Chris Griffin CFI '02 Addresses Class of 2013
Thank you Salomé for that gracious introduction and thanks as well to your colleagues in the Carroll Fellows Initiative for gathering here tonight. It is a genuine honor for me to celebrate this semester’s accomplishments with you, a fine group of Georgetown students who have shown great promise and already delivered in deeds inside and outside the classroom. You help fulfill the core mission of this university, and you should take great pride in your collective achievements. I am particularly thrilled to speak to you in the Riggs Library, site of several momentous occasions in and chronicler of facial hair incarnations during my years at Georgetown. In fact, this was one of the first university rooms I visited the weekend I arrived for New Student Orientation in 1998. The CFI’s predecessor, the John Carroll Scholars Program, held a welcome reception for the 100 or so students invited to participate among the Class of 2002. In October, a reception much like tonight’s event brought together Carroll Scholars and distinguished members of the Alumni Admissions Program. A picture that resurfaced years later captures me with somewhat embarrassing sideburns, extending alongside my face much to the chagrin of my parents and sister back home in Tampa. Three years later, I gathered with my Carroll Scholars classmates to kick off our senior year, this time with what I viewed as a scholar’s beard that had emerged during my junior year abroad in England. Again, my parents— joined now by my roommates and close friends—were considerably more vexed than impressed. In April 2002, the First Annual Carroll Round, the undergraduate economics conference held on campus each spring, formally began with an address from George W. Bush’s first National Economic Council Director, Lawrence Lindsey. To return to this sacred room, filled with some of the University’s most valued collections, I am deeply moved by the aura that connects all of us with our shared Georgetown past and younger alumni like me with you, the future of this institution. I extend special gratitude also to Iliana Estévez and Casey Ohanaja for their efforts with the Gervase Programs and especially in organizing this evening’s program. There are two other guests who need no introduction and to whom I owe a lifelong debt. A one- or two-sentence recognition is far too short for these individuals. Thus, I will take the liberty of burying the lede, as it were, and returning to them a bit later.
Salomé’s description of my life during and after Georgetown might seem like a perfectly linear progression from sitting in the seats of ICC classrooms to standing behind the podium in Durham. Rest assured, those years were anything but. Through various twists of fortune, some welcome others disappointing, I morphed from a declared international politics major into a novice legal academic. Tonight I would like to share with you some thoughts on navigating your time at Georgetown and beyond with a just a little help from my twin pursuits: law and economics.
Contrary to my new instincts, I promise that the Socratic Method is not on tonight’s menu. If we were in a classroom at Duke Law School, I would ask an unwitting student to kindly recite the facts and tell us the holding of Palsgraf v. Long Island R. Co.1 Since that would be grossly unfair to all of you, I will instead briefly recount the unbelievable events that literally befell poor Ms. Helen Palsgraf one New York afternoon. On that ordinary day in the 1920s, a man running very late for his train hurried along the platform desperately trying to board a moving car. Two nearby railroad employees intervened: one on the locomotive pulling the passenger through the entryway, the other on the platform pushing him onto the train from below. What no one except the passenger knew (and for reasons that I believe remain buried in mystery) was that his underarm package was filled with fireworks. The combined actions of the railroad employees, who seem to be Good Samaritans in this account, dislodged the package from the passenger’s grasp. The concealed fireworks spilled out and exploded immediately upon contact with the rails. Shockwaves from the discharge were believed to ripple across the platform, upending some scales on the opposite end. Those scales fell on Helen Palsgraf’s head; she soon after sued the railroad company for her injuries citing their negligent behavior.
In his classic opinion for the New York state court, then Judge, later Supreme Court Justice, Benjamin Cardozo reversed the lower court’s decision for Mrs. Palsgraf, arguing that the chain of events linking the passenger’s racing down the platform to her wounds was too remote to be foreseeable to anyone at the railroad station that day, especially the railroad employees. The modern concept of legal causation—not just a cause in fact—was born. Tonight, and with all due to respect to the eminent Mr. Justice Cardozo, I will dabble in the counterfactual and let Judge William Andrews’s dissenting opinion carry the day. In his response to the majority, Andrews claimed that Mrs. Palsgraf should have received compensation because the guards’ actions in handing the explosives-wielding passenger were the proximate cause of her injuries. Had they not reached out to help him board, the fireworks would not have detonated and the scales would not have fallen. Judge Andrews believed his brethren on the court were mistakenly applying the concept of proximate cause; they were arbitrarily “declin[ing] to trace a series of events beyond a certain point.”2 Again, in his words: “This is not logic. It is practical politics.”3 Stated otherwise, the majority had engaged in that most forbidden of legal practices: judicial activism.
I certainly do not tell this famed tale because I think it will convince you to change your life plan, especially not that you will experience the same epiphany I did when I studying the Palsgraf case three years ago. As I read the opinions, I immediately thought about the series of events that led me to New Haven. If someone were to ask me why I was reading from the very casebooks that I vowed never to open as a child, would I have to draw an arbitrary line somewhere in time? Where would that line be drawn? I would have to imagine asking Judge Cardozo: how can one determine the proximate cause of one’s life outcomes, academic, professional, or personal? How far removed must influences in our lives be not to “count” in the official record?
If the lessons of legal precedent can’t fully resolve the problem and help us locate that fixed point in time responsible for our life journeys, perhaps economics holds the answers. The field in which I spend most of my working days, and which many of you in this room surely will encounter, is empirical economics, the use of advanced statistical methods to determine causal relationships between one or more variables and an outcome of interest. I can spare you months of excruciating pain and frustration by boiling the whole enterprise down to the equation you learned in high school: y = mx + b. As you know, we can add successive ms and xs to this equation, forming a curve so multidimensional that they are impossible to visualize. My ongoing work searches for the ms that connect legal xs and economic ys in our labor markets. Similarly, I could apply this equation to my life or any of yours, trying to fit all of your experiences to that simple formula. The b represents your constant, your innate ability. Each m measures the slope, the extent to which innumerable factors in your life added to your talents produce whatever outcome you have chosen on the left-hand side.
With the diversity of backgrounds, interests, and life plans in this library, however, there is no way to pinpoint what factors more likely predict success with the accuracy that social science demands. If I could take the millions of college students in the last century—individual points in an enormous dataset—and fit their characteristics to a model that would predict optimal outcomes, believe me I would. It’s the holy grail of education economics, but sadly a fool’s errand. For I could extend the number of x variables indefinitely and still not be sure that any one person, place, or circumstance drives the probability of success or failure.
So, let’s talk about plain and simple advice. Since each of you arrived on the Hilltop, I imagine there has been no shortage of it dispensed. Upper-class students may have suggested which course sections to choose during preregistration, the Office of International Programs may have helped you sort through its ample offerings for study in another country. A common suggestion during these sessions probably involves discovering one of the following: your passion, your motivation, your purpose, your personal goals, your research agenda. I used to speak in these very terms and advised upcoming Georgetown cohorts to do the same. More recently, I have preferred to direct that inquiry within myself. Passions and goals surely follow from one’s innermost wishes. But the subtext of these words sounds in the external, in that which does not necessarily originate from within. Thus, I would encourage you to consider what animates you, to locate the elements of your anima or animus, the ancient Romans’ reference to the soul or the terms Carl Jung used to articulate an even grander theory of collective psychology.
The dismal science, too, has adopted this framework. John Maynard Keynes had in mind the same notion when writing his canonical 1936 book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money:
Even apart from the instability due to speculation, there is the instability due to the characteristic of human nature that a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than mathematical expectations, whether moral or hedonistic or economic. Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as the result of animal spirits—a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.4
Now, recall the econometric exercise I mentioned earlier. Keynes here explicitly dismisses this approach and the notion that we can reduce our motivations and instincts to a mathematical equation. Something deeper, something far less tangible is at work.
What animates me at present, and has for the last four years is another form of animus, the discriminatory attitudes that shape economic fortunes of millions of workers in the United States. Thanks to landmark legislation—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act—our government has explicitly banned employers from taking into account characteristics that had been used to deny full economic citizenship to many. The explicit behavior of so many prejudiced individuals in the workplace, including a law firm partner who belittled a young Yale Law student in the 1970s, insisting that she had been admitted solely because of her ethnicity, has been the legacy of our country’s deeply troubled experience with race relations. That law student was lambasted thirty years later for extolling the virtues of a “wise Latina.” Now she is the third women ever to sit on the highest court in the land.
These overt forms of discrimination, while still invidious, are less troublesome to me than practices that create what lawyers call disparate impact discrimination. In these cases, an employer will administer a test, establish a qualification, or take some other race- or gender- or age-neutral action that unfairly and illegally excludes an entire class of potential employees. Disparate impact doctrine in particular (and antidiscrimination law in general) animate my intellectual work because I understand my life through the lens of conflict resolution. And I understand antidiscrimination law further as the most promising antidote to the conflict that nearly destroyed the Union, the consequences of which still haunt twenty-first-century America. My quantitative studies hopefully will aid courts and legislators as they craft new laws that unearth more subtle forms of discriminating activity, what we call implicit bias. It hopefully will help bridge the divide between economic efficiency and social justice.
I also gravitated to this area of the law because I learned that neither sole devotion to economics nor to the law could fulfill the Carroll Program’s founding motto: mentis vita pro vita mundi, the life of the mind for the life of the world. Each discipline reinforces the other, grounding legal doctrine in empirical reality and keeping economic theory relevant to a shifting legal landscape.
And now, the actual advice. Early in my first year of law school, I visited the office of my torts professor. Actually, office hours were held in a secure federal building just down the street from my New Haven apartment. For my professor was the revered liberal lion of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, former Dean of the Yale Law School, valedictorian of the Law School Class of 1958, Rhodes Scholar, and refugee from Mussolini’s Italy, The Honorable Guido Calabresi. Guido, as he prefers to be called, reviewed my exam, pointing out issues in the nearly apocalyptic series of events he conjured in the fact pattern that I either misidentified or missed entirely. Thankfully he was bound by Yale Law School norms to award me, as all first-semester professors are required to do, a mere “Credit” on my transcript. Sitting across from the a founding intellect in the law and economics movement, I asked him how I might use the next two and a half years to prepare for legal academia. His response, as only one might expect from an Italian-American, was: “Find your godfather.” In the spirit of gender equality, I will modify that counsel to: “Find your godfather or godmother.”
Long before I sat in Guido’s chambers, I was fortunate to have gained the trust, friendship, and unwavering support of three such godparents, two of whom are with us tonight. Extremely fortunate to have bypassed the waiting list for Associate Dean Mitch Kaneda’s International Trade course, I became enamored with international trade issues and wrote my senior thesis on how dispute resolution in the World Trade Organization reflects underlying political and social interactions among countries as much as it does economic relations. Mitch was instrumental in assisting my classmates and me with the founding of the Carroll Round, and I firmly believe that we would not be celebrating its tenth anniversary this April without his dedication and stewardship. The other “godfather” in the room certainly needs no introduction to this group: Professor John Glavin. John and I worked very closely together during my sophomore year to make the Carroll Scholars Program a core part of its members’ academic and social lives. Although our interests were, you might say, orthogonal to each other, I learned as much and perhaps more from John as I did my economics teachers. His insights into leadership and effective communication changed my interaction with fellow students and have forever altered the way I approach my professional life. You are extremely fortunate to have the CFI’s resources at your disposal, a luxury that most students across this country—even at peer institutions—will never know. More important, you are extremely fortunate to have John Glavin as your intellectual guide and leader.
Finally, as you continue your pursuits in the Carroll Fellows Initiative and as members of the Georgetown community, avoid the temptation to trace your achievements and indeed your shortcomings to one particular, inevitably arbitrary event in time. The world and your connections with it are simply too complex. And, as you are undoubtedly aware, there is much more to life at Georgetown than the purely intellectual aims to which we all aspire. Take a stroll along the C&O canal; enjoy 80s Night at the Tombs . . . when you’re twenty-one, of course; take in the majesty of spring blooms at Dumbarton Oaks. For I have full faith in Keynes’s theory about the positive actions you will take while students here. They will not be the product of a stale cost-benefit analysis, the mere calculation of what decisions you anticipate will yield the highest returns. Rather, you will be moved by your own animal spirits, that spontaneous urge to act on and for the world around you. If you do not recognize what animates you this year or the next or even by the time you graduate, do not worry. Your intellectual godparents at Georgetown will help you along this exciting journey. Thank you for your service to academic life at Georgetown and thank you for allowing me to share this occasion with you tonight.
1 162 N.E. 99 (1928).
2 Id. at 103 (Andrews, J., dissenting).
4 JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES, THE GENERAL THEORY OF EMPLOYMENT, INTEREST AND MONEY 144-45 (Atlantic Publishers & Distributors ed. 2008) (emphasis added).
Announcements for the Carroll Fellows Initiative
- Alex Bozzette (SFS ’12) Wins Circumnavigators Grant
CFI Junior wins Circumnavigators Grant!
- Alumni Spotlight: Emily Solis-Cohen, CFI'10
More info on Emily Solis-Cohen
- Alumni Spotlight: Alexandra Blaszczuk, CFI'08
More info on Alex Blaszczuk