There is Such Thing as a Free Lunch

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Tuesday, July 23, 2019


Giavanna Jadick

In the Twilight Zone where policy interns thrive, the local currency is free Capitol Host sandwiches and black coffee. Didn’t RSVP? No worries! The event sponsors welcome you anyways (probably). Even if you have no interest in the subject matter whatsoever, that’s fine too—surely, the prominent speaker in whatever-their-field-is-anyways won’t mind the sound of you crunching on salt and vinegar chips in the front row, especially since you’re going to leave 20 minutes into the presentation anyways. Yet, I have come to observe that as satiated interns decide their eardrums have suffered long enough to justify their receipt of a lunchbox, the edges of the room always remain filled with wallflowers who arrived too late to claim a chair but want to stay and—shockingly—learn. Economists have a famous saying, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” but I imagine said economists have never heard of Capitol Host catering.

It has been very strange to observe the behavior of the other interns on Capitol Hill, a sentiment my fellow Mather intern Nicholas has similarly expressed. If I sound a little disenchanted, perhaps it is because I am, just a bit. I have never been anywhere else for a significant period of time with such a significant concentration of experts ranging across such a broad range of professions—it’s such a thrill! And yet, very few of the other people here seem to be expressing the same delight. Either they have become too accustomed to the atypical or they don’t seem to realize the gravity of some of the incredible speakers congregating in the Rayburn meeting rooms. It is bizarre to witness a greater correlation between attendance and free lunch availability (coupled with a dearth of other events serving free food at the same time) than with research impact.

A vignette: it is 12:50pm on a Friday, and you are in one of the ornate hearing rooms of the Longworth House Office Building. An event on auto insurance pricing and racial discrimination is about to start. A table of donuts and coffee sits out in the open—a feast for all who attend—but it is strategically hidden behind the door as it is propped open. Those clever event sponsors! You hear a group of people approach the door, chattering unabashedly loudly (the signature of a pack of under-caffeinated interns). A sleep-deprived teenager peaks his scruffy head around the corner, and his ravenous eyes dart about the room seeking sustenance. But, his prize is hidden behind the door. Not willing to enter the room (to sit through the event without a snack is parallel to fighting a dragon with a toothpick), he retreats to the sweet shelter of the staff café in the basement. Sadly, he doesn’t know he could even get a discount if only he walked one building over to the Library of Congress.

Okay, I'm being a little facetious. I’m truly lucky to have attended such a plethora of events this summer. I’ve learned a lot, and as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been taking data, too. I've gotten to the part of my little "BIG_DATA.xlsx" side project where I have to start analyzing my data. But in chatting with one of the Research and Technology subcommittee staffers about my project, I’ve realized I’m not without my biases, either. For example, I mostly attend more technical talks because they interest me more than pure policy discussions. I also have mostly attended afternoon talks, because it is more convenient for me to leave the office during lunch hours. Biggest of all, I have to decide which words I am going to classify as “STEM”-like in order to analyze the text descriptions of the talks I have attended, and I haven’t yet thought up an objective way to generate this list. What does this all mean for my summer side projects?

I’ve concluded that my mini-analysis is not necessarilly a journal-worthy study, but it is certainly interesting and that’s worthwhile to me. Maybe if the results are interesting, another researcher will come along and launch a more serious investigation to look into the ramifications I hope to uncover. Still, I know it’s important to regularly stop and reflect on why I am approaching a problem in a particular manner, so I can assess whether I am taking the best course of action for my chosen degree of effort. I wish I had more time to do a more thorough analysis of my data, but somehow it is July 23rd, and I have to finish a draft of my final presentation slides by the end of the week. Regardless, I’m really excited for our final presentations. For me, this summer has been one of taking initiative and looking for things to learn in unusual places. I can’t wait to see what the other SPS interns have been up to.

Going to all of these catered events this summer, I have decided there is certainly such thing as a free lunch. The typical economist might reply to my brazen claim with something along the lines of, “You can’t get something for nothing! Each intern who gets a free lunch must consider the opportunity cost of the time they spent traveling to the event, sitting and eating, then waiting to leave.” Well, economists, in that case, the people who go to events only for the free food are actually the ones paying the highest price. If someone goes to an event to learn and would have attended regardless of the status of the catering, what was the opportunity cost? For the curious and inquisitive, there does exist such thing as a free lunch.

Giavanna Jadick