Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Micro-Welfare-State Runs on Coffee

So, as some of you may have noticed, I'm in law school now!
Oh hey, caramel cheesecake friend
This is hilarious and unexpected, mostly because a year ago I thought I wanted to grow up to be an economist and that I'd never ever ever go to law school or be a lawyer. Surprise! I was wrong.* It turns out law school is everything I ever wanted - it's full of hard books where grammar and punctuation matter, your brain gets lots smarter, and you can get into a really heated argument about an imaginary case for fun. Yep - for fun. It's like if you lived your whole life as a vegan, and then discovered cheesecake existed. AMAZING.

The bird is actually on a pizza stone 
So while I'm over here noshing on some intellectual cheesecake, it turns out that the cafe/food service at the law school is in the process of being replaced. Now, I just came from a tiny college where we didn't have a food service, and instead fended for ourselves in the streets of Manhattan (I was playing the Hunger Games before you thought it was cool. I've battled for the last piece of free pizza - and lived to tell about it). So, in my mind, being without a cafe/food service is part of life. But this is not true.

See, in this magic place called "law school," there are amazing things called "endowments" and "donations," which lead to "free things." For the past two weeks, this has meant that every morning, we have coffee, cream, sugar, bagels, cream cheese, and sometimes yogurt. The first day, it was a surprise. The second day, it was a happy "oh, it's here AGAIN?!?" All subsequent days, it was a veritable bloodbath to get there before the free coffee ran out.

What happened? Simply, a little bit of grace became an entitlement.

The first day of law school, I walked past a table with bagels and coffee and figured either I missed an email (which, considering the amount of time I spend checking email is kind of impossible), or this was a nice "in case you forgot your breakfast, here's a happy little bonus for you" gesture. I thought "awww, how sweet. What idiot forgets his Wheaties on the first day? I don't need this."

The second day of law school, I walked past the same table of food and thought "Hmmm. How long is this going to keep happening? Is there a sign?" Sure enough, a little sign said that this would be there until we had food service again. I got some coffee.

The third day of law school, I held out on coffee for a bit, and then walked over, only to find out that the coffee was GONE. I was indignant. How dare they put out free coffee and RUN OUT? Didn't these people understand that we were very tired law students? And the nearest coffee shop was a seven-minute walk in 103 degree heat. INJUSTICE! I was supernaturally fatigued, so I went home (five-minute walk) and made my own coffee. After I got back, they replaced the coffee. I looked at the time so that I'd never miss the afternoon refill again.

Look at my all-natural food mound!
The fourth day of law school, I decided to be polite and wait a bit before getting coffee. It was all gone. I was hoping they'd have some yogurts, but there were none out. Bummer. I ate a protein bar I had along.

This has continued, in varying degrees, for seven days of law school. And guess what? Pretty much everyone has had a similar reaction. It's gone from a novelty to a research project to a system to beat to something we can't live without to something to use only if it's better than what you already have.

In other words, UT Law created a micro-welfare-state. And it offered the same alarmingly bad results, just in a shorter time frame as the American welfare state.

First, it was something there as a bonus. A little bit of grace if you fell on hard times and forgot your breakfast or lost your job.

The goal.
Then it was a system with its own set of rules. It would last until new circumstances arose (like a working food service, or you getting a job). It implicitly created perverse incentives for those new circumstances to arise. (You're rooting for freebies.)

Third, living without it became a crisis and a personal insult to you and your way of life. An inconvenience became a grave injustice. Life without free coffee (or a check from the government)? AN OUTRAGE.

Finally, it's a system to use if it's a little better than what you could be doing. Make minimum wage for 40 hours a week, or collect a check for no hours of work? Meh, government check is good, unless I have something better. No yogurt? Meh, I'll eat this protein bar I have laying around.

Readers, you know me. You know how much I love a bargain. But if that bargain isn't sustainable, if that bargain reads like an effort to create a free lunch, if that bargain creates perverse incentives, then that's not a bargain. That's a very expensive way to give a little grace. Sure, we all need a little grace sometimes. But if giving out a little grace ends up costing billions, perhaps we ought to scale back and only give a little grace, right?

I acted really entitled in a micro-welfare-state in:

Multicolored striped pencil skirt, blue sleeveless button-up shirt, gold earrings, brown watch, brown and gold flower ring, and russet platform wedge sandals.

*This may be the only time I admit in writing that I was wrong about something. Don't quote me out of context - the last thing I want to do is turn on the TV in 40 years and see some blurb running across Matt Lauer's knees (they will have kept him alive, convinced he's the answer to ratings) about how "Promising political candidate Alexandra ___________ [please let my last name have changed by that point] admits "I was wrong." More, right after our water-skiing hamster bit!" NOT. HAPPENING. 

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