March 10, 2016

GRANT | Concrete Jungles, Sugar Cane Alley

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I interned at JPMorgan Chase the summer of my freshman year in NYC. Yet despite working with bond values, derivatives, financing and debt pricing, one of the most important lessons I took away from my time there was that certain things in this world are priceless. However, I do not believe students need a corporate internship to learn this lesson, it can be learned on the NYC subway. The J train runs between Jamaica Center in Queens and Wall Street in Manhattan and in between your starting point and your destination you meet an array of characters. The concrete jungle is home to the rich and powerful, but it is also home to the underestimated and the underserved. I have heard some of the saddest stories on the train: mothers trying to support their children, veterans living without homes freezing in the cold, performers with talent remaining jobless, hungry men wanting meals and immigrants holding signs for support.

It does not matter if it is 8 a.m. or 11 p.m., the NYC subway system is home to a countless number of precious stories. However, sometimes I wonder why some people do not give a dime to help their fellow man. People hear compelling stories on the train, people see people seeking financial assistance, but not everyone is willing to help. In a way, the people asking for money and the stories one hears while on the NYC subway are equivalent to crowdfunding, except without the Internet. I believe that stories are valuable, however having seeing people’s lack of empathy, the cold shoulders and disdainful looks for over ten years, sometimes I begin to question people’s intentions. Psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane would coin this phenomenon as “The Bystander Effect,” however others would argue that this term was recognized earlier in the parable of “The Good Samaritan.” Sometimes I wonder what would happen to me if I ever had to crowdfund, not on the subway but online. Would people’s attitude change if they get behind a computer screen? Would people still see stories as priceless? Everyday I am reminded of my commute between Jamaica Center and Wall Street, the screech of subway cars, wheels twirling in revolution and doors opening with the hope of opportunity.

I initially attributed people’s lack of donations to one of three reasons. The first was doubt. The person who heard the compelling story fundamentally doubted the person’s mission, vision or authenticity. The second was seeing people’s actions reflected their attitude on life. If a person gives a menial donation, then it is because that person thinks your cause is menial, hence the small act of giving. In this case donating a small amount can be seen as being an insult. In my mind if I ever had to crowdfund I would have to make sure to emphasize brand, net worth and for the minimum contribution I believed the campaign deserved. If you’ve told your story and people still do not decided to give, what else can you do? As I thought about the question longer and asked people for their opinion I realized that sometimes no matter what you do some people will just not give to your campaign even when they hear about it. In retrospect I learned that it is impossible to convince everyone that you are doing good work, it is impossible to please everyone and that some people will look at your efforts and simply walk away.

However, I believe that part of the problem rests in the hope we put in our capitalist system. Capitalism leads us to believe that we are productive members of society only so far as we are products of the system and uphold the system. Under a capitalist system we ascribe emotions to dollars, care to numbers and commitment to digits. The only pieces of paper we want to see are bills that are paid, not handwritten thank you notes, happy birthday cards or crayon paintings from our children. Under this framework, capitalism leads us to doubt the value and authenticity of our neighbors. In our society we question if humanitarian efforts, requests and campaigns have the purest of intentions. However, we are hesitant to question our own intentions for doing the work we do on an everyday basis. Moreover, capitalism leads us to believe that the person who has the most money brings about the most change. Throughout time the names have taken different forms, bourgeois and proletariat, the one and the 99 percent. In a capitalist society we know cents are found in our wallets, but forget sense comes from our minds. We remember the physical change in our pockets, but forget the intangible change comes from our hearts. Capitalism does benefit many people, yes. After working at JPMorgan Chase I saw the power that can be shared by helping give people access to funds. There are many benefits of capitalism, however, I do not believe that the benefits should blind us to the consequences and the hidden costs we are paying to keep capitalism alive. It is time we reimagine our value system and reexamine what we put value on. There are some things in life that are too priceless to compromise.

Here at Cornell, Professor Edward E. Baptist teaches a class in the spring called HIST/ASRC 2006: Understanding Global Capitalism Through Service Learning. Professor Baptist takes students to Petersfield, Jamaica during Spring Break to critically analyze the economic policies of the world, understand their repercussions and see the effects it has on the local community. This year, 17 students from the class started a GoFundMe entitled “Service Learning in Jamaica” with ten days left to reach their crowdfunding goal. They still need funds and people to help them meet their goal. Classes and trips like these are needed in the History, Africana, Economics and AEM departments among many others. They are necessary for undergraduates to critically think and ask the important questions. If one admits that capitalism is corrupt, what then is the proposed alternative? If the “developing” country is underdeveloped by the “developed” country, what is the role of the citizenry in addressing the issue? What is priceless and what is not?
Which is more important, debt or death?

Jeremiah Grant is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Jeremiah can be reached at [email protected]. Gates & Ladders appears alternate Fridays this semester.