Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Business Majors Are a Brain Drain. And You Can Take That One to the Bank.

Posted By on Tue, Mar 3, 2015 at 9:00 AM

The NY Times has an interesting article in its Business section discussing a recent paper that concludes, a big, booming financial/banking sector results in a drop in national productivity. When times are good and money is flowing in, the authors contend, banks prefer to lend to collateral-rich areas like real estate and construction.
But these industries are also among the least productive, and that leaves fewer dollars for more promising research-and-development start-ups that may have only intangibles, such as knowledge and ideas, to offer a banker as collateral. Even though such start-ups have far more potential than projects backed by tangible collateral, they don’t attract the financing they need.
I'd never thought of that aspect of the negative effects of Big Finance, but I've long thought, from an educational standpoint, that the big money in finance-based professions creates a societal brain drain, luring some of our top minds away from productive businesses that thrive on brilliance and innovation.

People love to moan about how our higher education system isn't turning out the great, innovative minds we need to compete and thrive in the global market. I agree, it would be to the country's advantage to turn out more first rate mathematicians, scientists, computer engineers and the like. Is the problem that our colleges and universities are doing a lousy job educating our young adults? Is it because American kids today are so spoiled and lazy, they're not willing to put the necessary effort into their educations? Both of those are possible, but here's a third possibility I find more compelling. So many students with dollar signs in their eyes are choosing to be business majors, it's robbing other fields of much-needed talent.

More students graduated with undergraduate degrees in business in 2010-11 than any other major. When it came to masters degrees, MBAs topped the list. It's not hard to understand why so many students sign up to learn the business of business. As bank robber Willie Sutton said when asked why he robbed banks, "That's where the money is." [Note: Sutton may not have said the quote he's most famous for, but we owe thanks to whoever made it up.] Banking and other investment careers are where the money is. They almost seem like a license to steal—and all too often, they are. If students hope to make a quick buck, where else would they go?

Back when subprime mortgages were king (see: "License to steal" in the previous paragraph), banks hired top mathematicians at enormous salaries to create the complex formulae that allowed banks to chop worthless loans into little slices, combine the slices into securities, pretend they had value and sell them off for huge profits. No question, those fine mathematical minds could have done something of more value to society, if not to their wallets, with their time. Many other fine minds — future rocket scientists, medical researchers, inventors — are lured by the siren song of high finance before they even embark on college educations which would benefit society far more than playing with money.

Yes, we need people in finance. Yes, we need people who understand the business of business, many of whom go into non-banking professions. But do we need this many? A mind is a terrible thing to waste, they say. It's also a waste to have so many minds concentrating on making piles of money.

FUN FACT: After business, the second largest graduate major is a masters in education.

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