Sunday, September 15, 2013

Christmas Race

Last night, a bunch of us took a break from studying, bought a few bottles of wine and went down to Piazza Maggiore - the main square in Bologna - to have an open air night. Public consumption is a-ok here and, as a student, I try to remind myself of that when others want to go to the bar. You can get a bottle of wine from the store for the same cost as a glass of wine at a bar. Plus, in the Piazza, you have a much nicer ambiance. Towards the end of the night, the natural competitiveness between us students came out and it was resolved through a foot race across one side of the square. It reminded me of how central "racing" is to my life. To some, a foot-race across an Italian square at midnight might sound like the result of inebriation, but I don't need encouragement for a head-to-head sprint.

I've found myself telling people more often about the tradition of the foot-race in my family. It's this tradition that my uncle started when I was a little kid - maybe five years old. My grandparents had a circular drive in front of their house that was about 50 yards in circumference. I don't remember a time in my life when the circular drive wasn't associated with running around it; specifically racing against my uncle.

I'm not sure if the first race was actually on Christmas day, but tradition quickly took hold and deemed that December 25th was race day. Running a race around the circular drive quickly became synonymous with the Christmas Day Race. Every year throughout my childhood, my uncle and I would approach the starting line (usually some sort of crack in the pavement) and run a lap around the circle back to the same point. As most activities involving uncle and nephew, he used it as an opportunity to torment me. He'd run shortcuts through the yard, run the opposite direction, hold the back of my shirt... all sorts of things. It wasn't too far removed from a Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon. Maybe that's where he got his inspiration. As we both got older, I got faster and he got slower. The race course got shorter, the finish-line less precise, and cousins got added to the mix. By the time I was in my late teens, it wasn't just me and my uncle running around the drive, there were four other cousins gunning for us. We started spending Christmas at other people's houses. My aunt's driveway served as the course one year - we abandoned all orthodoxy and even swam the short length of Barton Springs one year (although I think that one was technically Christmas eve).

One year my uncle introduced a new standard for victory: the winner was the one who demonstrated the most "horsepower", not the one who crossed the finish-line first. He weighed considerably more than me at the time and was clearly hedging his options in the likely case that he was not the first to cross the finish-line. He argued that the energy he expended during the duration of the race was considerably more than the energy I expended, and therefore evidence of his victory. The race was over in a matter of seconds, but I think the calculations and disputes over the result of that year's race are still pending today.

The Christmas Race, in other words, became much bigger than just a race. It was a yardstick that measured the increasing complexity of life as I got older. By the time I was seven, I knew to expect some kind of foul-play and would argue with my uncle over the validity of his short-cuts. This evolution in my critical thinking skills raised the ante and my uncle responded. He suggested that, to ensure cheating didn't affect the integrity of the Christmas Race, we draw up official rules to the execution of the race. This appeased me at the time because, as a seven year old, I associated rules with fairness. I made the fatal mistake of letting him be the rule keeper.

The result of that decision was a continuation of the same Wile E. Coyote tactics, but insistence from my uncle that they were permitted in the rule book. He wouldn't actually let me see the rule book (transparency was, apparently, not stipulated in the rule book) and within a year, I challenged him on whether the rule book even existed.

By the time I was in my early teens, the Christmas Race was essentially just the material for a year-long debate over the technicalities and legal philosophical approaches to judging the outcome of races. The following year's race would make sure to correct the injustices of the previous years, only to present a whole new set of perplexing questions after the race was run. For example, after the "horsepower" incident, we agreed from then on that the winner was definitely the one who crossed the finish line first. But then, the following year, my uncle gathered everyone Christmas morning and ran the race while I was in the bathroom. He won, apparently. I believe there was some collusion on the part of other family members that year, but that's beyond the point. Over the span of many Christmases running races against my uncle, the prestige and immaculateness of words like "fairness", "rules" and "spirit of the law" became heavily tarnished. I might be taking the parable of the Christmas Race a little far when I say this, but over the years, I realized that the creative capability of humans trumps our attempts to constrain them.

Of course, the Christmas Race had no real legal enforcement arm. We were operating in a state of anarchy where only our words and arguing skills could have possibly gotten us anywhere - and they rarely did. One year, when my cousin was about six, she decided that she would end all the bickering and reign as judge over the decision of who won the race. We both presented our cases for why we thought we won, pressured her to see it our way and within about five minutes, she was ran away crying. It just wasn't fair to her. I had had all those years of experience arguing with my uncle over who won the race. By the time she came along, the debate had evolved well passed the faculties of a six year old.

So really, I only share this story because it's come up a few times in the past week. In my Italian class, I had to tell the story as an introduction to my family. Also, my uncle has already started the trash talking (via email) for this year's Christmas Race. Just as an example, this year the taunting started with a suggestion from my uncle that all the tortellini I'm eating in Bologna will surely slow me down this year. I countered by pointing out that I'm running up mountains three times a week. My uncle responded by pointing out that long-distance running doesn't make you faster... you get the point.

But when I sat down to write this blog, it was last night's race across the piazza that stuck out in my mind. I realize now what was really so strange about it: I crossed the finish line first and that was it - no challenges, no appeals, no consultations with the spectators to get "their perspective of who won". The whole affair was just a little too straightforward for my taste. Although, I won't say I didn't enjoy the victory. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

What am I doing in Bologna, Anyways?

I just had my first exam in graduate school. We had a mid-term exam thirteen days and six lectures into my micro-economics course. It's no secret that this course is grueling (it compacts a thirteen week course into four weeks) but it still hit me pretty hard when I turned in the exam last night. I'm not sure if economics had ever got my heart-rate up as high as it was during the last five minutes of yesterday's exam.

But anyways, that's not the point of this post. Last time, I left off wanting to explain exactly what it is that I'm doing here.

Since 2007, I was working on conflict analysis for a private consulting/publishing company that covered a broad array of topics in international affairs. Because we were so broad and yet a relatively small team of analysts, we did a lot of cross-discipline work. As my own knowledge evolved there, I went from analyzing specific terrorist attacks, to looking at terrorist/militant groups in general to, trying to understand how those groups ultimately funded the operations that made the headlines.

I never quite got to the last step - or, never quite grasped it. I had studied organized crime enough to know that criminal groups, terrorist groups, separatist groups and all sorts of other nefarious, illegal operations use, for the most part, the same global financial networks that commercial banks and financial services companies use. My problem was that I didn't have much of a background in international economics and finance. I majored in International Relations as an undergrad, so I had taken an intro course to international economics, but that wasn't nearly enough to do what I needed. I tried to teach myself, learning about international financial transactions and central bank practices piecemeal, but it wasn't getting me what I wanted. This intellectual deficit along with many other factors convinced me to apply to graduate schools which, about nine months later, brought me to Johns Hopkins University in Bologna.

As we were in China and travelling around, I took advantage of my time by reading up more on how the illicit economy (the transfer of money to all of those illegal groups) overlaps with the legitimate economy. At my previous job, I utilized many reports published by the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC). OFAC is an office within the US Department of the Treasury that tracks and helps to enforce US sanctions against enemies around the world: people who are helping Iran get around sanctions to sell their oil; front companies in Mexico that are suspected of laundering money for international drug traffickers; or similar companies in South Asia laundering proceeds from Afghan heroin sales. OFAC analysts dive down into the nitty-gritty details of how America's enemies try to get around sanctions and then offer suggestions for plugging those holes. They are experts in "Threat Finance" - how groups that pose threats finance their operations. Certainly OFAC isn't the only game in town when it comes to threat finance and they aren't necessarily even the biggest. They just happened to be the group that I was already familiar with.

Coming to Bologna, I was very interested in going to work for OFAC after graduate school. I was planning to focus on international finance, loading up on all of the econ and finance courses I could at the expense of the classes in strategic studies and conflict management because, well, I had already studied those topics at length in my previous job. I'm sure I could still learn plenty from the courses here but, as we learned in micro-economics, those courses offer me diminishing returns. Finance and economics offer a much steeper learning curve.

It may sound like I should have gone for an MBA and, to tell you the truth, maybe I should have. But my interests don't necessarily align with understanding how a firm operates in a market to maximize profits. I definitely believe that illegal groups out there often behave very similarly to firms, but my interest isn't necessarily in how illegal groups operate on a specific level, it's how they fund their operations and how their financial flows impact the economy as a whole. I suppose my interest is more macro, which is why I opted for the international studies route rather than the MBA route. When it comes down to it, though, the international studies program here is competing with MBAs in the job market, so my choice to come here wasn't that dramatically different from choosing an MBA.

Upon arriving in Bologna, two things happened that have caused me to question my trajectory. First, I started meeting professors teaching courses other than finance and economics and realized that if I took a course in, say, Weak and Failed States, I may learn more about what I'm interested in because the specific professor has experience in threat finance -  or, at least STUDYING threat finance. (I don't mean to imply that he's a money launderer.) Learning these kinds of things makes me wonder if I should switch my focus to general international relations with a specialization in emerging markets, for example. Or some other program with a title that doesn't necessarily match my interest, but with a faculty that can better help me learn what I set out to learn. This is where academic advising comes in, which will happen over the next week. Luckily, even if I don't nail my concentration before the first semester even begins, I can always change. I think the intent of study is much more important than whatever specialization you happen to choose.

The second thing that happened is that, talking to people in DC, you realize that getting a job with the US government right now does not look very attractive. With budget cuts happening and threats of hiring freezes abound, I'm not willing to stake my future on getting a job doing analyzing threat finance with the Department of the Treasury or State Department. Two years is a long time and who knows, maybe the US Government will have solved all of its fiscal problems by May of 2015 and celebrate their new found budget surpluses by hiring me. Instead of counting on that, I want to have some other options in the private sector. Maybe I should look at my options of pursuing threat finance in the private sector? Does that even exist? I'm not exactly sure.

Which brings me to my main concern about pursuing a career in threat finance: it doesn't create wealth. Call me a capitalist, but I want to be working towards creating new sources of revenue and generating new opportunities for people in the future. That's what would make me feel like a positive net benefactor to society. Threat finance doesn't do that - on the surface, at least. Threat finance analysis and sanctions track down usually very creative people who are figuring out how to get around political obstacles in order to create wealth for themselves and their community. They just happen to be creating wealth in a way that the US deems dangerous to the international system in order to support communities that the US has designated as threats to global security. This work is very important and I think combating threats financially is better than combating threats militarily (when possible) but I worry that it won't fulfill my ultimate need to be a wealth creator. Intellectually, I want to analyze threat finance, but spiritually (ironcially?) I want to create wealth.

So, my challenge is to figure out if it's possible to harmonize my intellectual desire with my spiritual needs. If any potential academic advisers or career services counselors are reading this, be warned, I've got a big dump-truck load full of questions for you. But, I'm happy that I at least have some specific ideas of what I want to be doing in two years and I've already won half the battle by framing my primary challenge. I don't feel like my challenge is a debilitating one, in fact, I think it's pretty interesting and I'm excited to get to work on figuring it out.