by David Safier
My headline is facetious, of course. It would be ridiculous to get rid of the Master of Business Administration degree. But it's not ridiculous to be concerned about the enormous intellectual brain drain caused by so many top students opting for careers in finance and business.
Lots of people complain that too few students go into the most challenging STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, that we're lagging behind other countries in those areas. But not enough people point out that many of our potentially brilliant structural engineers, mathematicians, medical researchers and rocket scientists are lured away from those valuable pursuits by the siren song of Wall Street and Big Business. Our society, and most likely our economy, would be far better off if more of those talented young adults pursued vocations which move our knowledge base and our society forward instead of going into what one writer calls "lucrative but socially useless jobs." Blame our schools, if you wish, for our loss of a competitive economic edge over other countries. But don't forget to blame the seductive MBA degree with its promise of outsized financial rewards for people who manipulate stocks, bonds and businesses. It draws too many of our best and brightest young adults away from more socially useful professions.
I read a review of the book "Young Money" by Kevin Roose, which is about the stressed lives of young Wall Street investment bankers who abandon sleep, relationships and any vestige of morality in their quest for bigger and better salaries, bonuses and promotions. According to the review:
36 percent of the 2010 Princeton class who had full-time jobs at graduation went into finance. (In 2006, before the crisis, 46 percent did.) The head of the University of Pennsylvania’s career services tells Roose: “To come to Penn is to, at some point in your undergraduate years, ask yourself the question, ‘Should I think about investment banking?’ ”
A disproportionate number of graduates from Princeton and U Penn, two of our highly selective, prestigious universities, choose the dream of multi-million dollar salaries over professions many of them would find more interesting and rewarding. If half of those aspiring Wolves of Wall Street chose more socially valuable professions — and if similar students in other universities did the same — we might be suffering from a welcome embarrassment of intellectual riches in professions which add value to our society. I'd rather have a brilliant young man or woman searching for better ways to produce non-polluting energy or to treat and cure cancer than searching for that perfect algorithm to increase the earnings of some multi-billion-dollar hedge fund.
Three economists from Harvard and the University of Chicago looked at our growing income inequality from an unusual perspective. They argued in a research paper, Taxation and the Allocation of Talent, that increasing taxes on the rich might be justified simply to decrease the attractiveness of high paying but socially unproductive professions. From the abstract of the paper:
If, as the literature suggests, the ratio of social to private product is lower in high-paying professions (e.g., finance and law) than in low-paying professions (e.g., teaching and scientific research), progressive taxation is justified even absent a redistributive motive.
An op ed in today's Star discusses how college Humanities programs are maligned as a waste of money. Better, the humanities detractors say, to funnel all those English, philosophy and art majors into STEM-related majors. The writers of the op ed strongly disagree, arguing for the importance of training people in the humanities. I would add this to the op ed's point: Instead of cutting back on majors which encourage in-depth study of texts and aesthetics as well as the intellectual history of the world, fields which produce divergent thinking and probing analysis, fields which add much-needed intellectual heft to our society, let's cut back on those undergraduate business and graduate MBA courses where they preach about the philosophy of greed and the art of the deal.