To what field should society allocate the (N+1)-th big brain to achieve the highest marginal return? For years I've been told that the answer is finance -- markets are efficient after all, and price signals must be correct! ;-)
WSJ: Like nearly 30% of Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates in recent years, Ted Fernandez set his sights on finance. Though he majored in materials science and engineering, he was wowed by tales of excitement from friends who went to Wall Street.
But when he stopped by an investment bank's booth at a job fair a year ago, it was eerily empty. The booth belonged to Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., and the date was Sept. 18, three days after the 158-year-old bank filed for bankruptcy. Now Mr. Fernandez, 22 years old, is getting a master's in engineering at M.I.T. and aiming for a career in solar-power technology. [Another bubble? Let's hope not!]
"Undoubtedly, I would have gone into finance if the financial meltdown hadn't occurred," he says. "Now I won't make as much money, but I can go home at night and feel good about what I do. That's worth more than any amount of money."
Over the past 20 years, finance grew faster than almost any other sector of the U.S. economy, offering rich pay and luring a growing share of bright minds to trade securities, make loans, manage portfolios, engineer mergers and turn mortgages into complex derivatives. Now the finance bubble has deflated, forcing hundreds of thousands of employees to search for other work and sending new graduates looking elsewhere for careers.
... Harvard's 2009 graduating class shows the shift in career directions. Those entering finance and consulting tumbled to 20% of graduates this year from nearly twice that in 2008 and 47% the year before, according to a survey by the university's newspaper, the Crimson. ...
Even a modest of shift of talent could have an effect on society. When smart people become entrepreneurs, "they improve technology in the line of business they pursue, and, as a result, productivity and income grow," said a study by economists Kevin M. Murphy, Robert W. Vishny and Andrei Schleifer in 1990. By contrast, they said, allocation of talent to professions such as finance and law -- where returns come from distribution of wealth from others rather than wealth creation -- leads to lower productivity growth, fewer technological opportunities and slower economic growth. [Yes, I know, this argument is far from complete... better people making capital allocation decisions probably does lead to more efficient outcomes... but at what point do we reach saturation?]
"Some professions are socially more useful than others, even if they are not as well compensated," the economists said.
The figure below is from this earlier post: