Maryland finance students pick pen over protests

Tue Nov 15, 2011 11:40am EST

A demonstrator holds up his sign at City Hall plaza in Oakland, California November 14, 2011.  Police moved in early on Monday and cleared out anti-Wall Street protesters from Oakland's City Hall plaza, arresting 32 people but avoiding the sort of clashes that marked a previous attempt to shut down the Occupy Oakland camp.  REUTERS/Kim White

A demonstrator holds up his sign at City Hall plaza in Oakland, California November 14, 2011. Police moved in early on Monday and cleared out anti-Wall Street protesters from Oakland's City Hall plaza, arresting 32 people but avoiding the sort of clashes that marked a previous attempt to shut down the Occupy Oakland camp.

Credit: Reuters/Kim White

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The students in professor Joseph Rinaldi's class are usually busy studying bond yield spreads and interest rate changes.

This year Rinaldi had a bigger test for the class: Solve the $15 trillion national deficit.

"Given the mood of the country today and the seriousness of the problem, I threw them this New Deal type of project," Rinaldi said.

So while public policy assignments are commonplace in political science and graduate level economics courses, these finance majors at the University of Maryland began cramming on unlikely topics like prison reform and new immigration policies.

Debates on the legalization of medical marijuana became a part of their "Futures, Options & Derivatives" class.

For the group of 60 students the paper represented an opportunity to voice what they saw as wrong in today's government -- and hopefully a chance to participate in a productive alternative to Wall Street protests that have risen nationwide, and which were just broken up by police in New York early on Tuesday.

"The Occupy Wall Street is a good movement, but it's unsure of what their actual priorities are. I support it, but I am not going to protest," said Seth Rabinovitz, 22, a senior majoring in accounting and finance.

"With this paper we are hoping as a group to tackle some of the core issues underlying our country's economic problems," he said.

Over the past two months, the class met inside and outside of the classroom, spending long hours working on ideas to reduce the deficit. They even met with high-ranking former military officials to discuss how military reform could reduce the deficit.

In the end, the class came up with an 11-page paper proposing solutions such as offering illegal immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for three years access to temporary work permits. Another ideas was to allow nonviolent criminals the option to enlist in the military instead of being imprisoned.

While the paper touches on some more traditional approaches to fixing the deficit, such as tax reform and changing entitlement programs, it offered other novel ideas, said Millan Mulraine, senior U.S. macro strategist at TD Securities.

For example, the paper proposes offering a tax credit for firms that switch to natural gas tractor-trailers or buses, he said.

Another unique suggestion in the paper, although Mulraine wasn't sure he agreed with it, would be to put a moratorium on all Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley regulation and healthcare reform that have not yet been implemented to allow small businesses to prosper.

"Delaying the implementation of these regulations could initially help save approximately $43 billion for the next couple of years," according to the paper.

And, of course, no college paper would be complete without mentioning legalizing pot. The paper suggests that legalizing marijuana for medical purposes could bring in tax revenues of up to $100 billion dollars annually.

The paper overall is "a valiant effort," Mulraine said. But even more important than the proposals themselves, is what it says about the state of public sentiment that a derivatives and futures class taking on such a big problem as the national debt, Mulraine said.

"This is emblematic of the discussion that is going on nationally over the kitchen table across the country," Mulraine said.

For many of these students, the paper isn't just an intellectual exercise. It's a call to address a situation that will affect their lives once they graduate.

"I am lucky enough to have a job offer, but the current state of the market still scares the hell out of me," said James Fayal, 21, a finance major.

(Editing by Walden Siew)

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