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Parasitic debts

File under “weird congruences”: the market for English professors collapsed with the investment banks. Two secondary markets staffed by Ivy League liberal arts high-achievers whose accomplishments looked great on paper but didn’t necessarily really know how to make anything. (NB: I don’t necessarily believe this, but let’s entertain it as an idea.)

Here’s Caleb Crain:

Every historical period has its predominant economic metaphors, and they seep into its culture. Not long ago, I had coffee with an undergraduate who reported that he had just read Derrida and Lacan on Poe and was excited by the idea that criticism might be the new literature. Twenty years ago, when I read Derrida and Lacan on Poe, my professors teased me the same exciting possibility. It occurs to me now that the idea is about as old as, and has certain structural parallels to, the notion that finance is the new manufacturing. Like criticism over literature, finance traditionally supervised manufacturing yet was thought to be parasitic upon it and less “creative” than it. And then at some moment, often specified on Michael Lewis’s authority as the 1980s, finance began to have the reputation of requiring more intellectual acumen than manufacturing and to attract the brighter and more modish talents. Similarly (though hard numbers are very hard to come by), academic criticism started to pay better than the creation of literature—certainly it offered more stability and social prestige. For a young American to ignore the economic signaling and go into manufacturing or literature rather than finance or criticism, he would have to be either idealist or dunderheaded.

And here’s Ezra Klein, interviewing a friend from Harvard:

What did you study at Harvard?

I focused on history and government and political philosophy.

And why did Goldman Sachs think that would be good training for investment banking?

Why Goldman thought I’d be good for investment banking is a very fair question. There are a lot of Harvard people at Goldman and they’ve put a lot of effort into recruiting from the school. They really try to attract liberal arts backgrounds. They say this stuff isn’t so complicated, that you’ll pick it up as you go along, that it’s all about teamwork, that they have training programs. That being said, it would be very hard to get a full-time job there without a previous summer internship.

How did you end up going to Goldman, though? Presumably, as a social sciences major, you hadn’t meant to head into the financial sector.

Investment banking was never something I thought I wanted to do. But the recruiting culture at Harvard is extremely powerful. In the midst of anxiety and trying to find a job at the end of college, the recruiters are really in your face, and they make it very easy. One thing is the internship program. It’s your junior year, it’s January or February, and you interview for internships. If all goes well, it’s sort of a summer-long interview. And if that goes well, you have an offer by September of your senior year, and that’s very appealing. It makes your senior year more relaxed, you can focus on your thesis, you can drink more. You just don’t have to worry about getting a job.

And separate from that, I think it’s about squelching anxiety in general. It checks the job box. And it’s a low-risk opportunity. It’s a two-year program with a great salary and the promise to get these skills that should be able to transfer to a variety of other areas. The idea is that once you pass the test at Goldman, you can do anything. You learn Excel, you learn valuation, you learn how to survive intense hours and a high-pressure environment. So it seems like a good way to launch your career. That’s very appealing for those of us at Harvard who were not in pre-professional majors.

It all torques the whole what-are-you-going-to-do-with-your-degree question in a new, more sinister direction. Let’s say you’re an Ivy League English major. Ten-to-twenty years ago, you would have gone to work in academia, publishing, or I-banking. (Maybe, maybe, the nonprofit sector — as Klein’s interviewee points out, Teach for America recruiters play on Ivy Leaguers’ anxieties in much the same way the Goldman recruiters did.)

Crain adds a weird allegory about islanders trading shells, which is too complex to summarize here, but comes off weirdly like a story about student-loan debt. Or maybe that’s just me.

May 3, 2010 / Uncategorized


I heartily disagree; the market for English professors has been collapsing for over 10 years, well before the current convulsions in the financial market. When I majored in English in college, I came across stories all the time that talked about the dim prospects in the academic job market for English PhDs (the articles were all some variant of this screed. One of my classmates, who is finishing up his PhD in lit at Cal said that his acceptance letter to UCLA’s acceptance program told him that we was unlikely to get a job upon completing his program. What is he going to do with his degree in the fall? He’s enrolling in law school (which is the very plan I ended up taking after hearing way do many horror students from our grad student T.A.’s).


Also, I think that Harvard undergrad is a huge anomaly – 40% of their kids go into banking or consulting. While I bet that Yale and Princeton (and the Wharton undergrad program) have similar numbers, I don’t think the same is true for other schools, even those in top tier. Goldman doesn’t care if the kid from HYP studied Russian literature; they’re paying for the Latin diploma.

It is surprising how so many of these (HYP) kids get into i-banking or consulting just because their friends are doing it. It’s the peer-accepted way to enter the upper class. You know everyone will respect you, you’ll get a good check, and life is taken care of. And if you figure out a few years later that you really wanted to be a doctor, med school is still an option.

I remember a guy who went to an Ivy, smart guy. He went to NYC to do a biology graduate degree, didn’t like it. So he decided to get a job trading, because all his friends were doing it. Now I think he works as an adventure tour guide- he’s probably most happy doing that.

Well, given that the worm has turned, I guess we can look forward to a bubble that will culminate 20 years from now with 40% of harvard students becoming either lawyers or bureaucrats.

As far as the congruences go, I think the old saw “correlation is not causation” is useful here.

As commented earlier, the market for English professors hasn’t been great for a while now. Also, a recession is by definition a widespread reduction in economic activity. We’d expect other fields to decline as the recession spread. A LOT of markets collapsed along with the investment banks, not just English professorships.

Crain really sounds like a moron in this essay. I guess the fever is the noted excuse, but that’s pretty weak.

“My point is that all the rich man really has is a billion shells. Each shell represents a portion of a fresh fish, or rather, a portion of the labor power that goes into catching the fish, but the fish don’t exist yet, and it is far from clear that the rich man will be able to trade all his shells for what they represent. Because the rich man and his ancestors have been hoarding their wealth, a lot of fish that might have been caught over the years haven’t been; the opportunity to catch and eat them is gone forever.”

This is what Marxists sound like when they discover inflation.

This is what Marx­ists sound like when they dis­cover inflation.

I don’t know why, maybe because I’m somewhat hysterically exhausted, but this line made me literally laugh out out loud for a good while.

Anne Trubek says…

The criticism of both Crain and Klein is smart. But I gotta admit that in 1985 I wrote an essay on how “the critic is now more creative/better than the writer,” as an undergrad, and then went into a Phd program in English blah blah blah. Crain nailed me. Eerie.

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