Monday, September 02, 2013

Book notes 1 of 3: The Big Questions by Steve Landsburg - Career Advice

So I have finally just gotten around to typing out some passages from The Big Questions by economist Steve Landsburg. Landsburg is a spiky, controversial guy who likes to throw down on contentious issues. Whether you agree with him or not, he certainly makes you think and for that alone he deserves much credit.

Here he is on career choices:

Is it okay to be a circus clown? Sure. Circus clowns produce entertainment which is every bit as legitimate a commodity as food and clothing. 

Is it okay to be an Olympic athlete? Get serious. You really think it's fitting for an ambitious, hard-working, twenty-three-year-old to devote his life to volleyball? You'd be more productive wandering down to the grocery store and returning stray carts from the parking lot.

Wait a minute. Aren't the Olympics a form entertainment? And didn't you just say entertainment is socially valuable? Yes and yes. There's huge social value in the Olympics.

Then why shouldn't I participate? Because the questions isn't whether the Olympics add value. It's whether you add to that value.

If you build a table, the world has one more table. If you bake a cupcake, the world has one more cupcake. ...But if you win an Olympic medal, the world will not have one more Olympic medalist. It will just have you instead of somebody else. ...would the world really suffer so much if the fastest pitch in Major League Baseball were ninety-four mile an hour instead of ninety-six (with a commensurate reduction in the batter's skill)? For that matter, the same is true of any tournament. ...a single athlete..can entertain the entire world. Along the way they capture a lot of the income that would have gone to their competitors. That income represents a transfer of wealth, not a social contribution.

Is it okay to be a corporate executive? For the most part, sure. An executive's job is to maximise profit, and usually the best way to do that is to produce goods and services that people value. Unfortunately, some executives seek profits by lobbying for subsidies, tariff protection, and import quotas, all of which are socially destructive. If you're that kind of corporate executive, I hope you're ashamed of yourself.

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