OP-EDS

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October 7, 2008

There is an "i-banking" in team

Public virtue is increasingly, and disturbingly, substituted for private morality.

According to “Big Paycheck or Service? Students are Put to Test,” a recent New York Times article, Harvard University is so concerned about the vast percentage of its students heading into financial services after graduation—it reached 20 percent last year—that it has begun to expand public service fellowships and internships and even to offer “reflection” seminars aimed specifically at pushing students away from lucrative Wall Street jobs. The president of Amherst College, which recently took similar steps, said in defense of this approach, “We’re in the business of graduating people who will make the world better in some way.” Unfortunately, he is now in the business of promoting a line of thinking that will make the world worse, in ways we can easily identify.

According to this dualistic worldview, every college graduate faces a Herculean choice between duty and pleasure; either he embarks on a noble career devoted to the service of others, or he chooses perfidy in the guise of profit and spends the rest of his life fixated on his own meager self-interest.

Students have already begun to absorb this message from their elders. “We came to Harvard as freshmen to change the world, and we’re leaving to become investment bankers,” said one student. Said another: “Some people say it’s a selfish thing to do,” referring to the lucrative Wall Street jobs. “They say you should be using your talent for something beneficial for your community. Terms like ‘corporate whore’ would be tossed around.”

However, there is nothing inherently base, but rather a great deal beneficial, to the community in directing financial resources to where they are most fruitful, which is what investment bankers are supposed to do for a living. But that can be hard to remember amid all the name-calling and contempt hurled at the graduates who enter such careers, which now comes even from the president of Amherst, who insinuated quite transparently in his interview with The New York Times that such students are a waste of their universities’ money.

This set of low expectations is often self-fulfilling: Tell a man he’s worthless enough times, and it may not be long before he starts to act like he is. Is it any wonder that there is so little honor to be found in the financial industry when its people are led to believe that they sold their souls and threw away their potential the moment they entered the industry?

In fact, there is much that Wall Street employees can do to change the world and make it better in some way. It is bizarre that such a point needs even to be made. Money is power. What bug of the mind made some of America’s brightest people think that it is precisely the nation’s richest people who are least equipped to improve it? They can give to charity by the barrelful, and if they are so inclined, they can one day enter politics because they have the means to do so. Just ask John McCain, whose political career has thrived on the back of his wife’s beer fortune.

Barring this, let them just be good people. In the Amherst president’s unfortunate opinion, the world is made better only at work; virtue is limited to the narrow confines of one’s profession. This is now a common attitude. Tufts University, for example, recently announced that it would pay off college loans for graduates who choose public-service jobs. But what about people who do good in private? Where’s the dough for the caring father, the woman who never lies, or the management consultant who tithes and then some because he knows that an Accord will carry him to work just as quickly as a BMW?

American society now prioritizes, to a dangerous extent, public virtue at the expense of private virtue; it values virtue that furthers ambition at the expense of virtue that is in secret. Service is the new ethics. That’s why Al Gore felt comfortable excusing his giving a pittance to charity by citing his service as vice president. That’s why John McCain’s military service and five years spent in a box are seen to compensate for his adultery and ignorance of the number of homes that he owns. That’s why so many young people think that a year or two spent building homes and résumés in Honduras is sacrifice enough to purchase a lifetime of moral mediocrity. That’s why the University of Chicago has no problem promoting Saturday Days of Service yet feels that moral education of any kind is unacceptable proselytizing.

A key reason that such large numbers of Americans feel that their country is on the wrong track is that they understand this problem intuitively. Many are uneasy because they know that a nation that relies on public virtue alone is like the proverbial tree with many leaves but few roots: The wind comes and blows it over.

Nathan Bloom is a fourth-year in the College majoring in NELC.