It’s an awful truth that, alas, my journalistic scruples cannot ignore: Some majors get more respect than others. As a former disciple of communication, I know what it is to feel deep, nagging shame about one’s coursework. Though I ultimately saw the light and pursued subjects that look better in column form, some stick with their ridiculed avenues of study to the bitter end, a move that can’t possibly be rational. Or can it?
Value judgments about certain academic paths are generally predicated on one or two criteria. The perceived amount of “work” required to attain a degree in a subject gets first consideration: Highly technical fields demanding much midnight oil-burning tend to be looked upon with some degree of esteem, while such departmental whipping boys as psychology, literature and a lot of the ones that end in “studies” are routinely heaped with abuse.
The other dimension is what can be “done with” the sheepskin, or – not to put too fine a point on it – how much cold, hard cash the holder is likely to make straight out of college. A high demand for engineers and accountants, for instance, means that a competent graduate from either program can expect gainful employment soon after they leave Del Playa Drive behind. Life after a semiotics degree, on the other hand, may well revolve around asking people if they want fries with that.
How does this look from an economic perspective? Better than it may seem. While I would not personally devote my career to sniffing out masturbatory imagery in the Victorian novel, it’s one of the great qualities of our society that others are free to if they so desire. Most of us are in the midst of that exciting time when all things seem possible, and since economics is, after all, the science of choices, can’t it help us decide what to make of it?
Some might assume that an economic analysis of all potential majors rules out traditionally non-lucrative pursuits since, by definition, the other ones will make you more money. This is a common misconception; economics is not, in fact, a system of thought that tirelessly points the way toward a higher bankroll. What economics can tell you, however, is what will give you the most “utility,” a bit of economist-speak for plain old satisfaction.
The question, then, is what concentration will give you not just the best-paid jobs, but the most utility in total? A few students directly equate money with happiness and are unconcerned with all other aspects of life; these are known as “future investment bankers.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. If you don’t mind spending those rare evenings and weekends not lost to air travel slavishly calculating whether an obscure piece of intellectual property will earn 3.2 percent or 3.21 percent, you’re welcome to all the riches you can grab.
On the other end of the spectrum is the feverish essayist determined to expound, in excruciating detail, upon the influence of Jane Austen’s works on Miles Davis’s Birth of Cool. There is, to put it bluntly, no market for this. Nevertheless, following one’s passion, however oblique, can be its own reward.
Of the range of alternatives between the exhausted former – receiving high utility from wealth but little from anything else – and the unemployable latter – receiving high utility from work but little from wealth – no one choice is absolutely better, economically speaking, than another. Having junked such dysfunctional notions as the labor theory of value, economics today respects subjective value; it’s up to you to determine if you get greater utility from what you do or how you’re compensated.
Pulling down a six-figure salary after graduation is sweet indeed, but the next time you feel like disdaining the first scruffy philosophy major you see, check to see if he’s sporting a devilish grin. Though he’ll be earning fewer greenbacks than you, he’s enjoying more than enough utility to bridge the gap from being able to spend four years thumbing through Kant and Hegel. Irrational as his behavior seems, it passes economic muster.
Daily Nexus columnist Colin Marshall used to work at a drive-thru until he was fired for proposing the “Keynesian Combo.”