Graduates: How Do You Make Decisions?

For all those that question how important decision-making actually has become, Daniel Akst recently offered in the Wall Street Journal a reminder:

If you’re newly graduated from college, you may be wondering right about now just how you’re going to save the world. Your commencement speech, after all, was probably delivered by a well to-do older person who exhorted you to go out and make a difference somehow. Lots of other people will offer advice on what to with yourself as well — rent “The Graduate” sometime and listen for that line about “plastics.” Joseph Campbell, as silly as he was sage-like, might have suggested you “follow your bliss.” The vastly more credible Thoreau urged you to “go confidently in the direction of your dreams.” I hope what you are dreaming of is making the world a better place, and unlike all these other kibitzers, I can tell you exactly how to do so.

Just go out and make the most money you can. Then, if you still want to do more, give it away. Contrary to your prosperous commencement speaker, anything else you do is selfishness and vanity. Don’t get me wrong: It’s not bad to delude yourself that you are pursuing a low-paid line of work in the name of helping others. Heck, you probably would be helping others — only not nearly as much as you could by getting rich. Face the fact that if you embark on a career as, say, a social worker, you’ve done so because you like it, because it makes you feel important and because you don’t have the stomach to do some really major good. That would require making piles and piles of dough. I know this is news you don’t especially want to hear. And I know it sounds callous. So instead of trying to prove the case by cold, hard logic, let me tell you a story. This is the tale of a couple of ambitious young men who graduated froman Ivy League university in 1978. One — we’ll call him “Dan” — idealistically chose a career in journalism, hoping eventually to transcend even this sainted calling in order to write novels.

The other, whom we’ll call “Alex,” descended to the nethermost reaches of Manhattan to work inthe securities industry, where he set about seeking his fortune. Fast-forward 25 years. Our two graduates, out of touch for a while, renew their acquaintance.

How have they fared since college? Dan did more or less what he set out to do. He has had a career in journalism (including some modestly edifying muckraking), has published a couple of well-received novels and now spends his days typing industriously away, undeterred by the world’s indifference to his work. Alex, mean while, made several hundred million dollars. In fact, Alex is retired from business and spends his time running the foundation he established with some of his wealth. When he dies, a good hunk of the rest will go the same way. Now, my question for all you budding poets and video artists and socialworkers is: Who ended up doing more to make the world a better place, Dan or Alex? It’s hard to argue with Alex’s foundation.

But Alex was improving the world long before he devoted himself and his wealth to philanthropy. How? First, he made his money by providing an unambiguously valuable service. Trust me, become an activist or artist and sooner or later you will wonder whether what you do is really worth while to anyone. But Alex doesn’t have to puzzle over the value of what he did, because someone clearly was willing to pay all that money for the fruits of his labor. Along the way, he treated his employees well, helping them and their families achieve better — and no doubt longer — lives, since affluence and longevity are correlated. At the end, when the business was sold, he rewarded them handsomely. What Alex specifically did on Wall Street, moreover, helped make the securities markets more efficient, which benefits everyone — especially the present and future retirees, middle-class families, endowed colleges and other non-plutocrats who make up so much of the market by investing through pension funds, mutual funds and other institutions. Alex didn’t meet a lot of widows and orphans in his work, but what he did almost certainly improved their lot.

For doing this work, Alex was magnificently rewarded, enabling him to amass a significant sum of investment capital — which makes the rest of us richer as well. Capital is the lifeblood of the economy, fueling the productivity gains that in turn fuel expanding affluence and social progress. As if none of this were sufficient, Alex’s earnings required him to pay enough income taxes over the years for the government to employ a small army of social workers. He never shirked these obligations through dubious tax-shelter schemes, either. And don’t forget the foundation! The conclusion is unavoidable: If you have a good education, you shouldn’t just consider getting rich.

Creating and amassing wealth is an outright moral obligation. Do so and you can take comfort not just in financing public services but in knowing that you are giving people what they need or want, generating jobs and underwriting the affluence that makes art, justice, environmental protection and other social goods possible. Of course, making yourself a pile of money is good for you too. You’ll live in a better neighborhood, drive a safer car, get to be more selectivein choosing a spouse and enjoy a longer, healthier life. Your kids will get a better education, which in turn will mean more of the same for them, too — and will better equip them to improve the world still more. From a moral standpoint, it is clear that Alex has done his part. With such an eleemosynary career under his belt — and such bulging bankaccounts — he has decided to indulge himself and stop making money. The money he already has is busily reproducing itself, of course, and mean while he is spending most of his time figuring out how he can use it to make the world a better place.

Sounds like fun, no? Meanwhile, Dan is writing another novel — just what the world needs. The shelves at Barnes & Noble are full of them. Libraries are bursting. Yet he selfishly pours his energies into adding one more. How can he redeem himself for squandering his education in this way? Perhaps his next book should be a story about two friends and what they’ve learned over the years about saving the world. If it’s a bestseller, he can always give the money away.

An article that appears to have a heavy Ayn Rand influence.

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