While waiting for one last installment on the Obama-in-Asia front, here is one last installment on the "does it matter that bright young things go to Wall Street" front. This is from a reader I know, American by background but living overseas for many years, on postings in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. He went from a high-prestige academic track to the financial world, for reasons explained below and after the jump.
Heart of his argument: the problem is not so much the financial rewards of Wall Street, which had not begun their stratospheric ascent when he made the switch 20-plus years ago. Rather it was the scarcity of other work for people trained and interested in international work -- and, as he puts it, the distinctive role of business-based experts in American public life.
"Please allow me to give a view on the "Rhodes Scholars take the path to Wall Street" topic -- as I think my own experience sheds light on a fundamental fact which might be missing in the author's dismay that young US students in Oxford might lower their moral standards by pursuing a get-rich career in Wall Street: we need to understand the heavy weight of business pervading many segments of American political life and society, and to appreciate the lack of alternatives available to young American professionals if they wish to create a respectful career with an international background in non-business areas (diplomacy, journalism and/or academic). That in a nutshell is how I wound up in a Wall Street job coming out of a traditional university environment.
"I arrived at a Wall Street kind of job and witnessed many of the excesses bemoaned in the article, but I entered down this path not in the search of the Holy Dollar but rather due to a search to apply my expertise in international affairs and could not find an acceptable alternative to business. I was always fascinated by international affairs and had a real passion to understand the reasons for Marxism and world revolution. I wound up being a specialist in Soviet studies. I first sought to make my calling in the university as a professor, feeling that this would be an area where people following a sincere quest for higher learning would be able to make a contribution for society. I found however that young academics in American society tend to have few choices given the weak pay found here compared to many other professions in American society. US society seems to give lower priority to the teaching profession than is the case for many other countries. This was in the 1970s when the US economy showed a lot of weakness and had little interest in Soviet specialists (despite the rising threat of Brezhnev's USSR).
"As I became dissatisfied with the lack of choices available to a teacher in the US, I began to explore alternatives hoping to find a more satisfying way to make a living in which I could continue to make a contribution to society while also being able to pay my heating bills. Unless I were willing to become a spy and work for the CIA, I found few areas where I could convert my Soviet expertise into a non-teaching job. Unlike scholars I knew from Europe who enjoyed the prospects of the respectable alternatives of diplomacy or journalism (where expertise in foreign languages and local histories have been highly valued), I found a different story in the US: that the US State Department and major US newspapers tended to look down on being a "country expert". The State Department in the 1970s made a deliberate shift toward generalists (so a Soviet specialist would be sent first to Guatemala to work stamping visas and then to Kenya to follow agricultural projects) and the Washington Post and NY Times preferred to send to Moscow a reporter who had spent a few years following the police beat in Chattanooga. Meanwhile I noticed that among the people of influence in Washington and in the US embassies, there were many seniors coming from the business world. In the US, the path to contributing to international affairs is often through the business network.
"Hence despite my university-nurtured prejudice against businessmen, I eventually found to my surprise that there were intelligent people "even in the business world" and that in the business world overseas it was actually VALUED to have US executives who learned the local language and knew about the local culture and history of a country where you were working. I eventually chose a banking career, NOT because I wanted to be a banker or reach for a stratospheric salary, but rather because I found my skills could have greater outlets for appreciation than in the "higher" types of calling such as diplomacy or journalism.
"Looking back now to that career choice taken years ago, I see a mixed bag in which international banking certainly witnessed the excesses leading to the global financial meltdown of 2008, but it also led to the creation of social benefits which deserve more respect than is usually the case. The financing of power plants or aircraft deliveries or semiconductor fabs might not appear to be an obvious case of "doing public service", but with the financial meltdown of last year we see the perverse consequences to the world economy when bank credit for even basic goods and services gets withdrawn from the economy.
"My point here is to illustrate a fact about American life which sets us apart from Europe and Asia, namely the unique role of business within the fabric of American society. The commentary on the Rhodes Scholars seems to scoff at the idea of US students leaving Oxford to enter the business world -- a choice which might be found less frequently among the Oxford Dons but whch is not really startling if we appreciate how business dominates American society. Read Tocqueville and you'll find it wasn't that different when America was a younger country. Wall Street and Main Street are much more intertwined in the US than in Oxford, Paris or Heidelberg."