Gene Expression

For the greater good

The Price of Casino-Like Finance Is Higher Than We Think:

However, Maxine suspects that the longest term and most severe damage from the finance casino will not be from government deficits required to shore up too-big-to-fail banks and insurers. It will be from two powerful, long-standing price distortions that have distorted the composition of our labor force and the mix of human capital within it. The first distortion is the past diversion of some our best technical and mathematical minds away from physics, engineering, biology, chemistry, and, yes, even economics, to financial modeling, risk analysis, and all the other marvelous tools of speculation and gaming. Over the last 20 years or so, the financial sector has been diverting our future scientists and mathematicians into creating new derivatives aimed at managing risk (ha!) and into developing creative investment instruments aimed at obscuring risk.

On the other hand, Mike the Mad Biologist asks, Do We Need More Scientists, or More Jobs for Scientists?:

Like many other things in life, you get what you pay for (if you’re lucky). As long as financial ‘engineering’ is more lucrative than actual engineering (and other disciplines)–both in terms of pre- and post-tax salary–and has better job security, many students, particularly when too many graduate with tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt, will choose to do something other than science.

Until we create more science-related opportunities, in the private, public, and non-profit sectors, we are just creating an over-qualified, underpaid workforce.

Well, it doesn’t look like financial engineering is going away anytime soon. In fact, I’m not sure that the finance sector of the economy is going to shrink as much as we thought it might last year. But that aside, what’s the point of funneling more math and physics graduates into math and physics instead of finance if they can’t put bread on the table? Or is the issue narrower, specifically the difficulty of getting an academic job? Or perhaps the major dynamic is that science & engineering professions are just really bad at capturing the value they generate for the society as a whole? (though this might be more of a feature than a bug in some ways, as the positive externalities might be what drives productivity gains society-wide)


  1. #1 Bob Sykes
    January 16, 2010

    We probably have all the scientists and engineers we need, hence the pay problem. I think this is largely do to computers. I am retired now, but I was a newly minted engineer just when computers started becoming common (IBM 1620, Fortran etc) and design charts and tables, sliderules and Friden calculators were everywhere.

    Computers greatly reduced the need for engineers because all the tedious hand calculations needed to design a bridge, etc., that once required teams of skilled people could be in seconds by one person.

    I remember clearly what happened at a small engineering company that I consulted for after they bought a mini computer with McDonald-Douglas’ CAD system and somebody’s financial software.

    The accounting department went from a dozen people to two. The engineering design team went from maybe two dozen to a half dozen. The office was empty, and the firm moved to smaller quarters. When the first primitive desktops arrived, the secretarial staff largely disappeared.

    They did as much work as before, and their analyses were more thorough, so the work was better. They just didn’t need as much staff.

    The same thing has happened to research scientists. Look at all the hand calculations that were required in all the physical sciences. Major research institutes and even individual researchers had large staffs who did calculations all day. Not now.

  2. #2 John Emerson
    January 16, 2010

    A premise of all this is that the finance sector is too big and a drain on the economy, so that a lot of very sharp people have been channeled into unproductive activity.

  3. #3 Russell
    January 16, 2010

    Being one of those math types, I have to ask: how many of our math and science graduates are being “diverted” into careers in financial engineering? It’s silly to view the number of people doing so as a problem without some numbers put to it.

    My own view, just looking around my fellow math-geek circles, is that very few follow that career route. That may reflect bias in my own circles, of course. Without some attempt at quantification, it’s all speculation.

  4. #4 miko
    January 16, 2010

    It is much more sinister than that. We do not need more scientists, but academic science as practiced depends on a large surplus of expendable trainees (grad students and postdocs) who have to believe that a career in research is an attainable goal. This creates an overtrained, underemployed workforce, but the alternative is to make “trainee” type research positions professional positions, which would be expensive. First, because you would have to offer real salaries and benefits, and second you could not create the illusion that working 80 hour weeks for 40,000 a year is going to someday get you your own lab, meaning less work out of each employee.

    Or should there need to be twenty times as much basic scientific research going on in this country than there is? Probably not.

  5. #5 Clark
    January 16, 2010

    These sorts of comments were always confusing to me. The reason typically people don’t go into the sciences as much is because there aren’t jobs. I had several friends who spent four or five years (and in one case more) on their PhD and then had to do several postdocs until they could even consider finding a job in their field. And, unless you score the university professor job at a tier 1 school, chances are you aren’t going to be paid that much.

    Contrast this with finance where often you could have a huge impact even without a PhD or if you had a PhD you cold skip all the nonsense of an additional 5 – 6 years of poverty as a postdoc. Plus you actually had a reasonable chance of making real money.

    Right now they are having these silly talks about America having a shortage of “geeks” (primarily computer) once again missing the question about opportunities if people go into the fields.

    Science is far superior to getting an English degree. (As a physicist I’ve never had trouble finding a job, for instance – just because of the breadth of training it required) However the big problem is really the cutting of basic R&D in America. (Both by corporate America – remember Bell Labs? – and by government)

  6. #6 John Emerson
    January 16, 2010

    When the premise is that finance is unproductive or counterproductive, one mathematician diverted into the field is too many.

    The things I’ve heard (at DeLongs) seem to say that fully competent but not brilliant mathematicians are the ones diverted. But mostly because they can’t get better jobs.

  7. #7 Basab Pradhan
    January 16, 2010

    Science and academia’s answer to this “brain diversion” to higher paying jobs in finance, law etc. has been to attract talented immigrant students. An Indian or Chinese MS grad is more likely to stay with science and research where cultural differences are less likely to hinder their prospects.

    Unfortunately, America’s ability to attract top international students is declining due to better opportunities for these students at home, competition from other countries and a decline in the image of the US as an open society and the land of opportunity.

  8. #8 jb
    January 16, 2010

    People who can do good work in math or physics are often capable of doing of many things well (such as reading a medical chart, or running a factory). I’ve worked on Wall Street, and yes, there are a lot of very smart people there. If the work they are doing is in fact socially non-productive (and I suspect it may be), then the loss isn’t just to math and physics (fields which may already have too many workers), but to society as a whole.

  9. #9 Onkel Bob
    January 17, 2010

    @ 4 Miko has it right. Furthermore, it could be worse, At least in science, you are generally not paying to obtain the postgraduate degree.
    This guy tells the truth about humanities education. Nonetheless, the brutal – absolutely slave-like existence that postdocs lead, all in hopes of the big paper and chance that they can in the future also compete for an ever shrinking grant pool, means that those with any eff’ing sense at all, can read the writing on the wall. Our best graduate student, the one who has a Cell paper, and has another in the works, was recently awarded her PhD. She is not going for a postdoc, instead she enrolled in an MBA program. I think she’s making the right move.

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