Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Because That's What They Would Be Doing?

Thomas Friedman sings a tired old refrain,
To top it off, we’ve fallen into a trend of diverting and rewarding the best of our collective I.Q. to people doing financial engineering rather than real engineering. These rocket scientists and engineers were designing complex financial instruments to make money out of money - rather than designing cars, phones, computers, teaching tools, Internet programs and medical equipment that could improve the lives and productivity of millions.
Now, I'm not saying that people who become MBA's or lawyers couldn't have productive lives as engineers and computer programmers. But how many of them do you suppose wanted to enter those professions? Friedman also seems to believe that pretty much all of the "best and the brightest" want nothing more than to chase the almighty dollar. Not everybody chooses to work for Wall Street or BigLaw.

Thomas Friedstein
I suspected long before I reached that point, but my second semester of organic chemistry sent home the message that I wasn't going to be spending my career in a chemistry lab. Please, don't judge chemistry by organic chemistry alone - a tedious bore of a subject that is best "mastered" through rote memorization - but for goodness sake, not everybody who is good at crunching numbers on Wall Street would be particularly useful in scientific or engineering fields. Maybe they would be accountants or lawyers, or economists, or politicians.

For that matter, who says the people who crashed and burned the world financial system are "the best and brightest" at all? Friedman seems to be falling for a pretty typical American conceit that anybody who makes a lot of money is among the "best and brightest", even if they can't change a light bulb unassisted. What makes the people who crashed Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and WaMu any better than the people who crashed Chrysler and General Motors? If it's such a big deal that GM is gushing red ink to the tune of $74 billion over four years "yet you can count on one hand the number of executives who have been reassigned or lost their job", what's the body count over at Citigroup? It's the auto companies that are "giant wealth-destruction machines"?

When we look at the decline of the nation's newspapers, including the New York Times, can we turn a mirror on Friedman? Friedman likes to look down on GM, but what about his own employer? At what point do we declare that newspapers have "become giant wealth-destruction machines", and insist that it's ridiculous to pay people six figure salaries to write syndicated columns when they could be out inventing something?

I know, I know.... "That's different."

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