years, the type of middle class jobs that come with the type of salary that allows for saving have largely been replaced by low-wage or minimum wage jobs. With a federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour, a worker who might need a car to get to their job every day would need to work for more than 160 hours — four full-time weeks — just to pay for those repairs. Ford could help by making more reliable cars, but the federal government can help by raising the minimum wage, which when adjusted for inflation is a third lower than its original level. Raising the minimum wage will not slow job growth, especially since many of the worker who would benefit work in service sector jobs that cannot move overseas. Instead, a raise in the wage would help to shift money from record corporate profits and executive compensation to the people who will immediately return that money to the economy. This is not because they lack in thrift, but because their daily needs exceed their daily income.

I have worked in a number of jobs throughout my time in college — landscaper, janitor, web designer, research assistant. For me this has always been a point of pride. I like to think of myself as financially independent and fiscally responsible. But this ignores some inconvenient realities. It ignores the nature of success and the nature of generational improvement. When you are one unexpected serious illness away from bankruptcy, or homelessness, or not being able to afford breakfast for your children — situations that plague millions of Americans — every day is a battle and every spin of the roulette wheel could be deadly. When you struggle to survive it is much more difficult to further your education or build a career. When you struggle to stay out of the ditch it is much more difficult to climb the slippery hill and look beyond it to the stars than if you started two thirds of the way up the slope, where the pitch starts to level. The American Dream is not a rocket ship, but rather a hard slog and the people just starting the trek do not deserve our scorn. They deserve our help.

Community by Another Name

On Friday, a week into “new member education” — “pledge” for those not versed in doublespeak — the leadership of Kappa Delta Rho received a letter from Dean of Students Katy Smith Abbott stating that in response to “an allegation of potential hazing,” all functions of the house would be suspended for an indeterminate amount of time to allow for an investigation. Each new member — who at a less absurdly Orwellian institution might be accurately referred to as a “pledge” — was interviewed individually. In some cases, the interviews were conducted by officers from the Department of Public Safety. In most, however, they were run by an external private investigator, Nancy Stevens, at a cost to the student body that likely ran into the thousands of dollars. The investigation, unsurprisingly, found nothing; there was nothing to find. A similar investigation in the fall of 2011 also found that no hazing. It seems unlikely that an apology is forthcoming for either unnecessary investigation. It seems equally unlikely that actual guilt matters.

Various members of the college administration often wax eloquent about the need to foster a greater sense of community on this campus. Yet social houses provide one of the strongest and enduring sources of community on an otherwise transitory campus. Even the most fervent haters of Delta cannot argue that filling Prescott house with first-years and turning its party space into a classroom has somehow improved the Middlebury social scene. Super blocks are not an adequate substitute; a super block moves into an on-campus house for a single year and then vanishes, its members joined by friendship or convenience rather than an interest in being a part of something larger. The administration has attempted to remedy this problem by giving the Super Blocks a theme, but the dearth of actual programming along those lines shows that effort has largely failed.

When students join a social house, they become part of traditions and culture that have endured for decades. Attempting to make it impossible for the current members to pass these along to new initiates is to try and create a Middlebury with no institutional memory — where students come and go with no knowledge or interest in what came before and what will follow, where the stories of a house’s previous tenants vanish down the memory hole.

Social houses are not the repositories of white, male, conservative privilege often associated with Greek life on other campuses. Instead, these houses are some of the only institutions on a campus otherwise fiercely divided by race, class, and gender politics that bring a diverse membership together with a common interest in a space and a set of traditions. In this they have been much more successful again than the other block housing options, which are often composed by students who come from similar backgrounds.

By contrast, KDR is arguably the most diverse organization on campus in both race and socioeconomic status, rivaling interest clubs whose specific purpose is to promote cultural understanding. That breadth of cultural exposure isn’t found elsewhere on campus in a structured setting. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the composites next time you visit. A coeducational membership also creates a unique dynamic in social houses that can provide an example for Greek life across the country. The Middlebury chapter of Kappa Delta Rho was recently readmitted into the national fraternity as a full and equal chapter, where it serves a model for the future.

The social houses of Middlebury College are institutions of which we should be proud. Their existence should be a selling point to prospective students — part of a trend that began here. But instead of trumpeting the diversity and progressiveness of the houses here, tour guides barely mention their existence unless prompted. Instead, the administration throws a series of strict anti-hazing regulations of the social houses that hardly make sense. Scavenger hunts and walks through the woods suddenly become dangerous and illegal. If my friends were to blindfold me on the way to a surprise birthday party, I would presumably have a strong anti-hazing case against them. The administration claims to use a “reasonable person standard” and suggests the type of alternative activities that might be appropriate for a middle school slumber party. One of their recommendations was to make a scrapbook. If mandated scrapbooking is not hazing, then I do not know what is.

This is not to make light of actual hazing. Hazing is a dangerous crime. But in the social houses here at Middlebury — at least in those that are not underground – it simply does not happen. It is long pastime for the administration to cease using absurd allegations of hazing as an excuse to strain, malign, and ultimately destroy one of the best sources of the community on this campus.

Popping the Carbon Bubble

Last week in Oslo, Marius Holm of the ZERO Foundation presented a report that I co-wrote this summer along with a number of environmental and financial professionals making the case for fossil fuel divestment in Norway’s government pension fund, a portfolio so large that it dwarfs the size of all American university endowments combined. Many of the arguments were specific to Norway, which, as one of the largest producers of oil and gas in the world, is ill-advised to double down on its exposure to shifts within the fossil energy industry. As a fund that already has in place the type of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria for investment missing from Middlebury’s endowment, the debate in Norway is not over whether divestment is an appropriate tool for creating change, but rather how far that tool should be extended. While Middlebury would be well advised to lead the way by creating similar investment screens, even in the absence of concerns about endowment ethics the arguments for divestment in Norway can inform the ongoing debate on this campus.

- Art by Amr Thameen

– Art by Amr Thameen

Over the past six months, many market analysts have revised their predictions for future oil prices from around $110 per barrel to down into the $80 to $90 range. A number of factors are driving this downward trend — increased efficiency of automobiles, uncertainty over future regulations and a Chinese economy far more overleveraged than that of the United States prior to the financial crisis. All of these factors contribute to falling oil demand, which in a world of abundant oil supply means that prices must soon begin to fall.

At lower prices, many of the types of tar sands, ultra-deepwater and shale oil projects currently under development would fail to earn back their investment capital. Any regulatory action that limits carbon dioxide emissions will inevitably require some of these reserves — which have already been factored into the share value of oil companies — to remain in the ground. Expectations about reserves have a significant effect on the share price of fossil fuel companies. When Shell reduced its estimated reserves by 20 percent in January 2004, its share price plunged by 10 percent in a single week. These concerns recently led a large group of investors representing over $100 billion in assets managed by companies that include Boston Common Asset Management and Storebrand Asset Management to issue a call that Norwegian Oil Company Statoil withdraw from tar sands extraction.

World Financial Markets – and, by proxy, the Middlebury College Endowment – are being inflated by a looming Carbon bubble. If you accept that there is a scant one-in-four chance that the world will meet the IEA’s targets to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, the expected value of the endowment’s position in fossil energy equities is already ten percent inflated.  The loss of value if climate change is defeated would be forty percent, which would affect the College’s ability to pay employees, undergo capital projects and award financial aid to deserving students.

The College Administration and Trustees no doubt have faith that, as professional investment managers, Investure will be able to anticipate the shift in fossil energy share prices before they actually arrive. But that poses a significant risk to the endowment – a risk that we would do well to avoid. When financial markets adjust to reflect the changing reality of fossil fuel use, the adjustment will not be smooth or gradual. It will come suddenly and leave those too slow to act with heavy losses. For some of the market, it already has. After an energy speech by President Obama that pledged increased regulation of power plants and an end to international development aid for non-Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) coal plants, the shares of coal companies including Peabody Energy and Walter Energy took dives of 3.4 and 10.4 percent respectively, adding to a year in which Peabody Energy has lost half its value and Walter Energy has lost three quarters. The Stowe Global Coal index, which lists coal-producing companies, fell the same day to its lowest level since the 2009 financial crisis. Utilities across Europe have similarly plunged unexpectedly in response to competition from renewable energy.

To be bullish on the future of the fossil fuel industry is the rough equivalent of a bullish outlook on the nuclear industry sometime after the alarm bells went off at Three Mile Island or after the wave headed for Fukushima. It is comparable to a bet on CFC-producing companies sometime between the discovery of the massive hole in the Ozone layer and the ratification of the Montreal protocol, or a bet on fax machines after the invention of the Internet. Coal and oil powered the 19th and 20th centuries. Their glory days are past. To bet on their future is to bet either against the future of humanity or against the overwhelming judgment of science.

The Sky Falling is a Bad Thing

All across America, Conservative commentators are jumping up and down, waving their hands in the air, pointing at glitches in the month-old roll-out of Obamacare and yelling “I told you so!” Republicans are so eager to turn attention away from their destructive shenanigans in the budget and debt ceiling debate that more column inches have been devoted to the launch of a website than at any other time in human history. None of them, of course, go so far as to suggest an alternative to fix the actual problem: the 50 million uninsured Americans who could go bankrupt at the first appearance of major illness.

One such offender was fellow columnist Ben Kinney ’15. His column of last week contained a number of the troubling factual errors that have characterized the entire debate. First was the assertion that he lost faith in the workability of the Affordable Care Act while watching Kathleen Sebelius flub an interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart just weeks ago. I understand as well as anyone the temptation to use a recent statement to jump into a column (case in point) but I suspect that Kinney belongs firmly in the camp of the Republicans rooting against the program — and doing their best to sabotage its success — from its inception.

More troubling was Kinney’s claim that “The Obama Administration has already spent half-a-billion dollars creating an unusable website…how can we trust it to effectively manage the complex and varied health care needs of 400 million Americans?” This would be a reasonable criticism, if it were in any way correct. Kinney overestimated the number of Americans by 83 million and the cost of the website by roughly $400 million according to the fact-checking website Media Matters. To be fair, he was not alone in this error; much like the $200 million-per-day India trip in 2010, the myth of the absurdly expensive website has flown through a gleeful conservative media looking for any shred of evidence to pin the President as an old-school tax-and-spend liberal.

Kinney’s later claims are less defective in their veracity than deceptive in their scope. He says that health insurance premiums under Obamacare are significantly higher than current premiums. This ignores the vast majority of owners of health insurance plans, who get their coverage through their employers, Medicaid, or Medicare. Those who will see their rates increase are the five percent of Americans who purchase their insurance as individuals and an additional five percent who previously had no health insurance. Some of those people were young, healthy and had previously opted not to purchase insurance. Unsurprisingly, buying health insurance instead of playing a literal game of Russian roulette with fatal illness represents a rate increase for those individuals. A quarter of people who previously did not buy health insurance were unable to do so due to a preexisting illness. For them, the coverage they will gain from the law represents the difference between a nonzero monthly cost and complete medical bankruptcy, or death.

Many of the cheaper plans purchased by consumers in this individual marketplace prior to the law cost less for a reason — they were the insurance equivalent of a shot of whisky and a prayer. They wouldn’t cover the cost of an ambulance or a night in the hospital, and they could be cancelled during treatment due to costs. Obamacare will subsidize the increased cost of health insurance for people making less than 400 percent above the poverty line, but that cannot get around the fact that owning usable health insurance will always cost more than useless or absent insurance — until disaster strikes.

Health insurance, plain and simple, saves lives. When Conservatives point to website glitches and the states across the nation who have refused to expand Medicaid to bring coverage to the uninsured and call Obamacare a failure, they’re ignoring the greater tragedy. The website will eventually be fixed. The states refusing to expand coverage have done so out of ideological spite. And in the richest nation in the world, Americans continue to die because they cannot afford to buy health insurance. Instead of pointing at these failings as a sign that the twice-elected President isn’t so great after all, how about working on a solution?