To "Give Back," Add Real Value
Peter St. Onge
December 29, 2014
A recent article in the left-leaning Independent argued that student volunteers are useless. In one project putting UK college students to work building a local school, the work was so awful that local Ugandan masons "dismantled the structurally unsound work [the students] had done — relaying bricks and resetting timbers whilst the students slept."
"Giving back" is big these days, but how can we know if we're really making a contribution, or if we, like those students, are just tourists who need cleaning up after.
Economics, fortunately, gives us a very elegant answer: The best way to "give back" is to earn honest money and lots of it.
I teach in a business school. As horrifying as this might seem, one of the biggest debates among business academics is social responsibility. The terms of the debate are familiar: the lefties, who dominate even business-schools, want business to do charity as penance for their wicked money-making. Meanwhile, the "pro-business" view comes from Adam Smith: greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Because the Invisible Hand turns self-interest into social good.
Of course, we can go further: the money you earn isn't just morally neutralized by the Invisible Hand. Rather, the money you earn actually indicates that you've contributed to the world. More money means more contribution. In Man, Economy and State, Rothbard points out that a voluntary price puts a floor on the value created. Higher price received means more value created for others.
If somebody is willing to pay Kobe Bryant $300,000 per game, that means Bryant creates at least $300k of value per game. Kobe may well be an excellent computer programmer or veterinarian, but $100k per hour is probably his highest contribution. He can sleep easy knowing that he "gives back" plenty simply by playing basketball on TV.
The logic is the same for us mortals: so long as your salary is honestly earned, chasing the highest pay is precisely how you make your highest contribution to society. By "honestly" here I mean obtained without coercion. So no force, no fraud. This means the mafia and government are, of course, out -— salaries paid for hijacking trucks, witness intimidation, or public schooling may simply reflect the ability of your employer to extort money from others.
Among "honest" livings, then, the data is clear on the best way to "give back" to society: learn math. Starting with petroleum engineering, paying $103,000 per year for a bachelor's degree, fourteen of the highest twenty starting salaries are engineering. After petroleum, top are chemical, nuclear, computer, and electrical. The rest are still math-heavy: actuarial mathematics, computer science, information systems, statistics, and everybody's favorite dismal science, economics.
Of course, not all of us are good at math. Perhaps your education was heavy on recycling milk cartons or learning union songs. So many cartons, so many songs just doesn't leave time to develop the skills that actually help others.
Well, there's still hope: Khan Academy, Udacity, and Udemy have cheap or free math courses, nicely done and easy on the brain. Some parents have their kids on calculus at age 8 at Khan Academy, which is forbidden in public schools. And, of course, Mises Academy has economics; the Austrian flavor, which is much recommended over the store-brand.
Still, not everybody wants to learn math. And we all deserve the opportunity to give back. So the highest-paid non-math jobs are: nursing ($55k starting), construction management ($52k), finance (less math than it seems), and business (almost no math). Then, of course, there's the biggie: entrepreneurship. Here you write the rules, so you earn as much as you're willing to put in.
So that's the heroes. Let's take a moment for the selfish reactionaries. Those who are unwilling to give back. Who just want to sponge off the petroleum engineers and actuarial mathematicians of the world, contributing little to the world's problems.
No surprise here. The least-valued courses of study include: journalism, drama, music, anthropology, psychology, English. All pay so little that you're really not contributing much of anything. Now, it's not a crime to be selfish: a free society means you're free to read French deconstructionists or to make pretty collages. Instead of giving back to society by learning calculus or making pretty Gantt diagrams for R&D.
Still, it's sad that so many just don't have the social awareness to go out and learn to differentiate a function. Instead they sit around writing thesaurus-busting jeremiads about the world's unsolvable problems that they, themselves, won't get off the couch to solve.
Of course, then there's the coercive professions: bureaucrats, prison guards, public teachers. Since their salaries are seized at gunpoint and distributed by government unions, we can't actually know if they contribute anything at all. Perhaps they do, perhaps they don't, putting us back at the Ugandan stonemason problem.
Bottom line for the student of any age: if you want to make a difference to society, first learn to differentiate a function. If you can't do that, at least look for something honest that earns a lot of money. Only then can you be sure you're really helping others.