As usual the mainstream press gets it completely wrong and bemoans the reallocation of talent from law and medicine into finance, when in fact the real societal loss is from science, engineering, technology startups, etc.
Over the course of the past week or so, while I was interviewing child psychiatrists about the exciting new field of developmental neuroscience, the phrase “the best and the brightest” came up twice.
As in “I hope the brightest and the best kids will be doing this” — instead of going to work on Wall Street.
The first time I heard it, I didn’t say anything. I was laboring too intensely to keep up with phrases like “single nucleotide polymorphism.” But the second time, I was able to pause in note taking long enough to grouse, “I never had the impression that the best and brightest people went to Wall Street.”
“Maybe not in your day,” came the reply. “But in recent years they have.”
Let’s leave aside for a moment the concept that I could be old enough to have a “day” dating back to sometime in prehistory. And return to that phrase “the best and the brightest,” which got a great deal of airing last month when the Obama administration made the shocking decision to place limits on the compensation packages of executives whose banks received federal bailout funds.
A nice triple usage by Forbes.com columnist Susan Lee, in a piece on the proposed $500,000 compensation cap for top management, was typical: “This produced outraged shrieks from Wall Street that any pay cut would cause the best and brightest to head for the exits,” she wrote. “… But the big flaw here is that the best and brightest have nowhere to go … unless the best and the brightest want jobs as home-care attendants or third-grade teachers, there’s no place to jump.” ...
Two comments on the article (there are already over a hundred):
March 13, 2009
When I hear the term “best and brightest” associated with Wall Street, I don’t immediately think of the executives or the traders, but the mathematicians they employed. From what I’ve heard, over the past few years, there has been a significant drain of technical talent away from places like Silicon Valley and Boston, and to very well compensated careers creating new financial instruments.
I couldn’t care less where Gordon Gekko ends up, it’s the people who work for him that matter.
— Mike Douglas
31. March 13, 2009
Kudos for this piece. Having attended two colleges commonly thought as incubators of some of the “best and brightest” and graduating fairly recently (2005), I can attest that there was very little stigma attached to going to Wall Street. Even at Caltech, a powerhouse for future Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, more and more graduates were heading into finance — sometimes as “quants” and sometimes simply as traders and analysts. There was no sense of shame about wanting, purely and simply, to make piles of money.
It seems to me that something has gone awry in the system when even the “best and brightest” in the sciences and engineering — fields where job opportunities have not disappeared, where there purports to be high demand for innovation and intelligence — feel that there’s more reward on Wall Street than can be found in any labs. Finance hasn’t just siphoned away would-be doctors or lawyers; it’s siphoned off from would-be alternative-energy entrepreneurs, from innovators in many necessary fields.
Why? From the people I know who went into finance instead of science, most were drawn to the culture — the culture of supposedly being “the best and the brightest.” There’s tremendous ego involved in being smart enough to succeed at a place like Caltech (I wasn’t; I transferred), as well as tremendous ego destruction in realizing that the sciences are populated by some phenomenally brilliant people who are, on an IQ scale, truly and unquestionably “the best and the brightest.” Most of us can never compete with that, even those who spent their childhoods and teenage years being the smartest people in the room.
But send those scientists and engineers onto Wall Street and suddenly those egos are getting stroked! Suddenly they’re not nerds — they’ve got money to throw around, they feel more glamorous than their engineer friends, they get told that they’re the “best and the brightest” (even though they should know better), and, most importantly of all, they get to feel like the smartest person in the room again. It may sound like armchair psychology, but I’ve talked to a lot of people who have this attitude.
What’s the solution? Maybe we can make the sciences sexy again, as glamorous as they were during the space race — Obama seems to be on track, constantly referencing the centrality of science to his policy. There’d be a lot fewer MIT and Caltech alums on Wall Street if it were seen as a meeting ground of second-rate intellects.