The Heroic 'Sacrifice' of Underpaid Elites

Conor Friedersdorf recently posted this thought:

Though it isn't defensible, it is unsurprising that a lot of people who eschew offers to work at these firms, favoring public sector work instead, imagine that they are making an enormous personal sacrifice by taking government work. The palpable sense of entitlement some of these public sector folks exude is owed partly to how few of 'our best and brightest' do eschew the big firm route (due partly to increasing debt levels among today's graduates, no doubt).

Which has drawn a lot of email defending the right of government employees who gave up Big Law or McKinsey to feel like they made a sacrifice, and like they're a little hard used by the current US income structure. 

Speaking as someone who attended one of these lustrous graduate institutions that allegedly produce our "best and brightest", I'd like to say . . . knock it off.  Stop patting yourself on the back.  You can seriously damage the ligaments in your shoulder that way, as I discovered when pursuing an ill-placed mosquito bite too vigorously.

You know how much credit I deserve for giving up highly paid professional work in order to spend my days boring the hell out of you all with my breezy explanations of present value calculations?  None.  Am I performing a public service?  I hope so.  I take my profession seriously, and like to think that I am adding something to the public understanding.  But that was my choice.  I knew what I was giving up when I made it, and I also knew what I was getting.  Which is to say, a job that I absolutely love more than anything I've ever done, a chance to speak to interesting people and see amazing things all the time.

Getting to do those things involved a tradeoff.  I don't get to spend my vacations at charming Provencal cottages or swank Caribbean resorts.  I don't get to buy the $1.1 million dollar mansion in LeDroit Park that I daydream about.  (Hey, the owner could be my long-lost great uncle . . . )  I have to watch the food budget, and I can't buy the designer clothes I'd really like to wear.

I took the job because I think this is a great tradeoff.  My classmates who went to banks and consultancies mortgaged their late twenties and early thirties doing work I would have found much less rewarding; they are enjoying the payoff now--at least the ones who didn't simply lose everything when Lehman and Bear went down.  I don't want to say they "deserve" it, because almost anyone in that sort of position has had an enormous amount of luck along with their hard work, starting with being born to the right family.  But I don't begrudge it to them.  I think I got the better end of the deal.

And so do the folks who took jobs in government or academia or the non-profit sector.  Maybe a few of them really "made a sacrifice" for some obscure reason involving widowed mothers and villanous landlords with a penchant for late-night visits to the railroad tracks, but most of them took the job because they thought they'd like it better.  The kind of people who are actually willing to make the sacrifice of doing something they hate in the name of the greater good tend to join monestaries or the army, not the Political Science department at Penn State.

Maybe they made a mistake about how much they'd like their job, but it's not any more unfair than realizing you wish you hadn't broken up with your college girlfriend.

If you have a job more interesting than doing ten years of document discovery, or proofreading pitch books, and you can afford all the health care and calories your heart could want, then it seems to me that you're way ahead of the game.  It's downright greedy to think that you ought to have the great job, and the great salary (or that you shouldn't have to compete for things like nice houses with people who do pull in serious cash, which is really another way of saying the same thing).

I'm not saying that everyone who gave up better-paying jobs thinks they're entitled to some sort of public applause, but one does run into this every now and again.  One especially runs into the feeling that salaries are not fairly distributed--that it's not fair that the work they love is so badly paid.  But that is the essence of fair; they get money, and you get to do the work you love.  Gains from trade!

I'd also like to take a secondary swipe at the notion that graduates from Ivy League schools are "our best and brightest".  The Ivy League may represent the cream of a very small segment of incredibly affluent Americans.  But there's a lot more cream out there, and it's a pity that American institutional structures seem so apt to exclude it from the mix.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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