The Broken U.S. Jobs Factory: Too Many Athletes, Too Few Scientists?

"We are fantastically good at identifying and developing athletic skills--better than we are, really, at almost anything else," Bill James writes in his new book Solid Fool's Gold: Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom. Why are we so good at building athletes and not so good at producing, say, writers?

The answer isn't secret. Top baseball players like Alex Rodriguez have higher salaries and higher exposure than top writers. David Mitchell might be the world's best novelist, but he surely makes less than $25 million annually, even in a good year, and there aren't many 24/7 cable channels dedicated to tracking his statistics. If you're a young persuadable student, which path looks more promising?

Another way of putting this is that there are hard and soft incentives to pursue a certain career. The hard incentive is salary: The best professional athletes earn more than the world's best novelists. The soft incentive is the aura and prestige that media and family and friends "create" around a profession.

Sometimes, the soft and hard incentives line up. Sports and entertainment celebrities are rich and considered role models. Doctors are wealthy and considered do-gooders. Sometimes the soft and hard incentives point in different directions. We respect elementary school teachers, but their starting salary is squat. Conversely auditors and accountants are considered mind-numbing jobs, but they're paid nicely.

What does this discussion of salary and prestige have to do with the U.S. economy? According to some economists, everything.

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Economists don't agree on much, but there seems to be a wide consensus that the United States is in an innovation slump. We're falling behind China in green technology. The productivity burst of the 1990s seems to be paying off in pennies. Drug approval has slipped 50 percent in the last 15 years despite R&D spending doubling over the same term. How do we reclaim the 1950s and 60s era of productive innovation?

Raising the social status of scientists is one of the most important things the U.S. can do to shake off our 30 year slump, Tyler Cowen's wrote in his celebrated Kindle book "The Great Stagnation." Too many bright college graduates are being siphoned off into finance and medicine, while too few are learning to be engineers and scientists and teachers, Karl Smith adds. The highest wages are in less productive industries, like health care (whose benefit is clear, but whose productive innovation is slow) and finance (whose benefit is unclear, but whose innovation is ingenious). That leaves a smaller pool of human intellect to devote to productive innovation.

Unfortunately, if America has a science gap, it's hard to imagine how we'd plug it. Doubling funding for NIH might result in more drugs, but it might also result in absolutely nothing.  As Scott Sumner points out, "progress in info tech may play out at a pace dictated by Moore's law. Given Moore's law, no amount of research could have produced a Kindle in 1983. Could more scientists speed up Moore's law?"

How would society, or more specifically government, even go about inspiring a cultural change to value scientists? Any ideas?

Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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