What career helps other people the most?

by on June 5, 2010 at 7:34 am in Economics, Games | Permalink

That's a question from Katja Grace.  Let's assume pure marginalist act utilitarianism, namely that you choose a career and get moral credit only for the net change caused by your selection.  Furthermore, I'll rule out "become a billionaire and give away all your money" or "cure cancer" by postulating that said person ends up at the 90th percentile of achievement in the specified field but no higher.

What first comes to mind is "honest General Practitioner who has read Robin Hanson on medicine."  If other countries are fair game, let's send that GP to Africa.  No matter what the locale, you help some people live and good outcomes do not require remarkable expertise.  There is a shortage of GPs in many locales, so you make specialists more productive as well.  Public health and sanitation may save more lives than medicine, but the addition of a single public health worker may well have a smaller marginal impact, given the greater importance of upfront costs in that field.

An important question is whether the said job candidate should be seen as precommitting to an honest disposition or whether we should treat the person as developing the median disposition, in the chosen career field, over time.

What do you all think?  What other career — at the margin — has the stongest positive effect on other people?

1 Eric Auld June 5, 2010 at 7:38 am

What about an academic who tries to forge bonds between various branches of the social sciences? (e.g. Herbert Gintis)

2 Bob Knaus June 5, 2010 at 7:50 am

Civil engineer. Sanitation saves more lives than medicine.

3 Tobias June 5, 2010 at 7:59 am

A honest and competent politician

4 bla bla June 5, 2010 at 8:08 am

Intelligence agent working against nuclear proliferation/nuclear terrorism.

5 Bill Harshaw June 5, 2010 at 8:10 am

Bureaucrat. A competent and ethical bureaucrat in the right agency at the right time has a big effect on the whole country. For example, Mark McClellan in the implementation of Medicare Part D. Granted McClellan ranks higher than 90 percentile, but his key aides might hit 90 percentile. Conversely, incompetence can do much more damage–consider the bureaucrats who tried and failed to modernize FBI computer systems.

6 David June 5, 2010 at 8:45 am

A librarian. They offer service to anyone who comes, and match each need of each customer. Whether it’s a recent novel, a how-to-manual, legal forms, help using Internet to apply for Food Stamps or unemployment, librarians, day in and day out, help people with whatever they need, and also encourage children to read and therefore illuminate the rest of their lives.

7 kb June 5, 2010 at 8:53 am

entrepreneur: be profitable so you can hire lots of people. wealth creation helps more than anything.

8 Michael Heller June 5, 2010 at 8:58 am

A politician at national or international level. After successfully holding down a skilled non-political job for several years (e.g. business, medicine, academe, or law, but not community organization) he/she goes through a genuinely competitive and impersonal parliamentary selection and training process, acquiring expertise in governance and compromise, rising to become leader with power leverage over the central nervous system of policy making and implementation. Must be creative, as well as honest and competent. Must have utilitarian conviction to do good for the largest number without disadvantage to worst-off. Must be endowed with personal traits equivalent to those of an entrepreneur, including passion and perseverance. Such a person can get more done for more people in more areas than anyone.

But this person could not do anything helpful without the ideas that guide his action. So the creator of ideas may be either the chicken or the egg…

9 V June 5, 2010 at 9:11 am

A home-maker.

10 Nemo June 5, 2010 at 9:23 am

The question is, where does “economist” fall on the list?

11 Andrew June 5, 2010 at 9:31 am

Web developer, at least in the West. Our low-hanging fruit is picked over and what’s left is efficiency gains. For undeveloped areas, a Western CEO outsourcing jobs there. Economists could be up there (if they are opposing rather than condoning politicians).

I hope doctors who read Robin Hanson aren’t like the salesmen who read “Influence.”

12 E. Barandiaran June 5, 2010 at 10:07 am

Tyler, I’m sorry that you have changed your objective function. The maximization of the number of comments to your posts may, however, lead to a sharp, rapid decline in the quality of your posts and comments.

13 Brian June 5, 2010 at 10:12 am

US Marine. Not even close.

14 Drik June 5, 2010 at 10:35 am

Borlaug was a lot higher than 90th percentile, though. Anyone that famous and a Nobel Prize winner is too extraordinary. I think the idea is a career where you can be an ordinary performer and still contribute to others.

15 Indy June 5, 2010 at 10:44 am

I think “innovators, inventors, and ideas workers” have the largest chance to contribute to radical widespread improvements in utility at the 90% proficiency level.

But if one constrains oneself to providers of goods and services, then how about Drug Dealer? Don’t dismiss it – think about it carefully, given the specific framing of this problem, and I think it will surprise you.

Remember, individualized short-term welfare is different from your personal version of the idea of what’s best for ‘true’ social welfare in the long term. What’s the producer and consumer surplus for intoxicants? If a good majority of the prices of legal intoxicants is taxes, then if sold at “competitive” prices, the consumer surplus as perceived in the short-term by the individual user must be enormous.

16 jimbino June 5, 2010 at 10:49 am

The inventor who figures out how to put contraceptives in the world’s fresh water supply.

17 j June 5, 2010 at 10:57 am

Electrical Engineer (or Civil or Mechanical) working the field of electric power generation/transmission/distribution. Your relatively small team will impact a group a few orders of magnitude larger.

18 Jeff June 5, 2010 at 11:12 am

Kindergarten teacher, or similar. Homemaker could be high on the list too.

Human capital ├╝ber alles.

19 Rahul June 5, 2010 at 11:17 am

Developers of open-source software.

Imagine the positive externality of the person who wrote say,: Linux, apache web servers, Drupal, etc.

I can’t imagine any other field where a single person has such a great multiplier. The lines of code Linus Torvalds wrote are probably used on more computers today than anything else.

20 Tyler Fan June 5, 2010 at 11:23 am

What does Robin Hanson have to say on the practice of medicine? Is there a source – journal article, book, etc. – where I can find his collected thoughts or do I have to mine them from poring over isolated blog posts?

21 Philo June 5, 2010 at 11:43 am

How are you dividing up–individuating–“fields”? Is *professional athlete* a field? Baseball player? Pitcher? Relief pitcher? Closer? Why not *Cy Young Award-winning closer*? Are you a professional athlete if you are bagging groceries for a living, but working out, practicing, and going to try-outs hoping to get a job with a team in your sport?

Anyone who actually makes living as an athlete is exceptionally talented *qua* athlete; anyone who fills the role of closer is exceptionally good *qua* relief pitcher. So the question is: 90th percentile *of what*?

In short, I think your (or Katja Grace’s) question is not well enough formed.

22 The_Chef June 5, 2010 at 12:12 pm

“Remember! A true democracy is a government Of ALL the People, By ALL the People, and For All the People. Its time to put an end to militarism and warmongering as occurred in Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan and (soon) Pakistan and Iran. There is also the matter of that cowardly and murderous 2nd Amendment.”

My God, please let that be sarcasm. If it’s not, you’re trolling.

23 Maria June 5, 2010 at 1:02 pm

I vote for “the artist”. The greatest impact comes from the profession that inspires people into being better. Once inspired, a person is also likely to encourage her entourage, passing the virus of goodness. (this is why I insist that the winning profession should inspire change rather than provoke it directly)
To me, the two profession that have this power are the artist and the professor, and I choose the artist as a winner because he can easily reach a larger audience.
If you want, the ultimate artist is the prophet that places the seed of a “be good” virus. And the world might use a new (kind of) prophet.
The researcher may improve everybody’s life by discoveries/inventions that she makes. However I tend to believe that this improvements on how we experience the material world are not as essential as what happens in our spiritual world. Without love, beauty and understanding (the elements of altruism) humanity will get into trouble again.

24 AB June 5, 2010 at 1:06 pm

I think you need to definie ‘good.’ After all, most people choose to support their families over, say, saving the lives of 1000 people in some far off third-world country with the same money. If you care about everyone in the world relatively equally, then GP in Africa seems to make a lot of sense. If you care about your country, I guess a life in government. If you care about your local community, maybe it goes back to GP. If you care mostly about your immediate family and relatives, then make a lot of money.

25 Anon June 5, 2010 at 1:28 pm

I wonder how many people who responded about socially meaningful causes in poorer countries have actually spent more than some obligatory school trip in those places?

As someone who grew up in India before it became the country it is today, I can easily say that every IT person who just went ahead with his capitalist instinct and put in years or 60+ hour weeks to earn a good wage made an enormous impact on the country – I grew up there before moving to the west, so I know there has been a change in self confidence and poise in the country as a whole… which has gone on to citizens asking for more accountability, governments acting as though they might have some impact beyond lining their own pockets, smart people seriously considering staying back in India rather than jumping on a plane to the US as soon they are done with high school, etc. etc.

I am not sure even the well meaning village doctor would dispute that they have benefited from this phenomenon… so if you are genuinely interested in the answer, look beneath the surface!

26 Darren June 5, 2010 at 1:30 pm

For anybody involved in the transaction, this is an impossible question: Marginal utility is subjective. If we’re talking about benefits to third parties, then there doesn’t seem to be any particular career that is most helpful, although general fields seem to have yielded a lot of third-party payoff lately–medical research, software engineering, anything telecom. Of course, without entrepreneurs to bring the benefits of these fields to market, we wouldn’t even be aware of the benefits or the fields; in fact, most wouldn’t even exist. So I’d say entrepreneurs have the biggest positive effect on others.

27 mulp June 5, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Scientist/engineer is clearly the one with the greatest possible impact for both the public and private good.

Copernicus, Galileo, DaVinci, Newton, Einstein, are well known examples, but who were the people who figured out wrought iron, high carbon steel, alloyed steel. We use steel for everything today without giving it a second thought. A metal worker or mechanical designer must select the right steel from a large menu of steels which have been standardized in the past century, but all those steels were being made at least five centuries ago in swords that combine the different kinds of steel in ways seldom commercially possible today.

Centuries old swords from Japan, China, India, Persia are marvels of engineering that are inspiring scientists and engineers today, with the secrets of their makers lost to fall of those old empires and the rise of barbarians and the religious purges paving way to our Western civilization.

Steel represents the work of probably millions of researchers, innovators, metal workers who developed just a tiny new insight or improvement that was passed down to his apprentices in generation after generation.

The same methodology took “gatherer” to “farmer”. When you look at the original plant behind corn, you can see that Monsanto has been tinkering with trivial changes to corn and all the other crops it has patents on.

Everyone can be a scientist/engineer and make tiny additions to the public and private good. Knowledge kept secret might as well not exist. So one of the most important roles of the scientist/engineer is to be the conduit of knowledge from the past to the future.

28 TracyW June 5, 2010 at 4:23 pm


Entrepreneurs may generate wealth for themselves, but they don’t generally generate externalities or public goods.

But entrepreneurs typically generate private goods, which also generate wealth for others. The economists’ defintion of a public good is that it is non-rivalorous, so my consumption doesn’t prevent you consuming it, and non-excludable, so I can’t produce apples without you getting to eat them. Consider for example a farmer. Food is a private good – obviously if I eat an apple you can’t eat the same apple. Food also doesn’t have any noticeable externalities (production of food may have, of course). But food is necessary for life. Consequently a farmer generates wealth not only for themself but for all their consumers.

For me, I’m about neutral between entrepreneur and manager-of-a-large-number-of-people, as the highest-marginal utility.

29 Aristid June 5, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Technologist, obviously.

30 bkmacd June 5, 2010 at 8:47 pm

Honest Investment Banker without children, contributes to charity, and votes for higher marginal tax rates.

I also have seen reports of a unicorn roaming the streets of South San Francisco.

31 John Faben June 5, 2010 at 10:30 pm

Surely the answer must be Investment Banker who earns 5 times as much as any of the other professions mentioned, then goes and hires 5 of whichever profession you actually think does more good per person out of his own pocket… at least, if we are supposed to be considering this question from a “what career should I choose if I want to do the most good?” perspective.

32 Morgan Warstler June 5, 2010 at 11:35 pm

The correct answer is inventor.

Only invention improves lives on the whole, because only invention systematically causes productivity gains.

Everything else is taking from tom to give to sally, a net “positive” only if you pretend tom didn’t lose something, of that helping rob wouldn’t marginally better or worse.

Again, there is only one true answer: Inventor.

Now if you are unable to invent, then well you can do this other noisy stuff thats nice or helpful, but even then, the best thing a non-inventor can do, is stay out of the way of the inventors.

33 Henry June 6, 2010 at 5:04 am

Why 90th percentile? Why not simply the mean contribution of a profession? The former unfairly bases our decision on the skew of the distribution.

Given that we expect people to be maximising their own utility in any case, positive externalities are all we should be looking at. Artists and inventors seem the obvious candidates – intellectual property does not come close to internalising the entire surplus these people produce. The main positive externalities for doctors are the fiscal externalities they produce in the form of taxation.

34 Chris Prottas June 6, 2010 at 6:16 pm

These answers are very agent-centric. You should look for variability in agent performance with the structural opportunity to cause systemic change rather than agents theoretically charged with important tasks.

35 Michael Heller June 7, 2010 at 2:26 am


Your comment —
“You should look for variability in agent performance with the structural opportunity to cause systemic change rather than agents theoretically charged with important tasks.”

I like that. But the life-purpose of some notables in social science (e.g. Talcott Parsons) was to marry structure and agency through system analysis. You can still arrive at a heavily agent-centric shortcut for blogging purposes. Policymakers (mainly politicians but also bureaucrats) happen to be in the structural-functional position of being able to influence the shape and direction of the social system.

The chicken-egg issue is that this agency only works effectively (i.e. providing incentives for deliberate utilitarian good to be done) if the *institutional* structure will produce the right kind of motivated constrained/empowered policymaker.

I think Parsons would agree along with other old codgers like Schumpeter and Weber. But some of the new generation, such as Luhmann, rejected that position. I would not call Luhmann nihilistic about policy, but he tried hard to be perhaps for effect in the German intellectual context.

Anyway the point I’m making is only that an apparently agent-centric observation such as that politics is a socially useful career may already assume the system-structure conditions that allow it.

36 r4 gold June 7, 2010 at 5:53 am

Well, i had read many suggestions and they are really impressive. I think choosing career is the most important task. Today I think all field need great person who have knowledge of it and ability to grow it in great direction. Do whatever in which you have interest and in which you can give your best.

37 TracyW June 7, 2010 at 9:02 am

Given that we expect people to be maximising their own utility in any case, positive externalities are all we should be looking at.

Why? Do you think that providing food cheaply, thus freeing up resources for more of things like clean drinking water, medical care, sewage systems, arts, music, writing stimulating web blogs, isn’t something to look at?

Improvements in farming efficiency from adopting market structures, say such as followed when the Soviets started allowing some farmers to farm some lands individually, increased human welfare considerably even though I’d guess most of the revenue was captured by the farmer, the consumers and the State, and even though this involved no new generation of knowledge.

Positive externalities and public goods get mentioned a lot because they are an interesting matter for public policy, but when it comes to increasing people’s utilities, and I think that has mislead a lot of people into thinking that only those matter, but a bit of thought shows that we can only enjoy public goods and public externalities if supplied with the private good of food. And there are many other private goods I would not be willing to give up easily.

38 Right Wing-Nut June 7, 2010 at 9:30 am

90% mathematician => teacher.

BTW, as mathematician myself, I have to disagree with the assessment. The problem is that a mathematician is by definition brain damaged, and at the 90% level, that damage is severe enough that we have trouble helping people not similarly brain damaged to understand the bizarre world we inhabit.

If you mean “mathematics instructor”, you might have a point except that the best teachers are rarely the best researchers (see above), and therefore usually are in back-water universities that don’t have the same quality of student to influence that you need to maximize effects.

I almost ignored this thread–it’s presumption that salary is a lousy indicator of societal benefit is repugnant–but I’m glad that I’ve seen peoples thoughts.

As for inventors, sorry. An inventor is useless without an entrepreneur to bring his ideas to production. Oops. An entrepreneur needs a sales guys. And a manager. And an engineer.

A good argument could be made for artist, except that the 90% line for them = unknown & unnoticed. Entertainers, I think, do slightly better. As for drug dealers, 90% success puts you a just above the street level. Far too narrow of a scope, and FAR too short of a lifespan to be in the running.

My initial instinct is politician. At the 90% success rate, you get long-serving members of a statehouse. Those guys are tremendously influential. Killing one bad bill can save a state tens of millions of dollars. Adding one crucial amendment can completely reverse the effects of another. And exposing a piece of corruption can save a state billions. But there is one problem–“You might find honesty in the legislature, just as you might find virtue in a whorehouse–but it’s a heck of a place to look”. Nevermind that what constitutes “good” on any particular issue is usually hotly contested.

As for assassin, sorry. 90% level won’t get you close enough to trigger a crackdown. CIA/SAS/Mossad, maybe. MAYBE.

Go with investment banker. At the 90% level, you’ll transition to some form of startup funding. The global benefits from funding profitable ideas stagger the mind. (As does the payoff.)

39 Dan * June 8, 2010 at 4:50 pm

High School Teacher – the margins are outlandish here. Being able to inspire young minds is the single most important job at this time. Some people have a wealth of positive influence…many have almost none. A teacher from the 90th percentile should be able to win over young minds to a better cause than otherwise quite often. Sadly these teachers usually go for the money which is also where they are needed the least and the margins the smallest.

40 Ed Elliott June 11, 2010 at 8:34 pm

State Prison Chaplains.

41 jane June 21, 2010 at 11:35 am

A judge and/or a politician. They create and enforce incentives for the entire community to perform at the highest marginal utility.

42 daedaalus2u July 25, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Help someone of higher ability (especially an inventor) achieve a greater fraction of their potential than they are now achieving. If potential is linearly related to percentile ability, then someone of 99 percentile ability can achieve 10x that of a person with 90 percentile ability (1/(1-0.99) vs 1/(1-0.9)) or 100 vs 10.

If that 99 percentile individual is only achieving half their potential (50 instead of 100), then if you spend 1/10 of your time and are 50% effective at helping the 99 percentile individual, then your combined effectiveness is 10-(1/10*10) + 50 + (1/10*0.5* 100) = 64 instead of 60 by not helping.

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