Friday, March 13, 2009

Shining Stars

I was reading the Times today and saw this opinion piece, in which Judith Warner bemoans the way that Wall Street had, during our recently-completed bubble, taken far too many of our highest-achieving individuals.

This is a point that hits close to home for me. I went to an "elite" school which sends a large percentage of their graduates to work in the financial sector; I knew some people who took that path, but I rejected it because of my personal belief that Wall Street doesn't do a whole lot for society. I know that most money flows through the world of finance, but I couldn't shake the feeling that they were, at best, middlemen, and, at worst, crooks.

The recession seems to have vindicated my belief to some extent. But why did this only happen after finance has taken down the world economy? I spent the past few years wondering if I was insane: I was working in an industry where I actually made something, and, of course, I was making very little money, at least on the scale of other people with my background.

I wasn't quite alone, though: I had a few friends from college who also pursued careers non-financial careers. They were teachers and scientists; one of them got an M.B.A. with a focus on sustainability and works in the green energy sector. These people are, without a doubt, the best & brightest crowd who didn't go in for the quick buck.

I don't mean to whine, but times have been tough for us: Judith Warner points out that, aside from finance, there are few careers where people like us can be adequately compensated for our talents. Even those among us who go on to tenure-track appointments won't do as well as financial stars; with the stalling median income, those of us in the private sector have fared worse than the tradesmen who benefited from the housing boom -- and, by the way, I don't begrudge them their share: unlike financial workers, they actually create things.

For me, I think that's what it all comes down to: we, as a society, need to value jobs that create. Artisan work is almost non-existent in this country, outside of luxury food. Jobs in the arts, including journalism and writing, have been devalued almost completely. Teachers are often squeezed; I've heard many stories of public-school teachers forced to be fired & rehired annually to get around budget problems, which keeps them from accruing experience and pay raises.

As a society, we've made a mistake: we bought in to the alchemy of the market, and believed that we could create value out of nothing. We forgot that the market exists for only one reason: to make it easier for creators to do their job of making useful products and innovating for the future. Investors deserve a reasonable rate of return for putting up their cash, I don't disagree. But we should always remember that the teacher, artist, and even the factory worker are the people who create value in our society. I don't imagine that the creators will ever be compensated as well as those who facilitate the market's workings. But we do need to make it easier for the creators to do their work: without them, our finances will always be a house of cards.

I hope that this is a lesson that other people are taking home from the economic collapse.
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