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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Giving the labor market too much credit

A recent article in the Washington Post covered a new report from Georgetown University that looks at average annual earnings by college major. This was made possible by the fact that the Census has just started asking people with bachelor's degrees about their major. The data showed that those who majored in sciences earned substantially more, on average, than humanities majors.
The individual major with the highest median earnings was petroleum engineering, at $120,000, followed by pharmaceutical sciences at $105,000, and math and computer sciences at $98,000. The lowest earnings median was for those majoring in counseling or psychology, at $29,000, and early childhood education, at $36,000.

"I don’t want to slight Shakespeare,” said Anthony Carnevale, one of the report’s authors. “But this study slights Shakespeare.”

That Shakespeare jibe irked me a bit, but I was much more dismayed when I got to the kicker quote at the end of the article:
“The engineering major makes more money because he or she is more productive. In the end, the market is very discriminating,” Carnevale said.

Ugh. Productive in the strict economic sense, perhaps, but let's not confuse market value with actual value. I've no doubt the market reflects value in some useful ways -- for instance, the need for people with computer science training is very strong, which is probably a big part of the high median earnings of those in that major. But do we really think that earnings are a good reflection of the value of the work people do? It's convenient to think so if you have an above-average salary, but the link is tenuous.

Petroleum engineers make more than three times the salary of those in early childhood education. But I would submit that their earnings are so high because their work is related to the extraction of a commodity with a well-defined market value. The market for early childhood education, by contrast, is nonexistent. Child futures are not traded on the stock exchange, and the "market" determining how much early childhood educators are paid is a mishmash of government programs and affluent parents paying for Montessori preschool. The impact of their work is huge, and long-term, but it is not reflected in their pay in any meaningful way.

Or, to take an example from within a single field, lots of research has shown that primary care doctors are the most important players in ensuring that patients gets high-quality and economically efficient health care. But there's a shortage of primary care docs, in no small part because they get paid less than most specialists. (E.g. this site says that general practitioners report an average income of $118,000, while plastic surgeons report an average income of $203,000.)

My point is, there are lots of things that can make your work valuable, both in an economic and social sense, but only a small portion of them are reflected in the labor market. When it comes to picking a college major, future earning potential is something to consider, but don't mistake it for a proxy for the usefulness of your chosen field. The market is not equipped to determine that. But with a well-rounded education (maybe including some Shakespeare), you are!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Becky and Andrew

I spent a great long weekend in Minneapolis. Went to a Twins game on Friday, and was cold! (Not so much now that I'm back in DC.) Also got to bike around the city, and try a few local pastries with Doug.

But the purpose of the visit was to see Becky and Andrew get married, which was lovely. I posted some pictures on Flickr.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

It's a sign

I was briefly in New York the weekend before last, and saw this cleverly edited sign in a subway station.

(I was reminded of this by the construction sign I passed on the way home today, which had been altered to read "EEL PLATES AHEAD.")

Friday, May 06, 2011

Mission critical carpet

Being a new homeowner, I found myself in Home Depot a couple weeks ago. Walking through the floor coverings department, a carpet sample panel caught my eye. Not because of the carpet itself, but the name of the style:

Mission Critical Visionary? What? That's a strange name for carpet, even stranger because the display made it clear that this line of carpet is for homes, not offices.

I flipped through the rest of the panels of samples, showing the different styles, and every single name was straight from corporate-speak. There was "Corner Office," "Value Added Self Starter" (all the necessary hyphens were missing), "Chairman," and -- I kid you not -- "Ground Breaking Due Diligence."

How on earth did someone decide these would be good names for home carpet styles? This is difficult for me to fathom. (I did not note the manufacturer, and Googling some of these names and "carpet" didn't turn up anything....)

Monday, May 02, 2011

Songs of the Moment (An Occasional Feature)

> TV on the Radio - Will Do
> Gorillaz - Kids with Guns (Hot Chip Remix)
> Wilco - Handshake Drugs
> Yuck - Get Away
> Brian Eno - Here Come the Warm Jets
> The Knife - Heartbeats
> Bellflur - Grey Sparkle Finnish Pig[mp3]

Really loving that new TV on the Radio track, which is imbued with extra poignancy because their bassist died of cancer a couple weeks ago.

Bellflur is a local band that opened for Low when I saw them last week. Was really impressed with their performance and bought an album after the show. So far, I think it loses something in the recorded version...there are lots of instruments, and the mix sounds too busy to me, while the live version didn't. But I still like it a lot, including the free mp3 linked above.

Going to see Yuck and Tame Impala on Friday. (And Les Savy Fav on Saturday.)