I think we need to have a talk.
You’ve been giving me dirty looks because I’m not considering—at the moment, anyway—a career in the world-saving industry. When I get back from interviews at Smith Warehouse, you roll your eyes, as if I’m planning to throw away my entire Duke education and upbringing as a nice liberal arts student for the worthless pursuit of making money.
If you know me somewhat well, you’ve probably told me more than once in the last few weeks that I’m “selling my soul.” Endless case interview practice, in turn, makes me wonder whether I should use cost-based or value-based pricing on that sale.
Well, I’ve been thinking about your points. At times over the past few weeks, I’ve almost felt a little guilty. And now, I’ve wound up at a single, final conclusion: I’m done taking lectures from you.
Let’s start with the obvious point: You’re a hypocrite. While you lambaste the greedy bankers of Wall Street and the suit-clad C-Suite executives of top consulting firms, you happily enjoy the benefits of an education largely provided for you by those very sectors. Contrary to popular belief, Duke’s endowment is not provided by a not-for-profit. If you were really committed to your belief that the folks who go into these industries are wasting their talent, surely you would be less willing to bask in the fruits of their labor.
Moreover, the normative standards you’ve established for what constitutes an ideal career are at best arbitrary, and at worst wholly senseless. Pedagogical on-campus banker-bashers have in the past cited start-ups or public service as more worthy exploits. I agree—start-ups are wonderful contributors to society. But since the American Red Cross, to my knowledge, does not provide seed funding, someone else is going to have to fulfill the role of investing in them.
Public service is also an excellent (if usually inefficient) way to help our society grow. But public servants need to earn salaries, too. And since about 70 percent of the total federal income tax is paid by the top 10 percent of earners, I’m pretty sure those bankers and consultants you love to hate are going to be paying a healthy chunk of your salary.
And then there’s your crudest point, which is to take the worst element of a given sector and generalize it to all employees in that sector. Yes, some Wall Street bankers have broken the trust of the public. Yes, some Catholic priests have been embroiled in sex scandals. Yes, some public servants (or “politicians,” as the rest of us refer to them) have been corrupt. What’s your point again?
Now, many of you will argue that the problem isn’t that some people work in these industries, but rather that so many Duke graduates seem to wind up in them. First of all, I’d (partially) contest that. Despite paying students far less than other employers, Teach for America has been the top employer of Duke students as far back as the online data I can find goes.
But taking your point that the list of top Duke hirers does include quite a few banks and consultancies, you might stop trying to guilt us future grads, and instead rethink your presumed embrace of capitalism.
Indeed, one of the (many) faults of capitalism is that the people with the most money can recruit the best talent to work for them. Now, if society suddenly determined that not-for-profit employees were lacking in number, the salaries for those fields would go up, and equilibrium would be restored. But the very premise of our economic system is that no career has more or less inherent value than another; their value is what society is willing to pay for them.
Of course, this system has flaws. Among other things, it means teachers aren’t paid nearly enough. But attacking smart people for doing precisely what capitalism predicts they will (pursue capital), will not change anything.
That’s not to demean your decision to pursue whatever career your heart desires—just let me do the same. Society needs teachers. It needs public servants. And it also needs bankers. So let’s stop trying to guilt each other into picking this or that career.
Because in the end, people will be most productive in the career they choose for themselves.
Jeremy Ruch is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Wednesday.
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