By Jon Emont ['12]
January 24, 2012
Last week, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column about Americans losing faith in free markets and the financial industry. He described how he was startled during a visit to Swarthmore College, where a student asked him whether it was immoral to seek banking jobs. Using the student as a foil, Kristof worried that "America's grasping capitalists are turning young Americans into socialists." He advised liberals to "be wary of self-selecting" out of jobs in the financial industry, and cautioned students not to "mock their classmates who choose Citigroup over CARE."
I'm the student who asked Kristof the question. He's wrong. There's no crisis of faith in capitalism, or of liberal students shunning jobs in finance.
Kristof cites a Pew poll taken last year. "Only 50 percent of Americans reacted positively to the term capitalism," he worries. Furthermore, "Among Americans aged 18-29, more had a negative view of capitalism than had a positive view of capitalism."
There's nothing new in these numbers. Capitalism has always been controversial. In Modern American Capitalism: Understanding Public Attitudes and Perceptions, the authors found that in 1989, 32 percent of Americans agreed that "Capitalism denies the masses property in life, liberty, and estate." More than one-half agreed that "Capitalism must be altered before any significant improvements in human welfare can be realized." And-surprise, surprise-college students were substantially more likely than the rest of the population to believe that capitalism was unjust. That was true in 1980 as well as 1989. When you look at the 2011 and 1989 data side by side, it's remarkable how little the numbers have changed. ...
Other schools' numbers tell a similar story. At Yale, from 2008 to 2010, the percentage of students entering "finance/business" jobs dropped from 19 to 11. But the percentage of students entering "industry" professions during the same span increased from 7 to 16. "Industry" encompasses professions from management consulting to sales and marketing, and the Yale institutional researchers interpreted the data simply: "Due to the economic downturn, graduates shifted from jobs in business and finance to jobs in industry instead." ...
Kristof writes more than anybody about the importance of good teaching, smart government employees, and the great work of many international NGOs. All of those goals are threatened when as many as one-half the students at top universities go directly into consulting and finance jobs. So the next time a student asks Kristof whether it's moral to go straight into banking, maybe, instead of worrying about an anti-capitalist climate, he should counsel the student to spend a couple of years doing something different.