That is a theme running throughout my latest Bloomberg column, here are some excerpts:
Why so many of America’s best and brightest college graduates go into management consulting, finance or law school is a perennial question. There are some compelling theories, which I will get to, but first I would like to turn the question around: Why are so many people in top positions, whether in the public or private sector, so old?
I submit that these two trends — and a third, declining productivity growth — are related: Many tasks have become increasingly complex in America, often more complex than people can learn in just a few years. By the time you have experience enough to perform them, you are less interested in taking risks. In your young adventurous years, by contrast, the only jobs you can get are those that don’t reward (or allow) adventure. The result of all this is a less audacious America.
…the smart graduates of America’s top universities will seek relatively thick, liquid job markets, with high upside but also protection on the downside. Management consulting is perfect. If you are intelligent and hard-working, you can signal that quickly, and the entry-level tasks are sufficiently anodyne that few very specific skills are required. These jobs are designed to attract talent, so the consulting companies have an eventual option on promoting the best candidates. The same is true of law and the less quantitative parts of finance.
In the short term, this system seems to work for everyone. If you don’t like those vocations after a few years of trying, you still have elite connections and credentials that you can take somewhere else.
On net, America is selling its talented young people insurance value — but at the expense of long-term innovation. It might be better for the country if more of these individuals started businesses, tried their hand at chemistry or materials science, or worked in obscure corners of manufacturing in the Midwest. Of course, rates of failure or stagnation are higher in those areas, while glamour is often lower. Who wants to work on mastering a complex task for 10 or 15 years, with no real guarantee of commercial success?
The slower rates of growth in scientific progress are part of this picture. Older scientists are more likely to be in charge, but they also make fewer conceptual breakthroughs. Younger scientists are more temperamentally inclined to be revolutionaries, but that is hard when it may take you until your late 20s just to learn the basics of your field. Most areas are too complex for a 23-year-old to make new scientific advances, no matter how brilliant he or she may be.
Tech of course is an exception. And please do note that de-bureaucratization could do a great deal to lower this task complexity, while other parts of it are inescapable — I didn’t have the space for that point in the column but will return to it and what might be done. Finally, I thank a number of people who contributed ideas and examples to my argument.
When officials at the Texas A&M University System sought to determine how much Chinese government funding its faculty members were receiving, they were astounded at the results—more than 100 were involved with a Chinese talent-recruitment program, even though only five had disclosed their participation.
A plant pathologist at the Texas system, where the median annual salary for such scientists employed by the state is around $130,000, told officials that the researcher had been offered $250,000 in compensation and more than $1 million in seed money to start a lab in China through one of the talent programs. The researcher ultimately rejected the offer, according to the Texas system’s chief research security officer, Kevin Gamache, who led the recent 18-month review that has garnered praise from U.S. officials.
That is from Aruna Viswanatha and Kate O’Keeffe at the WSJ. As for Harvard:
Charles Lieber, a pioneer in nanotechnology, allegedly signed a contract with Chinese counterparts under which he would be paid around $50,000 a month, plus another $150,000 a year for personal expenses; he was also promised—and received—more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at the Wuhan University of Technology, according to prosecutors.
He is specifically charged with deliberately lying to U.S. government investigators when asked if he received Chinese talent-plan funding, rather than simply omitting the information on forms.
The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is currently accepting applications for our graduate student programs for the 2020-2021 academic year, including several graduate student fellowships for students in any discipline and from any university. The application deadline is March 15, 2020.
The Adam Smith Fellowship is a one-year, competitive program for doctoral students interested in political economy and is co-sponsored with Liberty Fund, Inc. Fellowships are awarded to students attending PhD programs from any university and in any discipline, including economics, philosophy, political science, and sociology.
The Frédéric Bastiat Fellowship is a one-year, competitive program for graduate students interested in applying political economy to pressing public policy issues. Fellowships are awarded to students attending master’s, juris doctoral, and doctoral programs at any university and in any discipline, including economics, law, political science, and public policy.
The Oskar Morgenstern Fellowship is a one-year, competitive fellowship program awarded to doctoral students with training in quantitative methods who interested in applying these methods to issues in political economy. Fellowships are awarded to students attending PhD programs from any university and in any discipline, including economics, political science, and sociology.
Here is the overall fellowships page.
There is a new and updated take on this topic by Autor, Goldin, amd Katz:
The race between education and technology provides a canonical framework that does an excellent job of explaining U.S. wage structure changes across the twentieth century. The framework involves secular increases in the demand for more-educated workers from skill-biased technological change, combined with variations in the supply of skills from changes in educational access. We expand the analysis backwards and forwards. The framework helps explain rising skill differentials in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, but needs to be augmented to illuminate the recent convexification of education returns and implied slowdown in the growth of the relative demand for college workers. Increased educational wage differentials explain 75 percent of the rise of U.S. wage inequality from 1980 to 2000 as compared to 38 percent for 2000 to 2017.
Note that for the most recent rise in inequality across 2000-2017, most of it has happened within educational groups. The less polite way of putting that — my words not those of the authors — is that the real marginal product of education is explaining less of the variation in earnings, or in other words the higher earners are drawing upon something they are not getting at school.
Students of the “education as signaling” debate also should note that, due to these results, now a) signaling is more relevant for your early wage offer, and b) signaling is less relevant for your eventual wage profile, which in fact is now more determined by your personal level of skill.
Here is the Stanford press release.
The longer you think about a task without doing it, the less novel it becomes to do. Writing things in your to-do list and coming back to them later helps you focus, but it comes at the cost: you’ve now converted an interesting idea into work. Since you’ve thought about it a little bit, it’s less interesting to work on.
It’s like chewing on a fresh piece of gum, immediately sticking it somewhere, then trying to convince yourself to rehydrate the dry, bland, task of chewed-up gum. Oh. That thing. Do you really want to go back to that? “We’ve already gone through all the interesting aspects of that problem, and established that there’s only work left”, the mind says.
One day someone will make a to-do product that lets you serialize and deserialize flow, like protobuf. Until then, my solution is to (somewhat counter-intuitively) not think about the task until I am ready to fully execute it. I do not unwrap the piece of gum until I’m ready to enjoy it in its entirety. I need to save the fun of thinking to pull myself into flow.
- I try and respond to emails the moment I open them. If it’s something that requires desktop work, I quickly close the email.
- I don’t write down ideas for posts until I’m ready to write the entire post.
- I write down a few bullets of what I need out of a meeting, and then refuse to think about it until the actual event.
There are many more points at the link. My classic line is simply “I’m not going to focus on that right now.”
OK, the NBA and its players won’t much exercise their free speech rights, nor will university presidents, so how will this all look in the longer term? Surely India and other nations are learning from the Chinese experience, and so here is one excerpt from my Bloomberg column:
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India is an avowed student of the Chinese experiment. Is it so far-fetched to imagine that he would help to create comparable pressures on speech for institutions doing business with India? The more China’s strategy succeeds, the more likely it is to spread. Modi has not shied away from controversy in making Indian policy, so the domestic pressure to follow the Chinese model could be quite strong.
Imagine a world, not so far off, where Indonesia is a business’s fifth-largest customer or a university’s seventh-largest supplier of students. Will it really be so safe to criticize the government of Indonesia, even for employees of those institutions on their social media accounts? U.S. businesses today are quite reluctant to criticize their customers at all, regardless of how much they collectively or individually account for revenue.
The world is evolving into a place where countries and regimes are exempt from all significant public criticism from any entity (or its employees) with substantial interests overseas — whether commercial or academic. That scenario may sound dystopian, but in fact it would not be a major shift from the status quo.
It is also easy to imagine a norm evolving where major customers, say China and India, become offended if a business or its employees criticize a much smaller nation. The theory might be that if any criticism is allowed at all, eventually it will reach the larger (and more controversial) nations. Or perhaps the smaller nation is an ally or friend of the larger, more powerful one. So you had better not criticize Kiribati, either.
And my parenthetical:
(Paradoxically, China’s concern for speech over actions shows a respect for the power of discourse — and free speech — that contemporary America could learn from.)
Recommended, and here is India already flexing its muscle over Bezos and WaPo (NYT).
The latest research, published on Friday by two psychology professors, combs through about 40 studies that have examined the link between social media use and both depression and anxiety among adolescents. That link, according to the professors, is small and inconsistent.
“There doesn’t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues,” said Candice L. Odgers, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the lead author of the paper, which was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry…
The new article by Ms. Odgers and Michaeline R. Jensen of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro comes just a few weeks after the publication of an analysis by Amy Orben, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, and shortly before the planned publication of similar work from Jeff Hancock, the founder of the Stanford Social Media Lab. Both reached similar conclusions.
“The current dominant discourse around phones and well-being is a lot of hype and a lot of fear,” Mr. Hancock said. “But if you compare the effects of your phone to eating properly or sleeping or smoking, it’s not even close.”
It is excellent, one of my favorite MRU videos to date:
Here is some text from the release email:
The second episode of Women In Economics is out today! Join Harvard’s Claudia Goldin, UC Berkeley’s Christina Romer, and more on an insightful, engaging look at Anna Jacobson Schwartz’s life and achievements.
Did you know that Anna graduated from high school at 15?
Or that her dissertation couldn’t be published because of paper rationing during World War II? Yet despite this setback, she went on to coauthor one of the most important books about monetary policy and the Great Depression. Because of her work, she was hailed as one of the leading monetary economists of the 20th century by the end of her career!
We’re so excited to share Schwartz’s incredible story—click here to watch the video!
We’re also excited to announce our next video in our Women in Econ series, about Janet Yellen, will be released on March 8th. It will feature Yellen in her own words, along with Ben Bernanke and Christina Romer. Stay tuned!
Each year, about 15% of queries on Google have never been searched for before
The average American church sermon lasts for 37 minutes — but only 14 minutes in Catholic churches
Japan now has over 70,000 people who are more than 100 years old
The average human-body temperature is 97.5 degrees, not 98.6 degrees
The average new American home now has more bathrooms than occupants
Do subscribe to what is the very best general email newsletter!
The share of job vacancies requiring a bachelor’s degree increased by more than 60 percent between 2007 and 2019, with faster growth in professional occupations and high-wage cities.
That is from a new NBER paper by Peter Q. Blair and David J. Deming, noting that the authors instead emphasize upskilling in the jobs themselves.
In my Warren post I wrote:
7. College free for all: Would wreck the relatively high quality of America’s state-run colleges and universities, which cover about 78 percent of all U.S. students and are the envy of other countries worldwide and furthermore a major source of American soft power. Makes sense only if you are a Caplanian on higher ed., and furthermore like student debt forgiveness this plan isn’t that egalitarian, as many of the neediest don’t finish high school, do not wish to start college, cannot finish college, or already reject near-free local options for higher education, typically involving community colleges.
Bryan wishes me to point out that he does not favor “free tuition for all,” and indeed that is true, as I can verify from years of discussion with him. Nonetheless I still believe such a policy would come closer to limiting educational signaling (by making so many schools worse and lowering the value of the signal) than would Bryan’s preferred policies toward higher ed.
I will be doing a Conversation with him, with an associated public event. Here is part of his Wikipedia profile:
John Hamilton McWhorter V…is an American academic and linguist who is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history. He is the author of a number of books on language and on race relations, and his writing has appeared in many prominent magazines. His research specializes on how creole languages form, and how language grammars change as the result of sociohistorical phenomena.
So what should I ask him?
And if you wish to register for February 17, here is the link.
For example, many of the ways to get permanent residency in Canada require applicants to have specialized skills or high levels of education. Prince Harry trained as a military officer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, but he does not have a university degree, which lawyers said would be a major stumbling block for him.
“I doubt very much they would apply for permanent residency,” said Sergio R. Karas, an immigration lawyer in Toronto. “That would not be a good option for them.”
From the sound of the NYT article by Ian Austen, they will likely enter as “visitors,” a status for which they do not need additional authoritzation.
This one is better than the other available conversations with Reid, here is the transcript and audio. Here is part of the CWTeam summary:
Reid joined Tyler to talk about all these leverage points and more, including the Silicon Valley cultural meme he most disagrees with, how Wittgenstein influenced the design of LinkedIn, mystical atheism, what it was like being on Firing Line, why he’s never said anything outrageous, how he and Peter Thiel interpret The Tempest differently, the most misunderstood thing about friendship, how to improve talent certification, what’s needed from science fiction, and his three new ideas for board games.
COWEN: If we think of Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, they could arguably, by the standards of many people, be called weird. I’ve reviewed all the books you’ve written and a lot of your public talks. I can’t recall you saying a single thing that’s outrageous in any way whatsoever. Why aren’t you weirder?
HOFFMAN: [laughs] Maybe I mask it better. That’s my Straussian element, that I hide my weirdness. I would say that a little bit of it comes down to a theory about what is the right way of evolving discourse.
I think I probably do have a variety of views that people would think is weird. I, for example, think of myself as a mystical atheist, which is neither the full atheist category nor any religious category, but some blend in the middle. Or the fact that I actually think that the notion of capitalism is one of the world’s leading interesting technologies, but it’s not a particularly good philosophy, and you’d think that’s odd for an entrepreneur or an investor, and so forth.
So I have areas where I would say groups of people would think I’m weird. I may not highlight it because I tend to always speak in a way to, how do I think I help us make the most progress? And I would only say the weird things if I thought that was the thing that would result from that.
COWEN: So there are weird things that are in your mind?
HOFFMAN: Yes, yeah.
COWEN: How did your interest in the late Wittgenstein influence the construction and design of LinkedIn? I’m sure they ask you this all the time in interviews.
HOFFMAN: [laughs] All the time. The question I’ve always been expecting. I would say that the notion of thinking about — a central part of later Wittgenstein is to think that we play language games, that the way that we form identity and community, both of ourselves and as individuals, is the way that we discourse and the way that we see each other and the way that we elaborate language.
That pattern of which ways we communicate with each other, what’s the channel we do, and what’s the environment that we’re in comes from insights from — including later Wittgenstein, who I think was one of the best modern philosophers in thinking about how language is core to the people that we are and that we become.
COWEN: What else from philosophy influenced the construction and design of LinkedIn?
Recommended. For help in arranging this Conversation I am very much indebted to Ben Casnocha.