Sunday, September 12, 2010

Genteel professions

David Brooks has a provocative column about the debased values of contemporary. One example he gives is that: "America’s brightest minds have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism."

I think the validity of that statement is less obvious than Brooks may think. He seems to view the economy the way many (maybe most) people do. There are the "real" jobs that actually matter where people make things (manufacturing, etc.) or think of better ways to make things (engineering, science, etc.) or do something else with obvious tangible benefits (mechanics, doctors, farmers, etc.) And then there are the soft, cushy, basically unimportant, unproductive jobs in law, finance, entertainment, etc., where people just move paper around or leech off productive people or whatever.

There's obviously some grain of truth here. We need the farmer and the manufacturer on a more basic biological level than we need the talk show host or columnist(!) or ambulance chaser. And surely the world wouldn't be all that worse off if management consultants didn't exist.

However, what does he mean by the word "productive"? Economists say that people are by and large paid according to their marginal productivity, i.e. usually the more productive you are the more income you get. A lot of people are attracted to fields like law and finance and consulting, because they pay well. Therefore, they appear to be fields with high productivity, at least in some economic sense of the word. They seem to be producing something that someone somewhere values. So, is this the pursuit of gentility or the pursuit of income? And if society doesn't need these lawyers and financial analysts, why are we paying them so much?

Well, maybe some of them are gaming the political/economic system in some way that doesn't actually increase GDP through "rent-seeking" or what have you. Maybe some of them impose some large cost on society that the market isn't taking into account ("negative externalities"). You could imagine this to be the case with, say, a pornographer. But I don't think all of the lawyers and financiers are significantly hurting society in these ways, not by a long shot. Brooks should've fleshed out his argument a bit more.

If the US had half the lawyers/bankers it has now and twice the engineers and scientists, would it be better off? Maybe, but I think it's a pretty open question.


  1. Perhaps he has some way of understanding productivity on which his claims make some sense... but probably not.
    Also, since when is 'non-profit activism' prestigious in the same way that law, consulting, etc. are? That's a surprising thought.

  2. I think someone could make a case that there are positive externalities to some of the work that, say, scientists and engineers do. E.g. Let's say Newton's contributions to physics and math have led to an enormous increase in world GDP, maybe on the order of $1 trillion. But he wasn't a trillionaire, so, in a sense, he's more productive than his income would indicate. I think this sort of thing would be largely true of people who are producing public goods, such as freely accessible knowledge.

    But for the manufacturer in Akron that he mentions, there is a good chance he's making $60k because that's roughly how productive he is.

    I think some non-profit jobs are prestigious: Teach For America, Peace Corps, ACLU, whatever (I don't know whether all of those count as non-profit, but you get the point). Maybe becoming a community organizer will catch on as well.