Saturday Night Live has gotten a bit of a bad reputation over the past few years for becoming, well, quite lame. Recently though, SNL has been getting rave reviews thanks to Tina Fey's Sarah Palin parodies. The Katie Couric interview spoof that aired on Saturday night has been wildly popular.

While some comedy optimists are talking about some sort of SNL comeback, the reality is that it isn't coming. The Sarah Palin skits aren't funny because of brilliant writing, they are hilarious because of an extraordinarily incompetent VP candidate. In essence, Palin is writing material for SNL with each interview she does. Over the past two days, just about everyone with a cable TV show that is somehow categorized as "news" has spliced the clips together to create an embarassing moment for the VP candidate: parts of the parody are verbatim from the interview!

Sarah Palin is perhaps the best thing to happen to Saturday Night Live in years. Unfortunately, she is also one of the worst things to happen to American presidential politics in years.
I recently read quite a few good discussions regarding the legality of unpaid internships. After all, America does have a minimum wage law that is designed to protect workers from exactly what unpaid internships do: allow an organization to benefit from someone's labor at a cost so low that he or she wouldn't be able to survive on that job. As it turns out, nevertheless, unpaid internships are not illegal.

Of course, that doesn't mean they aren't without their problems. Specifically, I think there are three major issues I want to point out.

First, unpaid internships are off-limits to thousands of students: it sure would be nice if every college student was a trust fund kid who never has to worry about money; unfortunately, the world isn't such a wonderful place. There are plenty of students who have to babysit, wait tables or deliver pizzas just to afford rent and Ramen Noodles. The prospect of an unpaid internship would mean that these students would need to either trade off hours at their paid jobs, dedicate less time to schoolwork and friendships, or work so few hours at their unpaid internship that it wouldn't even be worth the time.

Second, unpaid internships attract lower-quality candidates: organizations hire interns for one of two reasons 1) to attract high quality talent to the company and open doors for these individuals or 2) exploit labor at low (or no) cost. Assuming that companies aren't so grimy as to exploit hard-working college kids (big assumption), at the end of the day, an internship will have to be truly phenomenal for a candidate to accept an unpaid internship over a paid one. In addition, paid interns are more likely to feel like a respected member of the organization and give back by working more productively and efficiently. The best candidates will flock to well-respected, paid internships - the organizations looking for unpaid interns will get to select from the rest.

Third, internships that require academic credit are a scam: college is expensive, so why would anyone pay a school for a service that isn't provided to them? When you sign up for a semester's worth of classes, presumably your tuition goes toward paying the professors, the operating cost of the classrooms, the library, etc. but if you are working at an internship (full or part-time), what service is the school providing to you? Internships that require the student to receive academic credit are huge scams and even if they turn out to be paid, students may still end up losing money on the proposition.

Final thoughts: let me make it known that I have participated in an unpaid internship, internships that paid the legal minimum wage, and internships that paid relatively generously, so I am speaking both in theory and from experience. I honestly believe that it is in the best interest of both companies and students to utilize paid internships whenever possible.

I know that there are organizations (specifically non-profits) that literally cannot afford to pay, but rely heavily on interns. In this instance, I understand the need for unpaid interns. On the other hand, for a company that is in the business of making money, hiring paid interns is really a small investment with potentially big payoff. When you think about it, paying an intern for one semester might cost as much as only a few pieces of computer equipment, a handful of television commercials, or a single direct mailing.

Finally, I know that there will be those who point out that there is simply a huge demand for internships and a limited supply, so there is nothing wrong with unpaid internships as long as dozens or hundreds of students are willing to participate in them. All I am asking is for organizations to consider the potential benefits of converting unpaid internships into paid ones, rather than simply focusing on the costs.
Economic crises seem to be a dime a dozen nowadays. In this decade alone we've had the dot-com bust, the housing collapse, and now the complete financial meltdown. We've also had a few political crises as well, 9/11 and Katrina jump to mind. The handling of each crisis has been almost eerily similar, and it is likely that crises will be handled the same way again in the future. The writing is on the wall: the energy crisis will be next. It will occur because we live in a duel-state of denial and optimism about the world's energy equation. So how does it look like the energy crisis will play out?

Phase 1 - we didn't see it coming: the first phase of any crisis is denying accountability by claiming you couldn't see the disaster coming; then you insinuate that if you had, you could have preempted it. The problem is that eventually overwhelming evidence surfaces that the crisis was predictable and there were probably very intelligent people shouting from the rooftops and were conveniently ignored. After 9/11 a document surfaced that claimed "Bin Laden determined to attack on US soil"; after Katrina the engineers all came out saying they knew about the weakness of the levees all along; in the current financial crisis, there are articles dating back 5 or more years, written by respectable authors, who warn about the exact collapse that is occurring now.

On energy, there is no shortage of screaming about the emergency. Two and a half years ago, Stephen Leeb wrote that $200 per barrel oil is coming; today Matt Simmons appears in yet another article warning about emergency-level supply shortages; T. Boone Pickins has launched a national advertising campaign to push the issue into the mainstream. Nevertheless, US leadership is almost completely uninterested in solving the problem at its root. We will continue to plead ignorance, or chant "drill, baby, drill" (which I already discussed will do nothing), but we won't bother to think ahead of the curve, probably because the rich and the powerful aren't being hurt badly enough yet.

Phase 2 - the blame game: once it has been made clear that all available evidence predicted a crisis, politicians will try to pawn off the blame on each other. "If those damn Democrats wouldn't have been so soft in the 90's, 9/11 would have never happened," or "if those damn Republicans had appointed somebody competent to FEMA and properly funded the agency we would have been OK." Democrats blame Republicans for the current financial crisis for under regulating financial markets while Republicans blame Democrats for over regulating them! Round and round the blame game goes until both sides realize they can't win.

When the energy crisis comes, Republicans will blame Democrats for holding back on domestic drilling, and Democrats will rip Republicans for not subsidizing alternatives. Eventually someone will realize that the blame game isn't stabilizing energy prices and something else needs to be done.

Phase 3 - throw lots of money around: NASDAQ stock bubble collapses? Make money absurdly cheap. New Orleans is a mess and people don't have insurance? Cut them checks. Fannie and Freddie are dying? Give them cash. Banks own too much bad debt? Buy it all up.

There is legitimate debate to be had over whether bailing out Wall Street will stabilize the economy, it very well could - but when the energy crisis comes, throwing money around will only exacerbate the problem. What are government's options? Cut checks to households and businesses so we can afford to buy energy? Nationalize the oil companies and power utilities and subsidize the sale of energy? A few problems are 1) subsidizing energy means the already tight supply to be consumed faster, driving prices up even more rapidly and 2) wealth will be transferred from energy importing countries to energy exporting countries, and it is unlikely that we will ever get that money back (let alone with interest).

Or government could throw billions at alternative energy, transit, or urban redevelopment projects when the energy crisis hits, but those will take years to build and implement, and Americans will demand immediate relief. Government might be able to buy its way out of the financial crisis, but it won't be able to use that strategy during the energy crisis. We have been able to put our heads down and force our way through the last few crises; but unless we preempt the energy crisis, once it hits, we might finally have to take a big step backward before we can move forward again. The question is: exactly how loudly do we have do we have to scream about the problem before anybody listens?
The following is an open letter to Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, City Council President Martin Sweeney, and City Coucil Members Nina Turner, Robert White, Zach Reed, Kenneth Johnson, Phyllis Cleveland, Mamie Mitchell, Stephanie Howse, Sabra Pierce Scott, Kevin Conwell, Roosevelt Coats, Michael Polensek, Anthony Brancatelli, Joe Cimperman, Joe Santiago, Brian Cummins, Kevin Kelley, Matt Zone, Jay Westbrook, Dona Brady and Martin Keane.

A condensed version of this letter has been submitted to The Plain Dealer as a letter to the editor. Edit: The Plain Dealer published my letter on Friday, September 26th, 2008. Thanks to everyone who has helped spread the word thusfar!

Dear Mayor Jackson and Cleveland City Council Members,

Yesterday’s announcement that Eaton Corp. will most likely flee from Cleveland to the suburbs was a colossal disappointment and a crushing blow to my confidence in Cleveland’s leadership. Mayor Jackson keeps talking about the concept of “regionalism” and the 50/50 tax split that Cleveland will receive from the deal. Some are calling the news a step sideways for the region and Jackson told The Plain Dealer "Cleveland will survive, as you know, our city depends on the success of this region." I’m no expert, and certainly not an elected official, but in the coming years, all evidence points to the idea that regions will depend on the success of cities; not the other way around.

There is no debate that Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and the 7 county region in Northeast Ohio is losing population at one of the most alarming rates in the country, as The Plain Dealer reported in July. Today's front page features the story that Cleveland Public Schools now has an enrollment so low that similar numbers haven't been seen since 1894. While at first glance the news that Eaton will move from Cleveland to Beachwood seems like it would have little impact on population trends, it will; and it has to do with my generation, a group who seems to be invisible to Cleveland's leadership right now.

I have lived in the Cleveland region my whole life - I want to like the city and I want to have faith in it. I have pride in Cleveland, but I could care less about the suburbs or "the region". When I think about starting and building my career in Cleveland - I want to live and work in the city, not in the suburbs. I've had enough of the suburbs - I want to ditch the suburbs for a city like Cleveland, and I am not alone. Granted, I've been impressed with, and written about Cleveland's urban renewal, but the reality is that Cleveland isn't the only city in America having an urban renewal, and frankly, Cleveland seems to be moving at a snail's pace compared to some of our neighbors.

There are plenty of my Generation Y peers who share these same feelings. As the New York Times pointed out in June:
Why young people flee the suburbs was the underlying question of the day. But there has never been much mystery about it: There is nowhere to live; not enough to do; and not enough young adults around to improvise the kind of neighborhood scene born every few years in the big city.

Some statistics from the Washington Business Journal:
According to Richard Charles Lesser’s research, 77 percent of Gen Y-ers plan to live in an urban core — a far cry from the baby boomers’ suburban dream of a white picket fence and a two-car garage. Developers are paying attention: The 80 million Gen Y-ers (30 percent of the population to the boomers’ current 25 percent) will drive the real estate market in the coming years. They’re expected to transition from renters to homeowners starting around 2012 and flood the market with demand for more urban developments. That means more condos, more apartments and more townhouses. At the same time, even many boomers are moving back toward the city in search of walkable communities.

And finally, from The Atlantic:
Cities, of course, have made a long climb back since then. Just nine years after Russell escaped from the wreck of New York, Seinfeld—followed by Friends, then Sex and the City—began advertising the city’s renewed urban allure to Gen-Xers and Millennials. Many Americans, meanwhile, became disillusioned with the sprawl and stupor that sometimes characterize suburban life. These days, when Hollywood wants to portray soullessness, despair, or moral decay, it often looks to the suburbs—as The Sopranos and Desperate Housewives attest—for inspiration.

The promise of having the new Eaton headquarters on the East Bank of the Flats was exciting because of the hope that it would accelerate the growth of what still could be Cleveland's hottest urban neighborhood. Moving Eaton's headquarters to the suburbs is not only a step backward for progress already made in downtown Cleveland, but it also makes me much less optimistic about future growth. Council President Sweeney told The Plain Dealer that the land Eaton decided to pass on, and which will now probably sit vacant, may attract a Fortune 200 company to Cleveland. Honestly, how can anyone believe such a move could happen? Cleveland cannot retain the Fortune 500 companies it has now, who exactly did you have in mind to try to lure here? And in the increasingly unlikely chance that you can, how are you going to make sure they don't opt for the suburbs?

For many in Generation Y, the decision to leave the suburbs behind has already been made. That means that the choice isn't between Cleveland or the suburbs - the choice is between Cleveland and Chicago, Washington, Charlotte, Dallas or any other city. With the limited number of opportunities that this region has available as it is, that doesn't leave much of a bargaining chip. I trust that Jackson and other leaders "did all the could" to keep Eaton in Cleveland, but the stakes are way too high for just "trying hard" - only results matter at this point. If Cleveland doesn't get its act together soon, the decisions facing Generation Y won't even be difficult.

Time Of Our Lives

"Enjoy college - it is the best time of your life." - this was a comment that I frequently heard from colleagues during my internship last winter. But what exactly makes college so wonderful? Probably not the classes, or the exams, or the papers... it can't be money, as students are usually beyond poor, surviving on Ramen noodles that they buy in bulk when they go on sale; so what is it?

Last year I read Dan Gilbert's best-seller Stumbling on Happiness. Gilbert's central thesis is that we are terrible at imagining what will make us happy, and thus we make poor decisions about how to live our lives. When it comes to college, most folks claim to know what they want in the future: they want the exciting job; they want lots of money; they want a big house in the suburbs, on an acre of grass; they want a fancy car and they want to share all of these things with their life partner.

So why do the people who have the career and the spouse and the money and house in the suburbs tell me that the best time of their lives was when they were writing papers and cramming for exams, and when they were poor and living in dorms or apartments with 7 roommates?

I believe the answer is the environment. Colleges are some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in America; every meal you eat in a cafeteria is with hundreds of peers around; most of your friends live just a flight of stairs or short walk away; few students have access to a car, but who cares? the commute to class is a short walk away!

As a society, we decided that after graduation we want to live in the least densely populated neighborhoods in America and eat meals alone in front of the TV; our friends live in other far-flung suburbs, possibly on the complete other side of town; we spend hours per day, days per year, sitting in a car and staring at the road ahead.

So here is a radical idea... we take the things that have made us happy: living in densely populated neighborhoods, near our friends and close to work; then we combine them with what we think we want: the career, the money, the awesome home. Maybe it won't change the fact that Americans in general are unhappy, but maybe we can bring down the number a little bit? After all, if the statistics in that article are right, and 48% of us believe our parents were better off than we are, why don't we ditch the super-suburban lifestyle we've developed and start living more the way our parents lived?
As a student of economics, I am often pressed to justify my support for Democratic politicians, and specifically, Barack Obama. People often point me to articles like the Feldstein and Taylor piece in the Wall Street Journal praising the McCain tax plan; the Washington Post editorial criticizing the structure of Obama's tax plan; or the strange editorial from last year's Las Vegas Review Journal claiming that Obama will spark some sort of economic class warfare. The thread that all of these articles share is that they are centered around tax policy. Fair enough, there is certainly debate to be had over which candidate's tax policy is superior; and frankly I am pretty torn on this issue. However, there is a lot more to the economy then just tax policy.

Perhaps for this reason, a new survey, which asked 523 economists (members of the American Economic Association) who they would vote for in the November election, the results came back: 66% for Obama and 28% for McCain. There are certain economic inputs on which most economists would probably agree McCain is stronger, some on which Obama is stronger, and finally, some of which are up for debate (like tax policy). The key to understanding why an economist would favor one candidate over the other is to understand how he or she ranks the importance of these issues. Through this lens, you can see why an economist might side with McCain on an issue (like tax policy), and still vote for Obama.

Let's assume for a moment that the economy is the only issue which I care about in the election. Calling an issue "the economy" is far too vast and broad, so instead, let's examine the three issues that I consider to be most vital to our economy and where the candidates stand:

Energy: Without a doubt, I consider energy to be absolutely vital to any economy. After all, energy, like taxes, is merely a cost of doing business. In that sense, you can almost think of the cost of energy as as a tax. The major difference, of course, is that taxes are paid to our own government and energy is primarily paid to other (sometimes hostile) governments. So if someone is an ardent believer in lower taxes, they would also the huge proponents of lower (or at least stable) energy costs. When it comes to energy issues, I believe Obama has a superior platform. As Tom Friedman has pointed out, Obama is the only of the two candidates we can trust on green issues and building green industries; McCain, on the other hand, has voted against green legislation in the past and is stuck pushing offshore drilling, an issue that I already warned guarantees nothing.

The energy issue is also important because a major economic criticism of Obama is that he is protectionist and pandering to blue-collar workers by suggesting that trade is not always in America's best interest. If, however, Obama successfully builds green industries in the United States, which create jobs for former manufacturing laborers and auto manufacturers, jobs that are more economic to keep here rather than outsource, then the debate over protectionism will become basically obsolete.

War/Defense: It is undeniable, war is expensive. War has pushed the federal budget from a healthy surplus to a gaping defecit. Now, granted, I consider myself Keynesian, and believe that government spending can be a great way to stimulate growth; however, I have to believe that spending billions to build sewers and bridges and railroads in America is a better use of federal funds than bullets and tanks. Granted, we are already mixed up in a war that neither candidate can end quickly. However, my confidence is squarely with Obama to withdraw resources from the war more quickly and to keep us out of future military quagmires.

Education: Whether you like it or not, the world is already a globilized place. Future economic strengh will be contingent on America's ability to innovate. Obama knows the challenges surrounding early education from his time in Chicago and his time in the Illinois Senate. Obama has promised to give the money needed to improve schools rather than handing down mandates and demanding accountability from schools that can't afford to improve. McCain's early education proposals are focused on market-based approaches that have mixed results at best. McCain's education policies look too similar to Bush's policies to give me comfort.

Economics is a complicated beast. Economists disagree about which candidate is best for the economy because they value economics inputs differently. Those who prioritize taxes and trade probably side with McCain, and those who prioritize energy and healthcare probably prefer Obama. In fact, isues like energy and healthcare have been low on the priority list in the past, and perhaps this is why economists traditionally supported and voted for Republicans. Now that the importance of these issues has changed, the stakes for economists have changed as well.
Earlier this month, Barack Obama made these comments while speaking to a crowd in Indiana:

Suddenly he's the change agent! He says, “I’m going to tell those lobbyists that their days of running Washington are over.” Who’s he going to tell? Is he going to tell his campaign chairman who’s one of the biggest corporate lobbyists in Washington? Is he going to tell his campaign manager who was one of the biggest corporate lobbyists in Washington? Is he going to tell all the folks who are running his campaign who are the biggest corporate lobbyists in Washington? Who is it that he’s going to tell that change is coming? I mean come on, they must think you’re stupid!

These comments underscore a key to Obama's campaign philosophy. He believes that Americans are inherently smart - that if you tell them the truth and make a legitimate case that they will make the correct voting decision. Is Obama correct? Last April I blogged about how folks who watch satire news are more informed about politics than those who follow mainstream media; a few month later I pointed out that, despite advances in internet technology, we are less informed than we were 20 years ago; in July, I argued that America's News IQ is so poor that it would probably be considered failing by most elementary schools.

Nevertheless, I don't think that most Americans are stupid. Think about it, have you ever talked to someone who just seems to have an incredible amount of knowledge about baseball or football or some other sport? These folks can go on for hours rattling off statistics, making predictions, and describing exactly how they would run a team if they were in charge. Or how about people who seem to know about every detail going on in the life of every celebrity? These people might not know who is the Secretary of State or what continent Georgia is on, but it would be a stretch to call them completely "stupid".

The problem arises from the fact that in our Democracy, we are asking people to vote for our government, even when they know terribly little or care terribly little. I can only imagine voting for a contestants on American Idol or selecting baseball players to the American League All-Star team; I certainly wouldn't be very good at it, because I simply don't care. And the same is true for many Americans, just replace singing and baseball with government and world events. How little do we care? In January I blogged that 66% of college students would give up their vote for president in return for year's tuition and 20% would sell it for an iPod.

What can we do about this? We could require some sort of proof that you really care about politics and government in order to vote... but that wouldn't be very "democratic" and could probably be badly abused. We could make it the law that every citizen must spend a certain amount of time learning about candidates and positions, and require each citizen to vote by law... but that would probably be unpopular, difficult to enforce and lead to backlash. Or we could simply convince people that learning about the candidates and voting is the right thing to do - that it is an invaluable right, that should be worth well more than an iPod or tuition. Of course, this is a lot easier said than done, and maybe even a liitle idealistic? Is there a solution at all?

Until Its Gone...

The hospital is about the last place anybody wants to spend their vacation, but that's exactly where I found myself about a week and a half ago. Chicago is a great city (what I saw of it anyways), but unfortunately, my most prominent memory will be of Northwestern Hospital. Maybe it was fatigue or maybe a temporary lapse of judgment, but after by biking about 22 miles up and down the Chicago shore I managed to get myself into my worst bicycling wreck to date. Apparently, my right wrist absorbed 100% of the impact from the fall, as there isn't a scratch anywhere else on my body. But as for the wrist, I fractured three bones, had to have surery on it, and now have a metal plate and a bunch of pins in my arm. In other words, my entire right hand, wrist, and arm is basically useless right now.

It isn't uncommon to hear phrases like, "you don't know what you have until its gone," or "you can't truly appreciate something until you've lost it;" and that isn't entirely untrue for me. For the past week and a half, I haven't been able to write; and if you are wondering if that makes going to school difficult, the answer is: yes, yes it does. It also makes seemingly menial tasks very difficult as well. I can still type with my left hand, but if you've ever tried, you probably know it isn't a particularly easy task.

If there ever was a time to be blogging, now would be it. With less than two months to go before a historic election, and with all the other observations that just seem to be coming to me right now, there is simply a lot to say. This is the first blog I have written since the injury; thanks to speech recognition software I installed on my Mac. To be honest, the software isn't all that spectacular. Yes, it is faster than typing with my left hand, but the accuracy is really quite poor. Every sentence you see here was typed with my voice, but just about every sentence also had some a error that required me to go back and correct (with my left hand). The software claims that the more it is used, the better it becomes; and as it learns more about me and my voice, the more accurate it gets. Whether or not that is true, is still to be determined...

I am grateful for the ability to blog at all, but my ability to blog as often as I'd like will probably be hindered, at least for the next few weeks or months.