Monday, November 08, 2004

My Job Is the Most Important Job in the World

I constantly encounter people who think their own career or field of study is the most important one in the world. Educators teach us that education is underappreciated and underfunded. Public health officials diagnose us with insufficient concern for health and inadequate policies to make us take it more seriously. People in the arts sing a tune about the vast significance of music, theater, painting, and sculpture for the human psyche. The linguists at Language Log wax eloquent about the need for more and better linguistic education.

Economists are not immune to the syndrome, but I think they are somewhat more resistant. Of course, economists regularly complain about people – especially journalists – who opine about economic issues with hardly a rudimentary understanding of the subject. (That, to be fair, is often the linguists’ complaint as well: that people who know almost nothing about linguistics so often fancy themselves experts on language.) Still, I rarely find economists talking about how everyone should be forced to obtain, and others be forced to fund, an education in economics. Why not?

I suspect it’s because of how economists think about the world. First, we understand the notion of opportunity cost. Any time spent learning any subject (economics, linguistics, accounting, fine arts) is time not spent studying other subjects or doing other valuable things. Second, we grasp the optimality of balance. Diminishing marginal utility and diminishing marginal returns both generally argue against a constant expansion of even the most desirable activity. However important a subject may be, the marginal return of yet more people learning the subject is probably not that great. Third, we appreciate the importance of specialization of division of labor. People tend to be more productive when they focus their efforts on a single area of endeavor, at least once they have a strong enough foundation in basic skills.

I always have to wonder if there’s a bit of “psychological rent-seeking” at work when people go on about the overriding significance of their own field of study. I say “psychological” to distinguish this subtle phenomenon from the more familiar phenomenon of lobbying for one’s causes with a full awareness of one’s self-serving motivations. Perhaps it’s easier to lobby for the expansion of funding and support for your field without guilt if you convince yourself that what you’re doing really is vitally important. True believers make better advocates.

I have, on occasions, almost succumbed to psychological rent-seeking myself. There’s a better case for making people learn economics (I tell myself) because we expect ordinary people – in their capacity as voters – to make decisions about economic policy. We do not, on the other hand, expect car drivers to fix their own cars or accountants to perform heart surgery. And besides, if people knew economics, they wouldn’t be so credulous about everyone else’s claims to importance. So it seems like economics has a better case for funding/support/education than all those other disciplines… But then I remember how little confidence I have in high school teachers to say anything coherent about economics, and my enthusiasm wanes.

And besides, I may have fallen prey to what I call “the tyranny of good reasons.” It’s always possible to cook up some good reason to support this or that policy. The lobbyists in Washington (and Sacramento, and Austin, and Albany…) have mastered the craft of making things sound Important and Worthy of Support. We shouldn’t trust them. And if psychological rent-seeking is real, then maybe we ought not trust ourselves.


Anonymous said...

How about this? Your evaluation of the importance of an occupation is subject to random error *and* your evaluation of importance is positively correlated with your decision to take up that occupation.

Start with the assumption that everything is equally important. I (mistakenly) think economics is more important and so choose to become an economist. You (mistakenly) think that chemistry is more important and so choose to become a chemist. Everyone's beliefs are "internally consistent", but we get different results due to differences in information across individuals.

-Jim D.

Anonymous said...

What a depressingly nice post, Glen! It tasted like caviar and champagne. Please sir, I want some more. Why are you so wise beyond your years? I think your (secondary) job over the coming years is to become even more Confucius-like, so that more pearls of wisdom come flowing out of your noggin. But, don't let all my praise go to your head. You need to stay down-to-earth and humble. Also remember, we fans are fickle and one bad post will wipe out all the good feelings from the 500 previous great ones. Above all, don't lip sync. We fans really stink. We are an undeserving bunch and really only should be fed porridge and then only one serving at that!
--Oliver Twist

Anonymous said...

I used to think that specializing in one thing ie: getting a phd in geology for example was to ultimately just know a whole lot about one subject only, becoming narrower as a person and paying a hefty fee in opportunity cost b/c of not being able to spend time learning other valuable things that matter in life. I valued a balanced life and thus thought that knowing one thing really well cheats a person in becoming a renaissance man. So in essence i thought it was an undesirable way to live life.

And I also used to think that people who think that their profession is the most impt in the world were somewhat deluded and living in a matrix-like world b/c they don't see that in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn't make a whole lot of difference. I know it's a pessimistic view.

I agree with Glen and do think that people when they go to work, they do subscribe to 'pyschological rent-seeking'. How else would we live with ourselves? (jk)
But, maybe some psychological rent seeking isn't all that bad for a couple of reasons. 1) It will convince/delude people into thinking that their jobs here on earth are so important that they deem it worthy to spend all their time doing that thing. But that one thing can lead to developing a cure for cancer for example. Most amazing things have developed as a result of people being passionate about something, anything.
2) I think if people are deluded/convinced(however you want to see it) that what they are doing is significant, they are happier. So we get a happier society excelling in their respective fields and that is good.
3)When people advocate their field of interest I am better informed about what other interests are out there that I've not given much thought.

But ultimately even if other people/fields of interests push their agendas, (and they can do so all they want)people will in my opinion do/vote/advocate things that only matter to them. Each profession can all clamour our way to the top and we can reach and equilibrium/balance in level of importance. =)

Maybe it's good to have a few healthy doses of 'pyschological rent seeking' now and then until our professions ends up defining us too much. Now that can be unhealthy.


Prentiss Riddle said...

Are there professions which have the opposite tendency, at least with regard to the "everybody should study what we do" part?

I'm thinking of computer science, where I'd guess there's a common belief bubbling under the surface that "most people are too stupid to study what we do so there's no point trying to teach them".

(For full disclosure I should add that I've got one foot inside CS and one outside -- I have a dusty BA in it but had insufficient interest in theorem proving to pursue it further, and I doubt they'd let me into a graduate program now.)

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