Jennifer Doleac ’03 and Arthur Levitt ’52 both tweeted about this New York Times article: “Why a Harvard Professor Has Mixed Feelings When Students Take Jobs in Finance”

This is a bittersweet time on campus. Seniors are beginning to find jobs, and while their enthusiasm is infectious, some of their choices give me pause.

Many of the best students are not going to research cancer, teach and inspire the next generation, or embark on careers in public service. Instead, large numbers are becoming traders, brokers and bankers. At Harvard in 2014, nearly one in five students who took a job went to finance. For economics majors, the number was closer to one in two. I can’t help wondering: Is this the best use of talent?

I suspect that this prejudice is common among the Williams faculty as well. Exploring it would make for an interesting Record article.

In the meantime, this view is absurd because it is impossible to make meaningful moral judgments about job choice between categories as broad as “public service” and “finance.”

First, I am not claiming that moral judgments are impossible. Consider two jobs that many people might reasonable judge as morally suspect:

  • Congressional staff who arrange for lobbyists to write big checks so that her boss will support their favorite tax loopholes.
  • Running the NSA computers which record all our phone conversations.

But notice what those jobs have in common? They are “public service,” positions in which your boss is the US Government. Does the author, Sendhil Mullainathan, “pause” when his students take jobs like these? Or are all public service jobs, by definition, morally praiseworthy?

Second, consider two (well paid) jobs in “finance.”

  • Protect online bank accounts from hackers and thieves.
  • Design better (cheaper) index funds.

Does Mullainathan experience “bittersweet” emotions when his students take jobs like these? I hope not!

Third, think about all the jobs that are the same in “public service” and in “finance.” Example:

Doing asset allocation at Calpers. Why is working for Calpers at job X more praiseworthy than working at Fidelity or Wellington or Vanguard and doing job X? Hint: It’s not, unless you think that California retirees are, as a class, more morally praiseworthy than people who invest with Vanguard.

Now, obviously, there are jobs in public service that are morally praise-worthy and jobs in finance that are morally suspect, but Mullainathan is only confusing his readers — and misleading himself? — when he claims that such broad categories provide meaningful evidence for moral judgment.

And don’t even get me started about the largely parasitic existence led by the public relations staff — oops, I mean the tenured faculty! — of the $30+ billion Harvard Hedge Fund, LLC . . .

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