Monday, June 23, 2008


Sara Rimer writes in The New York Times of a Harvard faculty member who thinks that Harvard students are spending their lives badly:

A prominent education professor at Harvard has begun leading “reflection” seminars at three highly selective colleges, which he hopes will push undergraduates to think more deeply about the connection between their educations and aspirations.

The professor, Howard Gardner, hopes the seminars will encourage more students to consider public service and other careers beyond the consulting and financial jobs that he says are almost the automatic next step for so many graduates of top colleges.

“Is this what a Harvard education is for?” asked Professor Gardner, who is teaching the seminars at Harvard, Amherst and Colby with colleagues. “Are Ivy League schools simply becoming selecting mechanisms for Wall Street?”

The students alas, knaves that they are, seem to be increasingly attracted to the corporate life for financial reasons, leaving public-"service" jobs going begging.

But this raises a profound philosophical question. What is the "worth" of any particular vocation? Economists way back in the 19th century recognized that attempting to define the objective worth of any particular good is pointless. Rather, the value of a good is simply whatever it is worth to the person who holds it, or wants to. And so a term like "public service" is silly. It implies that some jobs -- the jobs that, for example, Professor Gardner thinks need doing in greater quantities -- are underpriced, while Wall Street jobs are overpriced.

Along these lines, a recently minted student named Adam M. Guren is quoted as saying that “[a] lot of students have been asking the question: ‘We came to Harvard as freshmen to change the world, and we’re leaving to become investment bankers — why is this?’ ” Leave aside that the world is full of people who want nothing more than to be left alone by the sorts of people who go to Harvard to change the world. It turns out that investment bankers generally do a lot more to change the world than all the king’s horses, all the king's men, all of his social workers, all of his AmeriCorps volunteers combined. Every major corporation that provides the things we depend on to keep civilization running got help at some point from some investment banker, who helped get scarce resources from where they were to where they could do more good. This is precisely why investment bankers make so much money. Why do social workers and teachers, in contrast, make so little? There are a variety of reasons, having to do with the number of people who can do those jobs, the fact that those who hold them take much of their compensation as greater leisure time or job security, and other things that don't much apply to investment bankers. Every trader in the marketplace is serving something greater than himself by creating value for those he trades with. The world positively needs our best and brightest to go into investment banking, entrepreneurship, and the other activities that move civilization forward. That Harvard's new president, Drew Gilpin Faust, failed to recognize this and therefore devoted an entire commencement speech to this non-problem, make it clearer than ever how much Larry Summers is missed at the helm of the world's most famous university.

If I were the language dictator I would permanently retire the term "public servant," at least when it is used as a synonym for "politician" or "bureaucrat." People go into such work, or work for charities and the like (and something tells me that going into missionary work, despite its low pay, is not the sort of public service Professor Gardner had in mind), because what they get out of it is worth what they put into it. So too with investment banking; neither can be intrinsically said to be more useful for society than the other. The less we hear of sanctimonious politicians and intellectuals urging Americans to avoid the "corporate" life and to instead yoke themselves to the causes those politicians and intellectuals favor, the better off we will be.

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