October 3, 2011

Living in color

With my first year several months behind me, I think I’ve acquired the capacity to reflect on the experience. After doing so, I’ve come to the realization that I could illustrate the first-year college experience by reference to a seemingly irrelevant topic: the raucous debate going on in Washington right now, and the war against the rich.

Over the past few months, we have been badgered by the all-too-familiar name-calling, accusations, and diatribes from the U.S. taxation debate, consisting of both emotional responses to the economic crisis and those disguised as reasonable ones. One side says that the top 1 percent of earners pays around 40 percent of income taxes already, and increasing marginal tax rates risk hindering entrepreneurship and investment when we need them most. The other side says that the rich must play a part in offsetting the spending cut losses and economic tightening that they don’t incur. But tax hiking is not the best solution, and safeguarding the wealthy from the burdens of the rest of the population does not help either. Better solutions exist, but, as always, they are not voiced enough in the debate. For example, The Economist suggested removing the overwhelming deductions that only the wealthy enjoy, a plan that would raise a great amount of revenue while not hindering innovation. And what about rewarding business investments and innovation with tax breaks?

Where are all these creative solutions in the current conversation? Washington’s overarching perception of the world seems to be that national problems have black or white solutions to them, solutions that have no room for subtlety or rational thought. Politicians are not thinking outside the box, and it shows in every debate. They continually confine their solutions to national problems to the cage of their constituency, and resort to either timidity in pursuing useful solutions or enthusiasm in pursuing crazy ones. Meanwhile, the people suffer from growing unemployment and a general distrust in the government.

But the point of this article is not to suggest concrete solutions to the tax and revenue problems in the U.S. Rather, I want to show that the curse of black-and-white perspective that plagues politicians is not too different from the one that afflicts many of the first-years entering the College. Perhaps some judge the worth and value of careers on a purely financial basis. Some may stress about academics as if they were in a life-or-death situation. Still others may view their peers as only wonderful or annoying, with no normal ones in between. First year can all too easily be construed as black or white.

During the first year of college, this curse is revealed, and it is juxtaposed with the fresh air of independence, maturity, and creativity towards which the college experience can guide you. In this new, more open environment, one begins to think of careers as possible lifestyles and identities. One gains the perspective that academia constitutes a journey with its own share of failure. One learns to accept people’s faults and appreciate many different characters.

Regardless of the specific outcome, the first year of college introduces a new mindset outside of the box of black-and-white. And if you do exit the box, rejoice: You are now free to explore a whole new world of possibility and potential. It’s an easier process for some than it is for others. But you’ll inevitably realize, much like many politicians in Washington today, that if you hang around inside the box too much, dancing to the same monotonous tune, clinging to the same unyielding mindset, you never really leave.

Suchin Gururangan is a second-year in the College.