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« Buzz in Las Vegas | Main | Call-out Shelter »

Get Out The Hankies

Boo hoo.

Numerous young Washingtonians bemoan the improvisational and protracted career track of the area's public interest profession. They say the high competition for comparatively low-paying jobs saps their sense of adulthood, forcing them to spend their 20s or early 30s moving from college to work to graduate school and back to work that might or might not be temporary.

A couple points. First, the WaPo reporter is obviously sympathetic (not surprising--after all, journalists go into journalism because they too want to "make a difference"). He (or at least the copy editor who wrote the hed) calls them "altruists." But are they? As Mark Twain once wrote in an extensive essay, no one ever does anything they don't want to do. These folks engage in this because it makes them feel good. They're obviously not considering their psychic income when they complain about their compensation.

But the real problem is that many of these policy types, particularly at the NGOs, want to engage in the type of do goodery that the supposed beneficiaries aren't necessarily asking for, and don't value that much (or perhaps value negatively). And in the cases in which they do, they don't necessarily have the money to pay for it.

I've devoted a lot of my life to opening up space--a concept that much of the world has been able to do well without, to date (or at least it thinks it can), but I've never imagined that I'd make as much money doing it as I would doing things that people really do seem to value, regardless of how important I might think the goal. In fact, one of my biggest mistakes in life was not recognizing early that the most effective way to achieve my goals would have been to get wealthy first, then to apply that wealth toward them, as Elon Musk, John Carmack, Jeff Bezos and others have done.

But their fundamental premise is flawed. Who is it that really changes the world, and for the better?

I would argue that it is the people like Bill Gates, or Henry Ford, or Thomas Edison, or the Wright brothers, who have a much larger and more beneficial effect on the world than people who "want to make a difference."

Who is more of a humanitarian, a Norman Borlaug, who through his technological efforts saved untold millions from hunger, and even starvation, and was reasonably compensated for it, or an Albert Schweitzer or Mother Theresa, who labored to help a relatively few poor and ill, while living in relative poverty? Obviously the latter derived personal satisfaction from their hands-on retail efforts, but I don't think that they ever whined about their lifestyle.

These people do in fact need to grow up, and understand that there are other ways to help people than forming non-profits and NGOs, or working for a government bureaucracy. People are helped most by technological advances that make essential items--food, transportation, communication, shelter--more affordable and accessible to them, not by those who provide them with handouts and sympathy, and keep them in a state of perpetual dependency.

In many ways, Sam Walton was one of the great humanitarians of our time, in bringing our nation's poor closer to a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle, and he seemed to do pretty well by doing good. But don't expect very many of these idealistic overgrown adolescents to want to emulate him. Actually increasing wealth, for themselves and others, would go against everything they believe.

[Update a few minutes later]

I see that Ann Althouse's commenters have a lot of thoughts similar to mine.

[Monday morning update]

Well, this post has certainly drawn a lot of commentary (particularly after the Instapundit link).

One clarification. A couple commenters (missing the point by a mile), write:

Lots of animus here for non-science majors... and people who work in charitable fields.

and another (sarcastically):

Teachers suck! Journalists suck! They're idiots and we hate them! The only worthwhile people are people with degrees in the sciences. Oh, well, most scientists are a bunch of whiny lefties too. So the only really worthwhile people on this planet are the engineers! Yea engineers!

This isn't about C. P. Snow's cultural clash, or science being better than liberal arts, or the suckitude of teachers or journalists. It's about unrealistic expectations, not to mention self righteousness.

I mentioned Sam Walton as someone to be emulated. Last time I checked the man was neither a scientist or an engineer. But he was someone who created vast wealth, not only for himself and his family, but for many of the poorest citizens (and non-citizens) of our nation, because enabling someone to purchase better-quality products for lower prices does in fact increase their wealth.

And journalists and teachers have important jobs to do, and the best are paid far too little, but the mediocre in those professions (who are legion) are probably overpaid. This is one of the reasons that the newspaper industry is dying--if we had a government-run news agency with a powerful national compulsory reporters' union, they could probably do better at seeking rent, as the NEA has. But then, mediocre reporters would be even more overpaid than now.

The point is that if one wants to seek a degree in history, or French literature, there's nothing wrong with that, but that they should understand what their job and salary prospects are with those degrees. They should understand that if you're going to take on a huge student loan, it might be better not to simply follow one's muse, but to get an education that will enable one to pay off the loan, rather than to simply curse the philistines who unaccountably don't recognize the value to society of your interests.

And if one wants to be a social worker, or save the whales, they should understand the relative value that society places on those professions. They should also understand that if their goal really is to "make a difference," or help people, that neither whale saving or social work is necessarily the best profession for that, and unlikely to be a well-compensated one (or at least, as Lennie told Homer when the latter asks if being head of the union pays well, "Only if you're corrupt." Homer: "Woo hoo!").

And if despite that, they really get an endorphin rush from administering welfare checks, or managing Peace Corps workers, they should recognize that as part of their compensation, and that many of their idealistic cohorts do as well, and that the supply of their talent, such as it is, will always exceed demand in the marketplace.

Posted by Rand Simberg at November 03, 2007 07:16 AM
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Bravo! That is probably the best thing I have ever read from your blog. I am cross posting to my newsvine site.

Posted by Dennis Ray Wingo at November 3, 2007 09:30 AM

Low pay, lack of advancement opportunities? That's what you'd expect. I have no idea why anyone would compare themselves to an investment banker and expect any sort of parity in those areas.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at November 3, 2007 09:49 AM

In some ways I think the "child" in this story is even worse than those in the one Rand links too.

Posted by JAH at November 3, 2007 10:52 AM

From JAH's linked story:

Upon graduating, I was helplessly launched headfirst into the “real world,” equipped with a degree in history and $32,000 in student loans. Before ricocheting back home, I would learn two important lessons: 1) There are no well-paying — let alone paying — jobs for history majors. 2) The real world is really tough.

Pity he didn't think of that before spending several years of his life and $32,000 in student loans for a degree in history. Don't get me wrong - I love history. But loving history isn't enough to meet the demands of the real world. A BA or BS degree in history might be useful if he intends to teach at the high school level (or lower). It might also be useful in a frew other areas. However, unless he can write a history best seller (like Stephen Ambrose), he isn't going to go very far with a degree in history.

The article continues:

Desperate times called for desperate measures, and I had no intention of living in a society that was as unfair as this one. To seek a haven devoid of the ruthless 9-to-5 ebb and flow of contemporary America, I moved to Alaska.

As a liberal arts major, I dreamed of making a profound difference in people’s lives. Instead, for a year, I lived in Coldfoot, a town north of the Arctic Circle that resembles a Soviet Gulag camp. My job as a tour guide for visitors temporarily alleviated my money woes because it provided room and board, but when the season ended and I moved back home, I was again confronted with the grim realities of debt.

Desperate, I browsed through insurance and bank job descriptions. I had hit an all-time low. Could I surrender my soul for health coverage and a steady income? Could I sacrifice my ideals by falling into line?

Suddenly, living at home didn’t seem nearly as degrading as selling out. But sadly, other graduates don’t have any choice but to work for temp agencies and retail stores to eke by.

Why do I get the feeling that no one ever sat down with the boy and laid out the real world to him? The same can be said for that young woman who aspires to a high paying social work job. For one thing, few employers give a damn about your ideals. They care about what you can bring to the organization to contribute to the bottom line. The greater your ability to do that, the greater your compensation. What matters more than a degree and even more than where you earned the degree is your marketable skills. If you don't have any, your employment prospects are bleak. Too bad, so sad but them's the breaks.

Posted by Larry J at November 3, 2007 12:18 PM

Speaking as one who knows firsthand, the guy in the article JAH points to needed a good smack with the clue-bat in high school, before getting his unmarketable liberal arts degree. Having failed to receive it, he needs a good strong ladder to get over himself and get a real job like the rest of us 'unprincipled sellouts'.

Jeez, what a pompous ass.

It seems the folks in the WaPo article don't understand that their employers' inability to pay them more or to open more positions in their particular area of interest due to funding limitations is a fundamental economic fact applicable to *any* industry. There is an unstated assumption behind their comments which amounts to "Any other industry could pay me whatever I ask, because their resources are infinite." Of course, they *are* international relations majors, so you can't expect them to understand simple, real-world economic principles -- hard to find time to fit such trivia into your degree plan when you've got so much Marxist and/or Keynesian BS to swallow and "social justice" coursework to complete.

Maybe these folks should unionize, and demand job security and salaries commensurate with their immense value to society.

Posted by T.L. James at November 3, 2007 12:49 PM


Please check you junk email accounts.

Posted by Mike Puckett at November 3, 2007 01:06 PM

The graduate with a Science degree asks, "Why does it work?"

The graduate with an Engineering degree asks, "How does it work?"

The graduate with an Accounting degree asks, "How much will it cost?"

Thegraduate with an Arts degree asks, "Do you want fries with that?"

Posted by Mike Puckett at November 3, 2007 01:14 PM

The graduate with an Arts degree asks, "Do you want fries with that?"

That's not quite right, IMO. A high school grad might ask, "Do you want fries with that?"

The Liberal Arts degree holder asks, "Do you want a muffin with your latte?"

Posted by Larry J at November 3, 2007 02:58 PM

saps their sense of adult-hood

What sense of adult-hood?

(Edited to satisfy the spam filter)

Posted by McGehee at November 3, 2007 03:04 PM

Well I feel that getting a degree, any degree, is the first step to elevating one position within the business world beyond that of a technician, operator, or service person. Going for a liberal arts degree isn't necessarily a bad idea seeing as it is often the easiest and cheapest path to obtaining that important, Bachelors of something, under the education section of a resume. As with any degree, the required education beyond there doesn't end to obtain a worthwhile career. Apprenticeship under a masters tutelage or continuing education at a community college is going to have to be a part of any well rounded plan. Finally, experience is last piece of the puzzle to invariably obtaining success in ones financial life.

Of course, thinking what one wants to be and where they actually end up often become two different things for most people. Opportunities just don't fall into place without a lot of hard work. In certain causes positions are just so over populated with potential candidates that lots of good people get passed by. Also, people may work hard at a goal all the while performing a mundane task to keep the bills paid. However, once that potential positions requirements have been met it becomes a silly catch 22 of convincing hiring managers that your qualified for position B even though all your experiencing lie in position A. I think those people have a legitimate grip. Absolutely, I agree its silly, though, to think that once out of college the world should be handed to you on a silver platter. Hard work, perseverance, and skillful acumen are the key.

Posted by Josh Reiter at November 3, 2007 05:27 PM

Upon graduating, I was helplessly launched headfirst into the “real world,” equipped with a degree in history and $32,000 in student loans.

I believe we have the answer as to why so many boys no longer attend college. What's the point? Unless you have the skills to make it in the hard majors, you're essentually marking time until you graduate and THEN have to start the plumbing/carpentry/automechanics apprenticeship.

Based on the percentage of graduates with useless degrees, I'd say that the actual purpose of college is keep folks out of the job market for 4 years and giveing large numbers of government employees a reason to vote Democractic. Since unemployment is down, the males with more sense have bugged out early to get on with their lives.

Posted by K at November 3, 2007 06:20 PM

I agree! People with liberal arts degrees suck! So does Mother Theresa!

Posted by Bill Winter at November 3, 2007 07:12 PM

Many of the entrepreneurs (including Bill Gates & Henry Ford) who accomplish great things do not have a college degree.

Posted by Steve Straub at November 3, 2007 07:15 PM

I have an BA in History from a state college. But early on before I graduated I realized that there wasn't much I could do with that, so I started looking for a profession that fit with my nonexistant skills in math. Solution?

Academic librarian.

Combined graduate school and undergrad, my total student loans is $42,000. However, they are consolidated and locked at a very low 3% interest for the next 18 years. This is below inflation, and the interest is tax-deductable.

I think I've done pretty well for myself. I have a career I enjoy, a graduate degree, and a manageable level of student debt, considering my only other major debt is my car.

Posted by JonBuck at November 3, 2007 07:18 PM

You underestimate Sam Walton by a mile. He has singlehandedly done more to reduce poverty in America than any other single person - certainly more than any lousy, scumbag, corrupt, sleazy, "altruistic", so-called "public service" twit.

In my next post, I'll tell you what I really think.

Posted by Dan King at November 3, 2007 07:29 PM

Comparing the whiny people to Mother Theresa is an insult to Mother Theresa.

One could argue that Mother Teresa's actions kept poor people "perpetually dependent" (Which Christopher Hitchens does fairly convincingly) but as Rand pointed out, at least she didn't complain about her vow of poverty. The people in the article want to have their cake and eat it too, which makes them cousins of the Gulfstream Liberals we see warning us about Climate Change (We called it the Weather when I was young).

Posted by David in San Diego at November 3, 2007 07:31 PM

JonBuck, and what a wonderful marriage prospect you are, too: a librarian with $42K in college loans.

Posted by Peg C. at November 3, 2007 07:34 PM

Not much love here for the Liberal Arts grad. As one myself, I must at least point out the the LA path is admired by many.
Many "useless degrees" have been earned by CPA's who hate the hours and lawyers who hate their lives. I don't have a count of the number of tech/science geeks that couldn't sell a magizine subscription if they needed one more to get to summer camp. Same for the high number of disfunctional, miserable people I have met who work in the financial services community.
I have always noted that my Poly Sci degree never led me to political office or government service; it did teach me how to research and sort out what was important in 2000 pages of assigned reading you knew you could never get through.

Posted by Capsu78 at November 3, 2007 07:36 PM

On a happy note, a thing called the G.I. Bill kept me out of college debt.

Posted by Mike Puckett at November 3, 2007 07:39 PM

Very well done, Rand. This gets at some of the fundamental questions of philanthropy and of how we choose to live our lives. This subject was addressed quite nicely a few years ago in a commencement address (later turned into a Wall Street Journal op-ed) by novelist Daniel Akst, who recounted how he set out to save the world by writing, and belatedly realized that one of his peers who went into business made a fortune had done much more to improve the world. It's available here.

Posted by at November 3, 2007 07:49 PM

Just because the paper on your wall says "college degree" doesn't give it value, no matter how much you paid for it. Want a degree is designing horse-draw carriages? I'm sure you can find a college willing to sell you one. That doesn't make it useful in the real world, though. It's easy to pay $50,000 for a worthless piece of paper and 4-5 years of fuzzy memories partying with people you'll never see again. The school doesn't care what you study, because they get paid regardless of whether it's valuable.

I've always thought that colleges should be paid by a yearly tax on their graduates' incomes. If colleges had a vested interest in making their students productve members of society, they may quit selling degrees with no market value.

Posted by John at November 3, 2007 07:50 PM

Okay, I graduated from college with a degree in philosophy. I had no student debt since I had a full-tuition scholarship my 2d-4th years and my parents paid for the rest (as they did for my siblings).

The same day I graduated - the very same day - I was employed earning $11,250 per year. This was in the mid-70s, mind, and it went pretty far for a single guy. Oh yeah, I should also mention that my job included fee medical and housing, in addition to that salary.

What kind of job pays that kind of salary and bennies for a philosophy major? In my case, it was the field artillery of the US Army, whose ROTC department paid my way through school, too.

I retirned from the Army in the mid-90s. If I had not already known that I had a good job awaiting me at graduation, I would not have majored in philosophy, you betcha.

Don't blame the kids (for kids they still are) in the WaPo story. Blame their parents, who have trained their kids to expect that the world will conform to their desires.

Posted by Donald Sensing at November 3, 2007 07:54 PM

Traditionally, what a college education, yes, a liberal arts college education prepared you for was some manner of leadership position in society. In some ways, a liberal arts education is more of a true education than what an engineer receives, or even a medical doctor for that matters, because a liberal arts program is doing more than teaching you a trade, and at some level what an engineer does is a trade -- my mother used to call us "glorified plumbers."

In the liberal arts you learn how to communicate and how to reason, and you learn the heritage of our culture in terms of history, the arts, and the Great Books, so you can stand on the shoulders of the giants who developed our society and can speak the vocabulary of others within the leadership classes.

A few things factor into the Liberal Arts graduate driving the taxi cab. One is that we need a smaller number of leaders and a larger number of workers, even if the work involves performing surgery or designing an anti-lock braking system. We enlarged the cohort getting a liberal arts degree without enlarging the number of positions that benefited from it. Another factor is that perhaps a liberal arts education is dumbed down from what it was one or two generations ago, perhaps on account of the leftish conceits of some college professors, perhaps in part to accomodate the the large numbers we want to run through those programs.

Yet another factor is that while the Liberal Arts have run off the rails into whatever post modernism is in fashion, Science and Engineering have taken their place as what I call the intellectual currency of our time. There was once a time when one could learn much of what we understood about the physical world by reading Aristotle -- these days, without a passing familiarity with Newtonian mechanics, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and quantum mechanics, most of what takes place in the world around us could just as well happen by magical processes.

Posted by Paul Milenkovic at November 3, 2007 07:54 PM


I have one year of college and wound up as an aerospace engineer. How did that happen?

The degree is not the ticket. You are the ticket.

Posted by M. Simon at November 3, 2007 07:59 PM

It is categorically NOT TRUE that there are no important, well-paying jobs for people with degrees in the "liberal arts". The military doesn't care what kind of degree you have; you can be a 1st Lieutenant or an Ensign with a degree in basketweaving. And any officer in the U.S. military will go a heck of a lot more good than working for some African NGO.

Posted by Ken Mitchell at November 3, 2007 08:00 PM

One reason lefties hate capitalism is because they think that power and income should be allocated according to inherent merit. The problem with capitalism is that it allocates power and income according to utilitarian usefulness.

Which is why the average engineer makes a lot more money than the average poet or writer. The grubby, mundane, utilitarian market values the achievement of the engineer more, so that job pays better. But that should be how it is!

Inherent worth is more than just utilitarian output!

...or so the lament goes. And that's why they think that those who want to make careers out of social activism, those who are actively trying to "make the world a better place", should be getting paid more than those who spend their time designing improved pencil sharpeners and next year's car model -- and never mind that customers are willing to pay for better pencil sharpeners.

Posted by Steven Den Beste at November 3, 2007 08:02 PM

Damn, I need to learn to proof read. Change to "That shouldn't be how it is!"

Posted by Steven Den Beste at November 3, 2007 08:04 PM

@ Mr. Den Beste - Of course the engineer should make more than the poet. After all, something the average engineer builds is likely to be around in 50 years, but the musings of the average poet may not make it to 50 days.

Posted by Jacknut at November 3, 2007 08:16 PM

The comments left by our friendly commenters on the WaPo article are truly amazing. Spoiled children that think the world owes them something. I've spent the last 24 years of my life working hard. And now I have skills that are in high demand (security executive) and receive high pay for them. The best part, ironic even, considering this article?

- I have no college degree of any sort.
- I work for a not for profit that serves the poor.
- I make a lot of money.
- I'm somewhere between conservative and libertarian

I found that richly ironic compared to what these spoiled children think the world owes them and, undoubtedly, what they would think of me.

Posted by Eric at November 3, 2007 08:27 PM

As a high school grad, I ask "Why doesn't your circuit meet the thermal load line spec?" then kick your ass out the cubicle door.

With my HS diploma and a few community college classes, I work in the high tech industry and am surrounded by all sorts of hardware engineering peers, most with BS or Masters, at least a couple PhDs.

The only thing worse than a liberal arts grad with a sense of entitlement is the PhD who can't get out of the theoretical weeds and get something done or take less than 5 ppt slides to tell management something relevant to a solution.

It is called work for a reason. College can give you an advantage getting in the door, but if you don't start with an idea of how to work or add value I am going to take your lunch at review time and your job when the cuts come.

Common sense, the ability to read semi-complicated topics, communicate clearly, organize your thoughts and WORK. If your college education teaches you that, you got your money's worth.

Best workers in my experience? Ex-military with technical background, any education.

Posted by Marko at November 3, 2007 08:38 PM

In his 1978 novel "Overload", about the electric utility business, Arthur Hailey wrote of Nancy Molineaux, a muckraking reporter who was tormenting a utility executive:

Mr. Milo Molineaux, Nancy's father, was NOT a liberal do-gooder. He was a building contractor, who, throughout his life, had pursued one forthright, stated objective: To transform himself for a poor boy, born of black parents in rural Louisiana, into a rich man. He had succeeded, had done it honestly, and nowadays Mr. Molineaux was very rich indeed.

Yet her father, Nancy had observed, had done more for people of his own race--by providing steady employment, fair wages and human dignity--than a thousand political activists and their kind who (as the saying went) "had never had to meet a payroll."


Posted by sestamibi at November 3, 2007 08:40 PM

I'll just say that if you want to be a do-gooder full time, have made money from a full time job first.

Carnagie built his steel empire before he built libraries and museums.

Posted by M. Thompson at November 3, 2007 08:53 PM

Dear God, what a wretched piece of navel-gazing that WaPo article is.

In the subculture I spend most of my (non-work) time in, there are plenty of people who want to be on, in a sense, "the international aid track," often something very like Ms Hanley's desire for "a job that takes her to Africa for health projects and gender relations issues." But they know that: 1) they'll have to build their own support team; 2) there is no guarantee that any given position will last more than a year or two, ever; 3) living conditions will be Spartan at best; and 4) there is a nontrivial risk of imprisonment and/or death. Because what they're trying to get into is missions work.

I can also echo both M. Simon and Eric Cowper, above: I have two years of utterly undistinguished experience in college, which not only did not result in a degree but accrued so little class credit that if I were to start over I wouldn't even try to count any of it. Thirty years on, I am a project manager at a Fortune 100 company and make twice the median household income, about the level typically associated with a master's degree -- in fact I routinely have to disabuse people of the notion that I have obtained one (or a doctorate). Result: I am now paying taxes to support people who have far more education than me and who grew up in incomparably better circumstances than I did.

Posted by Jay Manifold at November 3, 2007 09:23 PM

Just read Marko's comment with the attention I should have given it the first time. He nailed it.

Posted by Jay Manifold at November 3, 2007 09:33 PM

Hey Jay, my income today puts me in the top 5%. I am what the Democrats regularly denounce as "upper class" or "rich". AND I do the work that these spoiled kids think they should be doing. The difference between them and me? I spent a lot of years doing hard work in the military and for profit companies acquiring skills that my current employer finds very valuable.

Now I can make a good living and help the poor and needy. And I am not one of the "children of privilege" that the commenters of that article denounced either. To be frank, if your parents are college educated and you are too then it is likely that you are one of the privileged class. I come from the uneducated, working poor.

Posted by Eric at November 3, 2007 09:35 PM

...after all, journalists go into journalism because they too want to "make a difference").

Er, not exactly. Many yournalists go into journalism because they have flunked out of the more rigorous disciplines. Ditto for teachers, and many liberal arts majors. They can't hack it in the sciences.

Posted by Dave at November 3, 2007 09:52 PM

I'll be perfectly honest.

I couldn't handle the math. I dropped PreCalc twice before I realized the futility. Certain careers were closed to me. Therefore, I had to find a profession that allowed me to best utilize the skills I do have. I knew what I was getting into. All of my debt is low interest. And at my salary, very manageable.

A close friend of mind graduated from Optometry school with over $100,000 in debt. He's married with two young children. He's just bought into his own practice as well.

Library Directors can make six figures.

Posted by JonBuck at November 3, 2007 10:03 PM

I suppose I will have to say something in defense of these kids. Since they went to such good schools, they are really giving up quite a bit by choosing to work in NGOs rather than in the private sector. The banking/consulting route is pretty well established from top schools, and they will consider anyone, including liberal arts degrees. So seeing their college buddies making 6 figures at age 23 might be somewhat painful, even given the knowledge that they aren't in it for the money.

Posted by Brian at November 3, 2007 10:11 PM

These whiny 'public interest' losers are just selfish little brats who NEED to feel that they are better than those that go into the private sector (you know, where you actually have to PERFORM in order to not get fired).

In India and China today, poverty is being rapidly reduced by technology (cellphones, Internet connections, etc.). So-called 'aid' never did it. The people who have done the most to reduce poverty are the silicon valley innovators.

I truly hope these self-congratulating 'do-gooders' remain poorly paid. If ever this is a time when such parasitic laziness ever IS well-paid, that is when our civilization is over.

And I don't think $38,000 is very low entry-level pay. Engineers at corporate jobs start at $50-$55K.

Posted by GK at November 3, 2007 10:16 PM

I went into journalism because the arts don't pay. I studied writing and literature, and figured out a way to make an okay living doing something vaguely related to what I started out wanting to do. Works for me. I didn't think that studying Shakespeare would lead me to Fallujah, but life is funny sometimes. Now that I am where I am, I wouldn't have it any other way.

The kids in that article are just My younger self can sort of relate to them. When I was 27 I was the "starving artist" version of them. Ten years from now, many of them will have it figured out.

Posted by Michael J.Totten at November 3, 2007 10:20 PM

But none of these brats has the balls of Michael Totten.

I think a brief visit to Iraq would be far more educational tham their Ivy-League degrees.

Posted by GK at November 3, 2007 10:39 PM

>>I would argue that it is the people like Bill Gates, or Henry Ford, or Thomas Edison, or the Wright brothers, who have a much larger and more beneficial effect on the world than people who "want to make a difference."
Very well said Rand but I think you left out an important point. Even Karl Marx agreed with you about Capitalism producing a flood of new and less expensive products. These captains of industry did not merely bring low cost products to the public though, they also brought high wages. The only thing that ever lifted anyone out of poverty was a job and such people as these created millions of them that paid well. This is something that Marx did not perceive, either because it wasn't happening in Europe in his day or because he simply refused to see it but it has been happening in a big way in the free World ever since.

Posted by Michael at November 3, 2007 10:44 PM

My brother majored in history, and got a job based on that degree (at a museum I am sure you are all familiar with). So the quote from the story JAH linked is not entirely accurate.

Posted by Paul Dietz at November 3, 2007 11:38 PM

Lots of animus here for non-science majors... and people who work in charitable fields. I agree that you must accept the choices you make if you wish to work at an NGO (stop the whining!), but geez, people: enough with the hatred!

I'm a pretty hardcore libertarian, and viva dinero and the free market and all that: but I also believe that minarchy is only truly possible with an active and engaged civil society. Used to be, "charity work" was done by women "of leisure"---in other words, women who worked full time for no pay. That ain't gonna happen no more (no chiming in about how women should return to that role: that's almost a Godwin's law codicil). And for crying out loud: I don't believe in unnecessary charity, but there are people who DO need help upon occasion (do I need to cite examples, or can you figure them out for yourselves?). If no one is willing to work that route, you end up with calls for "the government to take care of it." When you do that, you cause a great deal more harm than if private charity were involved.

To give you another "do-gooder" perspective, I used to work for a libertarian think tank--these are the folks who are fighting the depressing daily slog to keep government off your backs, putting up the arguments against intrusive government, and responding to the liberal utopia (dystopia) types. Spit on them all you want for not making lots of money with their degrees, but they also do it because they believe what they're doing is vital: to make sure that it remains possible in America to keep doing what some of you do without the government taking away all that income in taxes or regulating your industry to oblivion. If you can think of a better way to realistically accomplish that and make their work utterly redundant so that they can all go on to make the big bucks in industry, I'd love to hear it.

Posted by Poulette at November 4, 2007 02:24 AM

I agree with the substance of Rand's post.

Not sure where Pat was coming from; was that comment perhaps meant as a joke? If not, I wonder what that person has against librarians! I think it's a noble profession, with or without six figures.

Furthermore, Jon's comment demonstrates that he knows how to think, how to be realistic, and how to take care of himself. All admirable qualities in a spouse.

Posted by Sarah Rolph at November 4, 2007 04:13 AM

As I put down at the Althouse thread - if you are following your Campbellian bliss, then don't complain about the pay. Campbell's point, however, is not about do-gooders, but people connected to their own, inherent direction of self utilized in productive fashion for one's own enjoyment. I went to geology knowing there were no good, high paying jobs in the field (during the mid-1980's oil patch in the SW) and understood that I was unlikely to use those direct pieces of knowledge in my life... of course I was able to get a decent and good job that did and then applied my other skills to them. Pay? Enough to live on and I do not have a fancy lifestyle... very utilitarian. Doing good work, especially to help the warfighter, was a double if not triple reward even with having to fight the civil bureaucracy. There was and is good, personal value to sustaining one's Nation with one's talents and not trying to recraft it to some utopian ideal.

I applaud, and heartily, those that have gone to far off lands to follow that inner guide and demonstrate the value of liberty and freedom in that doing. Quite some few fail or even die doing so, others return back disheartened that their beliefs proved unsustainable... and a very few succeeded. It is only in the latter half of the 20th century and now the 21st that we hear complaints about *pay* for doing same. For those that spent their time and effort and lives going overseas to fight in wars of liberty that the Nation had no part in, to put forth that their religion held all of humanity equally and would teach you the basics in life no matter what your religion, and for those that formed charities to give a hand up to the poor and succor the afflicted in far off places... that *is* a pure expression of liberty and freedom. Adventurers, scholars, priests, and often just ordinary folk went to do these things, many with some sort of institutional backing but a good many without *any* backing.

Want to make the world a better place? Go right ahead and try! Do not complain about the pay or lack of medical insurance or any other such thing as our forefathers did without those since the founding. If you fail I will not ridicule you and if you come back in a coffin I will mourn that loss of brightness to society. If you ask for pay, you get what is coming to you... following your bliss can pay well, but the pay is not important if you are doing so.

Posted by ajackskonian at November 4, 2007 04:14 AM

A lot of the "NGO do-gooders" aren't really into making things better for others. Oh, they may think it, but as long as they consider the impact of their work in terms of how it affects the person doing the good deed rather than the impact on the receiver of the work they are really in it for themselves.

Once had an argument with someone that said that someone who gave $1 out of their last ten was a better human than Bill Gates who has donated billions to charity. I said no, because the impact of their wasn't even on the same scale. All they could talk about was how he didn't give away ALL his money, just some 38 billion of it and kept a couple of billion for himself. I just kept asking how what he kept made any difference on the real world impact of his donations?

The $1 giver didn't accomplish anything other than perhaps a personal feeling of satisfaction and nothing else. Measure the impact of charity on the ones receiving--not the impact on the ones giving.

Posted by Faith+1 at November 4, 2007 04:44 AM

Don't forget the most important thing that needs to be made more affordable and accessible for prosperity these days: electric power.

Posted by James Bradley at November 4, 2007 05:05 AM

I was the first in my family to go to college. I graduated with a B.A. in History in 1991. I sold steel, via cold calling, for about a year and then went to law school. My debt after undergrad and law school was about 60k. My first job paid 32.5k. I worked 60 hours a week to earn it.

After about a year, I got a job at a better firm making 50k. Then 8 years later left for a better firm and 120k+ in salary. I graduated from a marginal law school with average grades. (I worked full time during school, too.) I advanced by simply out working my contemporaries. Many of these people were smarter than me, better educated than me and Came from successful, monied backgrounds. The bottom line is the bottom line. I produced, so I advanced.

I have ZERO math skills. I'm a word guy. While a history degree isn't that marketable, it did allow me to develop some of the skills I use everyday as a lawyer. If I could do it again I don't know what I'd do differently. Not everyone has the aptitude for math or the sciences. I would have liked to be a fisheries biologist. However, lack of math skills aside, THEY DON'T MAKE ANY MONEY. I wanted to have a traditonal family and knew that I needed to make money to do that effectively.

However, at the end of the day, if you work hard, acknowledge and accept responsibility for your mistakes and keep trying to better your condition, your life will usually improve.

The world can be a tough place. Whining doesn't help.

Posted by BDT at November 4, 2007 05:07 AM

My wife and I have just been having a conversation about this very topic. I graduated an artsy-fartsy liberal arts major, and two years later I was working in the non-profit sector making $9.50 an hour when my brand new, shiny, insurance Executive, Math major wife told me she was expecting. I wasn't in the non-profit biz for very long after that.

It was a shock going from a high-falutin' title at an organization that everyone knew to the exact same position with a corporation no-one had ever heard of with a real hiring and title policy. But the money made up for lack of a business card.

Posted by Lost My Cookies at November 4, 2007 05:31 AM

I agree with many of the commenters...these are whiney-assed kids who don't actually want to work for a living.

I have more degrees than I'll ever need, no debt (worked as a TA for masters and ph.d.) and ended up teaching history in a large southern university...but my political beliefs (life long republican) didn't mesh well with my peers...

Now, I'm a cabinetmaker, belong to a union...don't make much but who cares? I'm happy, well adjusted, and at the end of the day, I can point to something concrete that I've contributed to society...go figure

BTW, I live in the metro DC area! I constantly see/hear these children complaining about their lives...but they don't want to have to work, after all, mommy and daddy already did all the work...why should they? Besides, they've been told that "everyone's a winner" and everyone deserves a "living wage", so why should they have to work for it?

Posted by Rich Vail at November 4, 2007 06:05 AM

For the first time in my life I see in these comments a large number of successful non-college graduates. We should form an interest group/society to explore our own phenomenon. I can't imagine that any university would want to touch this with an 11 foot pole. So, we should do it ourselves.

I too am a very successful author, serial entrepreneur and venture philanthropist that never went to college. For my part, not having a degree has always (happily) forced me to be an independent thinker who pushed back the boundaries of the possible...simply because I hated having to ask for a job wherein I knew the bozo in HR would throw out my resume because it lacked a degree. It was always easier to make my own job...which meant - make my own company.

During the 2000 tech disaster, I found myself in a dry spot and thought about finally getting a degree at age 50. When I discovered that it would take at least $40,000 and 4 years, and at the end I STILL wouldn't have a job, I asked myself how much money each of my previously successful ventures had cost to start...answer - WAAAY less than $40k. So, I started a new enterprise by allocating the capital to the most efficient use. In a happy coincidence, this venture and my partner (Dr. Aubrey de Grey) got a full page write up in the style section of the Washington Post the same (I think) day as the above referenced article.

Posted by at November 4, 2007 06:21 AM

I agree with Donald Sensing's assessment: don't blame the kids. They're just doing what our society constantly beats into them: "You can be ANYTHING when you grow up...". The trouble is their parents didn't qualify this public school platitude with something like "... as long as you make enough to support yourself and your family."

My own path is similar to Donald's. I graduated from West Point in the mid-80s and went into the Army as an infantry officer. At the time I had the naive, idealistic view that I was going to help make the world a better place. Fortunately for me, my task-master father made sure I graduated with a computer science degree. That degree and growing up to understand that altruism doesn't pay the bills resulted in a career after the military in engineering that lets me comfortably support my family.

Now, my wife and I are passing the hard-work ethic on to our daughter. We include her in my wife's business and make sure she understands that most things in life aren't free. She knows lots of people in her high school who seem rudderless or are headed toward the kind of situation highlighted in Rand's posting. We tell our daughter that's just fine, those people will be less competition for her later on.

Posted by Pete Fuenfhausen at November 4, 2007 06:55 AM

Throughout history the world has been changed for the better less by people who know about the elements within Mazlo's hierarchy and more by people who KNOW the elements within Mazlo's hierarchy on a personal level. The type of people who address key aspects in better ways not for primarily altruistic motives, but rather for the better, more timely and appropriate mouse-trap solution satisfaction that yields direct tangible returns for themselves, their family and communities.
In short, people who change history for the better typically don't talk about what a better place the world will be if they can convince others to improve it according to their vision, they themselves engage directly in doing so.
The people who most often improve their own lives and consequently those of others become the theory, the experiment and the results that others may then draw from.
That appears to be a key distinction that places the Norman Borlaug's, Albert Schweitzer's, Mother Theresa's, Sam Walton's and Bill Gates' on one side and the likes of Soros and these kids on the other.
One side talks about knowing of its own self realization and the benifits thereof but remains primarily parasitic in its pursuit while those on the other side of this debate KNOW the hierarchy, actively improve themselves in positive, value-add ways and thereby we, the host, as well.
A certain amount of faith must be maintained that the dead-enders currentyly populating NGO's will be shaken out over time.
Not without pain in many circumstances will they be shaken out but they will be until conditions are once again fat enough to support their likes yet again.

Posted by Brian at November 4, 2007 06:59 AM

Steven Den Veste says "lefties hate capitalism,..." because "... it allocates power and income according to utilitarian usefulness."

Some do, but you can spend a career in non-profit public service, adequately paying or not, deeply enthralled by power and dignity of capitalism. Just believe that a society should allocate some goods and services by more than market logic.

One argument for doing so is that "society" by regulation raises the costs of many primary goods. Building codes and zoning regulations put a floor below price of housing. The Medical regulation of health care imposes a floor on those costs. Same with education, transportation, food, etc.

Forget whether all this is philosophically justified or practically done well, it is. Real people are affected by it. You can decide to work on these issues in one way or another, but it doesn't take an animus toward rational economics to do so in the not-for-profit sector.

Posted by Brien OToole at November 4, 2007 07:00 AM

In a few weeks I'll be getting my BFA in fine arts. I'm a couple of years older than my peers and a bit more mature (thank you, U.S. Army), and it makes all the difference in the world. With a number of marketable skills and a job that easily pays my bills while going to school full time, I have little anxiety about graduating. More importantly, I'm lining up graduate level education in another field where I can use my skills to do something I love without moving to NYC and becoming the stereotypical artist.

A lot of the other graduates have no jobs at the moment, nor will they have anything beyond retail or burger flipping to support themselves and their art once they're out. No doubt a number of them will eventually make it in the gallery scene or end up teaching.

With art, though, at least you can bull your way through with hard work and/or talent, if you're willing to live frugally for a while. It's simple - you are (supposedly) making something that people will buy from you.

How some of the soon-to-graduate liberal arts majors console themselves, I have no idea.

Posted by Tim in PA at November 4, 2007 07:49 AM


And there's the fundamental flaw in their thinking. I know, because I used to buy into it, too. (Well, in my defense, I was sold it by ideologues of various stripes.)

What changed for me was that I tried to define "inherent merit", or find an existing definition; and eventually I realized that it wasn't possible to find a single definition. Every person had his or her own view of what had the most merit.

So since no single measure was possible, I tried to think of a meta-measure, a measure that would please the largest number of people and displease the fewest. Being both statistically and democratically inclined, I imagined a way for people to vote on the question of merit.

To my credit, it only took me about five minutes to realize that I had "invented" the marketplace.

Utilitarian output IS inherent worth, as best we can define it.

Posted by Martin L. Shsince thoemaker at November 4, 2007 07:50 AM

but it doesn't take an animus toward rational economics to do so in the not-for-profit sector.

True -- but what sector attracts those who do have that animus?

The answer explains the widespread perception, no?

Posted by McGehee at November 4, 2007 07:52 AM

Man, did that comment get mangled. Sorry for typing before I was awake.

Posted by Martin L. Shoemaker at November 4, 2007 07:59 AM

How some of the soon-to-graduate liberal arts majors console themselves

A bachelor's degree in anything combined with Law School makes it all worthwhile. You'd think these youngsters would know that...

By my own reckoning, Partyboy Chris and Steve-O have done more to educate "kids" through their nature show "Wildboyz" - and make MILLIONS - than any number of environmentalist do-gooders could ever do with a grant from PBS.

Posted by Dave_Violence at November 4, 2007 08:12 AM

"Er, not exactly. Many yournalists go into journalism because they have flunked out of the more rigorous disciplines. Ditto for teachers, and many liberal arts majors. They can't hack it in the sciences."

That's true. Teachers suck! Journalists suck! They're idiots and we hate them! The only worthwhile people are people with degrees in the sciences. Oh, well, most scientists are a bunch of whiny lefties too. So the only really worthwhile people on this planet are the engineers! Yea engineers!

Posted by Bill Winter at November 4, 2007 08:30 AM

David Gobel:

For the first time in my life I see in these comments a large number of successful non-college graduates. We should form an interest group/society to explore our own phenomenon. I can't imagine that any university would want to touch this with an 11 foot pole.

You know what's interesting? I know more of us than just the 3 or 4 that have posted on this board. I know plenty of folks making more than $100K/year, who do damn good jobs in their chosen profession and have no degrees. Some are entrepreneurs, some are corporate ladder types, some work in small and medium businesses. All of them work hard and have acquired marketable skills.

As far as the couple of comments about an animus towards charity work goes, I have no such animus. I work for a not for profit healthcare organization. And I love it. And I accept that I make less than if I worked in a for profit corporation. That's quite alright, I like what I do and I make a difference in people's lives. And I still make a lot of money. In fact, working in the military and for profit for 20 years made me much more valuable to the not for profit world because I had real skills and work experience.

David, feel free to drop me a note privately. Maybe we can get something started around the success of non-college educated individuals. What the world sees is the (relatively) small numbers without a college education that never succeed and the (also relatively) small numbers with a college education who succeed. They are then shocked by articles like this. They never see the large numbers of people without college degrees who do quite well and contribute very successfully.

Posted by Eric at November 4, 2007 08:35 AM

A *blog*spot* URL is "questionable content"? Well, okay, I suppose I can see your point and you weren't going to visit my blog anyway, were you? My comment without the offensive link:

It's probably a Good Thing that social and political activism doesn't pay well, else we'd have a lot more of 'em and we have a great plenty now.

Posted by Swen Swenson at November 4, 2007 08:56 AM

People look at me funny when I tell them I dropped out of the 6th grade. I picked up a GED and a few community college credits later. After I had been working several years. I have my own construction company now.

The interesting thing is the number of people that quit studying after they leave some level of 'education'. With a few months of recreational reading, it is not difficult to match or beat many of the degreed experts. It doesn't work so well with a lot of the alt space people.

Posted by john hare at November 4, 2007 09:29 AM

Blog-spot URLs aren't allowed because if they were, I'd be inundated by blog spam (which I was before I banned it).

Posted by Rand Simberg at November 4, 2007 09:50 AM

"In fact, one of my biggest mistakes in life was not recognizing early that the most effective way to achieve my goals would have been to get wealthy first, then to apply that wealth toward them, as Elon Musk, John Carmack, Jeff Bezos and others have done."

Mind the grass-is-greener thinking here.

Ad astra per aspera applies rather brutally to the entrepreneurial business as well. The guys named above are I'd guess in the upper .01% or so of the wealth distribution. The odds of anyone getting to this level are incredibly low, it's like becoming a professional athlete, rock star, or NASA astronaut.

Smarts, focus, and incredibly hard work stand a good chance of getting you into the lower end of the millionaire bracket, though it's by no means guaranteed, and all a few million dollars really gets you is time to work on things that pay very little or nothing at all. If you want to be able to fund a business that may make very little money for some time, you need at least a few million unless you can really be just a couple guys in a garage, and that's tough even for New Space.

Now, as someone entering the 4th year as a co-owner of a small and growing internet company, I am a big believer in entrepreneurship and the many good things that flow from it, but it is incredibly hard at times. Even with a decent revenue stream heading towards profitable, it's still not guaranteed that my partner and I will eventually end up with more money than if we had spent the past 4 years in saner salary-paying jobs. What is assured, though, is that you will spend years doing lots of things you don't want to do, because you can't afford to pay someone else to do them.

Posted by Colin K. at November 4, 2007 09:55 AM

Why don't those kids become police or firefighters? Then they could really help people in their community.

Posted by tyree at November 4, 2007 10:01 AM

You know, I almost have the exact opposite reaction that these guys do to my salary. Whenever I go to the supermarket, or Wal-Mart, and buy maybe $70 worth of groceries, or T-shirts, or tupperware containers, or dishwasher detergent, I sometimes think to myself: "This is about 7 hours worth of my own work, have I really produced enough of value in an average 7 of those hours that these goods in return are justified?"

Did my work do enough good to justify that $70 worth of value?

You have to think how long it took someone to build the machines turning out that dishwasher detergent, or driving the trucks carrying those containers, or turning out the fertilizer and organizing the equipment to farm that land.

I had better be returning at least that much value with my own work. If I do, I'm doing my job, and improving the world. If I'm not adding that value, and my salary isn't justified, then I'm being a drain, and someone else, somewhere else is carrying me.

Posted by Aaron at November 4, 2007 10:51 AM

I suppose my point is that the point of a college degree is that it's supposed to teach you how to contribute more effectively to society. You may be working at a more abstract level, but if, at the end of the day, your efforts don't translate directly (through direct industry) or indirectly (through product design, or research and information procurement, or improvement of efficiency) into something that society values (ie something that they'll be willing to pay you to do), then your salary isn't justified.

Posted by Aaron at November 4, 2007 11:10 AM

Piling on...

I just had my tenth reunion from a liberal arts university last night. Fortunately, everyone I talked to had gone on to begin a career of some sort, from entrepreneurs to doctors, from working for small companies to working for Fortune 100s. Somewhat amazingly, I didn't meet anyone at all who had tried to do this sort of thing.

IMHO, invention and innovation have been the keys throughout history to improving our lot on this rock. If you want to change the world, go invent something revolutionary, or help someone who can. If you can't do that, then settle for being a good citizen, work hard, and tithe or donate on your own volition. Just remember that there is a wide gulf between charity... and redistribution. Too many today have been taught to see them as one and the same.

Posted by Big D at November 4, 2007 11:12 AM

“Layers, onions have layers” - Shrek

The animus, if I’m allowed to speculate on the unknowable, may be a result of several factors. We are made witness to an extraordinary sense of naiveté coupled with an emerging sense of disappointment. I look at Beth’s picture in her pink blouse and cannot picture a gender warrior on the plains of Africa. Later she recounts in a puzzled fashion that her contemporaries challenger her status as a grownup. The backdrop for all this is the usual public interest/NGO industry vs. capitalism - the forces of light vs. dark. The education establishment has filled her mind “full of mush” and the promised reward of personal fulfillment is running late. All this depicted in the WaPo dripping with a sense of injustice. The capitalists, after enduring years of their collective contempt, look at the disillusioned social warriors’ only to ask, “and you were expecting?”

Now for my own sanctimony:

I came from very humble means that instilled an urge to peruse my fortune in a most literal sense. After college I accepted an accounting position at an insurance company. With the help of many, I learned each discipline in great detail and moved up the ranks. After 27 years I share ownership in two “intermediaries” and “living the dream”.

I can look at Beth and see my own naiveté at her age and easily empathize. I won’t take pleasure in her situation.

Posted by gary at November 4, 2007 11:57 AM

What baffles me is the extended adolescence of these people; do they not realize that their decisions now affect what their situation is going to be later? Where do these people get the idea that life just changes suddenly when you graduate?

I started working full time before I finished college (graduated with a degree in English Literature, ha ha). By the time I was 27 I was Technical Director at a mid sized firm. I'm now a VP, and 40 is more than a few years away.

There can be significant value in a Liberal Arts education -- note that there's a significant difference between "education" and "indoctrinization".

Posted by bkw at November 4, 2007 01:02 PM

Like Eric, I must confess to being intrigued by David Gobel's idea of forming a society, even as I imagine that

  1. somewhere, Alexis de Tocqueville is smiling at yet another American instance of spontaneous self-organization by interest group; and that

  2. the anthropology of such a group would presumably be a hilarious inversion of the usual credentialism, where the college dropouts are ranked above the graduates, the people who never went to college at all are higher up, the ones with GEDs are still higher, and so on until some guy suckled by wolves is running the thing.

I think Strauss & Howe predicted that the Boomer generation would see lots of "amat eurs" (grr, had to put space in to get by spam filter) rising to prominent positions as a result of avocational activity (canonical example here).

Posted by Jay Manifold at November 4, 2007 01:04 PM

Jay Manifold - I just emailed Eric. What's your email address?

I quit high school in the eleventh grade because it was an immense waste of time. I went to night school instead to get my GED with ADULTS who really wanted and needed an education. So, in your inversion hierarchy, I'm just below one suckled by far as I know ;-)

let's roll,
Dave Gobel
Methuselah Foundation

Posted by at November 4, 2007 02:50 PM

I just replied to your email.

I'm raising a toast to the uneducated right now, in the lounge of the Ritz in DC. ;-)

Posted by Eric at November 4, 2007 04:19 PM

Yeah, well, I'm raising a toast in the neighborhood bar. Dave, I just shot you an e-mail. Somehow I get the feeling that before this is over, I'll wish I'd dropped out of grade school. ;^)

Posted by Jay Manifold at November 4, 2007 06:05 PM

My greatest fear in life is that one of my kids ever says they want to pursue a career in social work.

Posted by bandit at November 5, 2007 06:47 AM

I spent my high school years loafing through a business program, although I think I was still more proficient in English and History than today's college grads. A chance job making blueprints in an engineering firm made me realize what it took to survive in the real world, but I had to spend 10 years in night school and countless hours in self education to finally get professional standing. Biggest problem today are lollypop cirriculums and political correctness.

Posted by william r. casey,pe at November 5, 2007 07:46 AM

Upon graduating, I was helplessly launched headfirst into the “real world,” equipped with a degree in history and $32,000 in student loans. Before ricocheting back home, I would learn two important lessons: 1) There are no well-paying — let alone paying — jobs for history majors. 2) The real world is really tough.

Interesting. A college degree in History did not teach this kid that the real world is a tough place. What kind of history did he study?

Of course, there's also this notion:

In the liberal arts you learn how to communicate and how to reason, and you learn the heritage of our culture in terms of history, the arts, and the Great Books, so you can stand on the shoulders of the giants who developed our society and can speak the vocabulary of others within the leadership classes.

History is full of examples of how the "trained elite" failed their societies. Perhaps the problem is that the Liberal Arts just don't understand History very well.

Posted by JMHawkins at November 5, 2007 08:09 AM

To the person who believes that an Engineering degree represents some sort of "trade".

Umm, my degree in Engineering required History, English, Chemistry, Physics, Economics, Accounting, and 12 elective hours in the LA departments. Strange thing about that, I failed to note the LA majors in my Thermodynamics class. Myopic I guess.

I will flat out guarantee I know more History, Philosophy, PolySci, Sociology, etc. than majors in those fields know Calculus, Chemistry, Physics, Fluid Mechanics, Thermodynamics, Statics, Dynamics, Statistics, you name it.

A degree in Engineering is also a strong indicator that the posessor knows how to apply his or her intellect to problem solving, something that a LA degree is sadly lacking in.

Posted by Tim McDonald at November 5, 2007 08:17 AM

Two thoughts as I read this.

First, to the military guys, it is the person, I find, not the military that determines whether that professional experience lends to--or detracts from--efficacy. Some guys simply never get over being a marine, airman, soldier, and constantly refer to it as though miiltary service endows them with a "I get to speak with more authority" veteran's card. That attitude alienates even otherwise well-disposed non-military people.

To illustrate, I once worked with a wickedly competent Vietnam fighter pilot who was a POW in the mold of John McCain. He never mentioned it once to anyone in the four years I worked with him. Another former Marine in the same company and age group would drone on forever and often about being a wounded combat Marine. Guess who was more effective and respected? If neither man had been in the military, I think their personalities and resulting effectiveness as leaders would have been the same. One was simply a blowhard, and the other was not.

Second, when I buy food or a stock, there are all sorts of disclosures about the product that the purveyor must give me ex ante under pain of legal punishment. So for important matters like food and money, disclosures are mandated in some instances.

Colleges represent a *HUGE* investment of money, both in terms of tuition and opportunity cost. I class them as similarly important matters to food and stock investment. So why are we letting colleges send teenagers glossy brochures showing pretty people doing pretty things without any accompanying "wake up" disclosures about financial performance of the degrees/investments offered to the students? Put the salient investment information in a two page summary and have the students sign at the bottom upon matriculation.

I cannot imagine how horrible the financial data for a history PhD would look to prospective students.

Yeah, yeah, it is up to consumers to keep themselves informed, no nanny state, caveat emptor. I know the arguments. But colleges are in the best position to gather and sort that data for the market, and more information in this area would go a long way to helping the market operate more effectively. Colleges are now using similar pitches ("college degrees correlate with higher income over your life!") but not breaking the results down by degree and putting that in front of students prior to the investment.

Besides, as long as the colleges are taking government money in the form of grants and loan guarantees, colleges can #$%^ do that data collection and disclosure; they can find money for all manner of other much less useful services to their student population.

Stop taking government aid, and they can stop complying with simple data disclosure regulations. What do you think they will do?

Posted by Spartee at November 5, 2007 08:23 AM

Frankly, one of the best ways of helping people is to go through a day and say please, thank you, after you, hello first, smile, be nice, be on time, return phone calls, pay your bills, offer assistance, and don't budge in line. Most people would drop dead doing that.

The idea that people can only help others by coming up with great ideas and forcing others to do what they want is ego driven and the "psychic rewards" are as well. It is a persistent and pernicious human delusion.

Posted by whammer at November 5, 2007 08:40 AM


I graduated from the Elliott School of International Affairs -- one of the schools mentioned in that article -- in May. Now, I'm not quite like some of the people profiled by the Post as I work for a for-profit company and studied International Trade rather than development, but I know a fair number of the type of people you are discussing.

I think that some of you are mis-characterizing them. I don't hear much complaining about job prospects or what they will get paid. No one is under the illusion that they're going to get rich. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say something about how they should get paid as much as an I-banker or that their salaries are a cosmic injustice. Do they wish they got paid more? Sure, who doesn't? But I haven't heard anyone whine about what a cold uncaring world it is out there. Looking through the quotes of the WashPost article I don't see anything particularly outrageous or a sense of entitlement being expressed. Look at the very first quote in the article -- "I knew this would be difficult."

Basically I think that a lot of them come from fairly prosperous backgrounds, saw their parents working typical white collar jobs, and decided it wasn't for them. Instead they want to travel to Africa and dig wells or whatever. They will get to indulge their passion but understand that there is a monetary trade-off.

While it isn't my cup of tea I don't see what is so terrible about that. So they go to grad school and head to the third world working for peanuts to try to help people (and believe me, I am firmly on board with the notion that it is very debatable how much "help" these organizations actually do). Fine, let them. And if it doesn't work out, well, at least they can tell themselves that they gave it a go and spent their 20s having interesting experiences.

Go back and re-read the article. Look at what the students are actually saying, rather than the narrative provided by the author. They are trying to balance their personal happiness with monetary considerations -- isn't that something that lots of us can relate to?

Posted by Colin at November 5, 2007 08:44 AM

"I cannot imagine how horrible the financial data for a history PhD would look to prospective students."

No need to imagine. The American Historical Association has the data. ( Short version: The median student spends eight years in graduate school to get a PhD. The lucky ones then get a tenure track job with a starting salary around $45,000.

I did a BA in history because I love the subject and didn't know what else to do with myself. Shortly after finishing I found that AHA website. The same day I started looking for a new profession. I intend to start at medical school next year.

Posted by FC at November 5, 2007 09:23 AM

JMHawkins: "Interesting. A college degree in History did not teach this kid that the real world is a tough place. What kind of history did he study?"

Quote. Of. The. Week. (And you owe me $3 for a replacement cup of coffee.)

Well, JMH, look at the bright side: as he was studying in school, he developed some really great self-esteem!

...Which, uh, came crashing down really hard 60 sec after he left school.

Posted by gopher at November 5, 2007 09:24 AM

I want to heartily second Tim McDonald's comments.

At one time 'engineer' might have been a glorified train mechanic, but that isn't where the profession is today.

After mastering the crucial bits (Physics, Chemistry, Mechanics, Calculus, etc.) the further classes focus is on exactly the skills that the liberal arts purport to promote. Leadership, logical thinking, team building, small group dynamics, large group dynamics, project management, effective writing, public speaking.

When I was taking MBA courses, I was continually running into people who were quite good at the latter half of the skill list... but who could not fundamentally grasp many aspects of fundamental science. Such as "There is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine". You can't design a self-heating coffee mug without a power source - the battery really isn't something you can leave out. The first prototype was rather amusing.

I don't actually think the bulk of the comments are condemning "Liberal Arts Degree", so much as we're despairing of the high school education in math, computers, and science. When you pile an inadequate pre-college technical education on top of a college education that didn't shore up the weaknesses, you end up about where you'd expect.

Posted by Al at November 5, 2007 09:40 AM

Who is it that really changes the world, and for the better?

I would argue that it is the people like Bill Gates, or Henry Ford, or Thomas Edison, or the Wright brothers, who have a much larger and more beneficial effect on the world than people who "want to make a difference."

Ooh, better be careful with that -- people will start calling you "Ayn" Rand Simberg. After all, when she said the same thing, she got labelled "crazy" etc.

One reason lefties hate capitalism is because they think that power and income should be allocated according to inherent merit. The problem with capitalism is that it allocates power and income according to utilitarian usefulness.

Well, I was going to say that the real flaw in their view is that their idea of their work's value is completely subjective, arbitrary and without context. But then I realized that this is the exact meaning of inherent or "intrinsic value", i.e. the concept of value independent of a valuer.

Historically, the "intrinsic" error is associated with religious type movements (such as environmentalism, which assigns intrinsic value to "untouched" nature, as well as the various actual religions) while the subjective version is usually associated with the "do what you feel" hippies.

The end results are the same, though. In both cases, someone wants *their* concept of value to hold without having to deal with the question "of value -- to whom, and for what?"

Things can still have value to someone regardless of any trade value -- and money is not the only currency. Rather, as Aaron above points out, the ultimate currency of value is not money, but *time*. It is in terms of how we spend our time that we ultimately judge value. That is the return on things that are done for their own sake, for the simple joy of doing. Ideally, that happens to coincide with the things we get paid to do, but that need not be so. We all want to look back at our lives and say that it was time well spent.

These spoiled intrinsicists in the WaPo article never got that point. They have discovered that altruism isn't about adding value to the world, but about renouncing one's own values for the sake of someone or something other than oneself. It's not about creating values at all -- it's about sacrificing them.

So now they are wondering where the rewards are? Let them discover the true meaning of altruistic "non-profit".

Posted by Seerak at November 5, 2007 09:55 AM

I've been hiding and watching here. I too am an ex-high school drop out with a GED, scored 98 on the ASVAB, Navy propulsion and power generation non nuke engineering type, some tech school and college time, worked my way up in several industries. If I could put all my training into any one basket, I'd have more than enough time in class for a degree or two.

At various times I've had both college graduates and others who worked for me. I've seen great natural self taught engineers and guys working with PE stamps who were evidently good at test taking. And of course the opposite is also true.

The bottom line seems to be, education isn't what it once was, from kindergarten to post graduate degrees. If the system is suspect, so are the products of the system. No matter how much education some people get, they still need a helper to get their shoes on the right feet. And last but not least, for me, it seems that the overwhelming pats on the head, global atta boys, trophies for all the players, we are all winners, ain't no losers possible attitude has given most people 35 and younger a sense of entitlement.

Several years ago that I heard an educator on a local talk show decrying an upcoming tuition rate hike in our state university system. She said at the outset that she was concerned with the effect that not being able to got to the school of their choice would have on the academic futures of the kids.

" will it feel, to work so hard for 12 years only to come to their FIRST DISAPPOINTMENT, before even getting to college."

Maybe if we removed the expectation of never being disappointed, we'd have better adjusted adults, whether they are engineers or living in third world countries helping the locals.

Posted by Steve at November 5, 2007 10:00 AM

As a graduate student in Physics, working as a TA, one of the things that I hear over and over from those that have the misfortune to be in the labs that I teach (I say misfortune because I'm not terribly sympathetic to the plights of the students) is that they are "bad in math," as if that were somehow a valid excuse for sloppy reasoning. My response is, invariably, "would you complain to your English Lit. professor that you couldn't do an assignment because you were 'bad at reading?'"

Unfortunately, this sort of mushy thinking is apparently nurtured by the liberals arts here. (I teach the Astronomy labs. Since Astronomy is "science for people who don't want to take a science course," those are the students I tend to interact with the most.)

The tragedy here is two-fold. First, it is that these students believe that their inability to do math, or even to reason in a logically rigorous manner, is somehow an inborn trait; that, because they struggle, they will never understand - ignoring the fact that I struggled to achieve the competency that I have now. The second tragedy is that belief in the first has become so widespread that even educators believe that a lack of proficiency in the maths is somehow acceptable in those students.

As a previous commenter mentioned, those who graduate with degrees in Engineering, Math, or the hard sciences generally know how to apply their intellect towards solving a problem. Yet, it is exactly this proficiency that is taught by those courses in math and science that the Liberal Arts dismiss.

Also, as a side note, I saw an interesting comment above :

"My greatest fear in life is that one of my kids ever says they want to pursue a career in social work."

The correct response to this is as follows:

"Pursuing a career in social work is an oxymoron. You can pursue a career, or you can pursue social work. You cannot do both."

Posted by Jason at November 5, 2007 10:07 AM

In the brits at their best science timeline, the number of brits who did not have much schooling is startling. Robert Hooke is the most obvious example. Admittedly his education came from hands-on experience at the "invisible college" - the Royal Society. Times have changed, and the level of understanding required for work in science may appear both daunting and strangely narrow. What does not appear to have changed is that the outstanding scientific innovators who made a difference to the world were driven by love, not money.

Posted by Cat at November 5, 2007 10:13 AM

Michael J. Totten,

27 years old? I think you cut him way too much slack, even if you were there at one time yourself. I think we can be excused for that kind of thinking at age 17, but 27??? At that age I was married, the father of 2, and living in southern Sudan on that parallel-to-NGO track that Jay Manifold mentions.

Our wealth is serving us very poorly if it allows us to routinely let people remain juvenile for nearly a decade after their high-school graduation. I should clarify that I don't mean that people need to find out "what they're going to do with the rest of their lives" at 17 or 18 and then stick with it no matter what--heck, I myself didn't do that. But surely the almost-30 can be expected to be productively supporting themselves, while figuring out what their next move should be.

Posted by Kirk Parker at November 5, 2007 10:15 AM

So the labor theory of value doesn't apply to college degrees, either. Who'da thunk it?

Posted by ArtD0dger at November 5, 2007 11:07 AM

I don't think I'd necessarily count in the "non college graduate" category (I do have a technical AA degree from a community college, but have made little use of it, and have not seriously pursued any further college education) but I have managed to make a pretty decent living for myself based on my largely self-taught computer skills. Having been unable to get into a university after high school with my roughly 2.7 GPA (the result of slacking off in high school,) I ended up spending the next two years after that working in a tech support call center. This served mostly to make me cynical about humanity in general, but the call center I worked in was also notable for the number of people who "graduated" from there to better paying positions at either Boeing or Microsoft. In retrospect, I probably should have ditched the place six months sooner than I got shown the door, but I eventually found my niche in software QA testing, where the majority of my work experience since then has been. It pays the bills, and leaves a bit extra as well (although the somewhat spotty nature of contract work means that most of the extra ends up in savings to cover gaps in work.) The fact that I've managed to keep myself mostly debt free (at least until I bought a new car earlier this year to replace the disreputable beater I had spent the previous ten years driving) helps a lot too.

Posted by Brian Lutz at November 5, 2007 11:13 AM

"These people do in fact need to grow up, and understand that there are other ways to help people than forming non-profits and NGOs, or working for a government bureaucracy."

The problem is that inventing a product and meeting market demand is risky and very hard work.

But handing out other people's money while accepting all of the thank yous is so much easier and satisfying.

Posted by John at November 5, 2007 11:37 AM

The income difference between conservatives and leftists is quite telling, and of huge embarassment to the left-wing 'conservatives are dumb' argument. Are we seeing a phenomenon of people who can't succeed in the free market, at least relative to their own assessment of their intelligence, rebelling against market forces not going their way?

Posted by GK at November 5, 2007 12:50 PM

Tim McDonald,
I'll take that challenge. I have a Bachelor's in English, let's go...of course, it's a B.S., not a B.A. in English Literature...followed by nuke school. But be careful what you assume.

Most arts tracks fall down on the true meaning of a "liberal education". But I bet any military academy arts major could take you up on your challenge.

It's an interesting question. Engineering colleges throughout the US generally still require arts courses to graduate. Arts colleges do not. I doubt it has always been so. When did that divergence happen.

Posted by tom at November 5, 2007 01:06 PM

correction, that should say that arts colleges do no longer require significant engineering or science credits. I wonder when that happened.

Posted by tom at November 5, 2007 01:08 PM

I'd love to work in a way that helps people directly, rather than in a corp. that creates wealth (and therefore helps people indirectly).

I did work to get UN directed social funds for a health clinic in Kenya. But such work is quite uncertain, and a wife and 4 kids deserve more security.

So I will apply to Habitat for Humanity, but am aware that they might not pay enough to leave my high-tech industry job (in Bratislava).

Colin, here's what Hanley says about investment banker peers: "They were making more when they were 22. I don't think I'll ever make that. They seem more grown-up. But they seem miserable. Wait -- they seem fine. I would be miserable if I were them."

They are kids, wanting the easy do-good label of "moral superiority", but not wanting to fall behind the money-grubbers in houses and cars and clothes and iPods.

To fight poverty: offer a poor person a job. If you don't have a job to offer to a poor person, you should be looking to start a company.

It's not technological revolution that is so important to wealth creation, it is in organizing people to peacefully work together to create wealth. Capitalistic corporations organize effort more effectively than any other known systems.

Posted by Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at November 5, 2007 07:01 PM

Tom, that quote utterly proves my point. There is no complaining about what the i-bankers make. There is no one saying that they are owed the same salary. They actually complement them saying how adult they are. They argue, however, that if they went into that same line of work that they would be miserable.

Is that hard to believe that it isn't for everyone? Given the hours that i-bankers work I know that I would be miserable in that position. 100 hour weeks? No thanks. I put in 12-14 hour days on occasion at my job and that's plenty.

Different strokes for different folks.

Look, in many ways these kids do fit certain stereotypes: They all hate Bush (If I had a dollar for every blank uncomprehending look I've received after telling someone I voted for him...). They all think we should try to be like the Europeans. But this sense of entitlement and complaining about what they are owed -- I just don't see it.

Posted by Colin at November 5, 2007 08:51 PM

I think it's good that these kids want to help people. Many of them could do well in sales if they could find another product they "believe" in. Selling jet engines would be a nice choice.

I think a lot of the draw for these kids, besides wanting to help people, is wanting to be unique and not like everyone else, and a desire for international travel.

That wanderlust fades fast in your late 20's. You look around and become painfully aware that you have nothing.

It's time to move on to the next stage of your life, which is to build something; a career, a business, a family, something.

Posted by John Wake at November 5, 2007 11:06 PM


Is this the first Transterrestrial thread ever that went over 100 posts?

Posted by Mike Puckett at November 7, 2007 03:59 PM

Is this the first Transterrestrial thread ever that went over 100 posts?

Nope. I've had many that have done so (usually my WW II press parodies).

Posted by Rand Simberg at November 7, 2007 04:08 PM

I think some of the energy posts might have, too.

Posted by Big D at November 7, 2007 05:19 PM

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