J.D. Speaker: Reuben “Ben” Schifman
Class of 2011, we’ve come a long way in these last three years. When we first arrived, we were naive 1Ls, afraid of the giant statue in front of the Law School1 and confused about the difference between a contract and a tort.
But now, we are knowledgeable, confident graduates who . . . are afraid of the giant statue in front of the Law School and . . . might not know the difference between a contract and a tort.
But we were busy these last few years. Busy with important work: like italicizing periods, becoming acquainted with “fertile octogenarians,” and . . . un-italicizing periods.
We also expanded our minds with serious books and articles, with serious titles like “Taking Rights Seriously”2; “Taking Lefts Seriously”3; “Taking Takings Seriously”4; and, of course, “Taking ‘Taking Rights Seriously’ Seriously.”5 These are all actual articles!
And we had to do all this while applying for jobs during the greatest depression since the, well, the Great Depression. With all this going on, we were understandably busy, and understandably upset. Why were we working so hard, when it sometimes seemed like the only legal job we could get was jury duty?
Well, Class of 2011, over the last three years we rarely took time to reflect and put things in a broader perspective. And it’s just as hard now, when we’re about to head off to the next urgent thing in our lives: the bar. Or, well, a bar.
But before we go, let’s take a moment to put our time here at Columbia—recession and all—in a broader perspective.
Consider this: When this great University was founded in 1754, the average person in the world was no better off in terms of living standards than the average person of 100,000 BC.6 If you were to look at a graph of living standards over time, they would remain essentially flat7 for a period older than the oldest surviving languages—older even than Marvin Chirelstein.
The Industrial Revolution, a mere 200 years ago, changed all this. Then, suddenly—shockingly—income and living standards shot up: doubling, tripling, exponentially increasing decade after decade. Those of us with student loans will find this trend familiar.
Yes, essentially everything we can see in front of us today has been invented and manufactured in the vanishingly small time period from the founding of Columbia until today. In this time, humanity has generated wealth the founders of Columbia couldn’t have dreamed of. We now have computers that let us talk face to face to one another across oceans. And if you’re an LL.M. student, you even do this in the library.
Computers are now even doing document review, which if you ask me, essentially guarantees that they will soon begin plotting to annihilate the human race. But until then, the pace of innovation, opportunity, and growth continues relentlessly upwards, like our blood pressure after three years of daily Famiglia pizza.
So what does this mean for us, Class of 2011? It means that yes, we went to school during the largest economic downturn in nearly 100 years.8 But we also went to school during one of the best times to be alive in the last 100,000 years. So, though we face challenges, we are also incredibly fortunate to be alive in this period of plenty, graduating from a venerable institution that has provided us with so many opportunities—opportunities that the vast majority of humans to ever live in the history of the world could only dream of.
And now to paraphrase, well, Spider Man: With great privilege comes great responsibility. Because, consider this, Class of 2011: There are many people in this world that—unlike us—are not better off than the average person in 100,000 B.C.9And for them, things aren’t exactly looking up. To give just one example from my own focus: Our laws continue to encourage the burning fossil fuels that poison the air, melt ice caps, devastate food and water supplies, and drown entire nations.10
Yes, the world is full of incredible problems. But as Columbia graduates, we have incredible power to address them.
When I look out at your faces, Class of 2011, I see people who will fight for environmental justice and people who will who create the financing for the next generation of wind farms. I see people who will simplify the tax code, and people who will advance human rights at home and abroad. And I see people who will maybe—just maybe—be able to fix the heat in JG, or take down that freaky statue in front of it.
Thank you, and congratulations Class of 2011!
1See James D. Gordon III, How Not to Succeed in Law School, 100 YALE L.J. 1679, 1683 (1991) (“On the front of the law school building at Columbia, you will notice a huge sculpture of a man who has put a noose around the neck of a horse and is throttling it to death. You will not be able to understand the true significance of this sculpture until several days into your first year at Columbia.”).
2RONALD M. DWORKIN, TAKING RIGHTS SERIOUSLY (1977).
3William E. Forbath, Taking Lefts Seriously, 92 YALE L.J. 1041 (1983).
4Thomas Ross, Taking Takings Seriously, 80 NW. U. L. REV. 1591 (1987).
5David A. J. Richards, Taking Taking Rights Seriously Seriously, 52 N.Y.U. L. REV. 1265 (1977). But see, Michael T. Yu, “A Proposed Allocation of Distributable Net Income to the Separate Shares of a Trust or Estate that Eliminates Inequities under the Regulations upon the Receipt of Tax‑Exempt Interest, upon Express Distributions of Income in Respect of a Decedent, or upon Discretionary Distributions of Principal” 3 PITT. TAX REV. 121 (2006).
6Life expectancy was no higher in 1800 than for hunter-gatherers; height, a measure both of the quality of diet and of children’s exposure to disease, was higher in the Stone Age than in 1800. Even the lucky residents of wealthy societies such as eighteenth-century England or America only managed a material lifestyle equivalentto that of the Stone Age. See GREGORY CLARK, FAREWELL TO ALMS: A BRIEF ECONOMIC HISTORY OF THE WORLD (2007).
7See CLARK, supra note 6, at 2 fig. I.I (graph of living standards over time).
8Bob Willis, U.S. Recession Worst Since Great Depression, Revised Data Show, BLOOMBERG, August 1, 2009.
9Residents of sub Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, have a life expectancy and standard of living significantly below what their ancestors enjoyed in the Stone Age. CLARK, supra note 6, at 1-11. Yet our laws continue the corporate welfare of farm subsidies that undercut what would otherwise be their main export. For example, in 2004, US aid to all of sub-Saharan Africa was less than $3.3 billion—far less than the total subsidies to US cotton farmers. See JULIAN M. ALSTON, DANIEL A. SUMNER, AND HENRICH BRUNKE, OXFAM, IMPACTS OF REDUCTIONS IN US COTTON SUBSIDIES ON WEST AFRICAN COTTON PRODUCERS (2007). See alsoHelena Cobban, Time to End US Cotton Subsidies, CHRISTIAN SCI. MONITOR, March 10, 2005.
10See Columbia Center for Climate Change Law, Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate,http://www.law.columbia.edu/centers/climatechange/resources/threatened-island-nations.