Thursday, June 06, 2013

There's Nothing Wrong with Making Money. Keeping It for Yourself Is Overrated.


If you are wondering, this column is exemplary of why I stopped following David Brooks years ago. Commenting on an earlier piece by Dylan Matthews, he introduces the case:

Trigg is a 25-year-old computer science graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has hit upon what he thinks is the way he can do maximum good for the world. He goes to work each day at a high-frequency trading hedge fund. But, instead of spending his ample salary, he lives the life of a graduate student and gives a large chunk of his money away. 

And here is the way Brooks introduces us to his cautionary tale:

From the article, Trigg seems like an earnest, morally serious man, who, if he lives out his plan, could indeed help save many lives. But if you are thinking of following his example, I would really urge caution.

You can read Brooks for yourself. But I note the following problems with his analysis:

First, nowhere in the original article is it even suggested that Trigg does not enjoy working at the hedge fund, yet Brooks assumes this must be the case. So he sets up a straw man.

Second, nowhere in Brooks's piece does he provide any evidence that Trigg is becoming less like his philanthropy and more like the (presumed) less appealing parts of his vocation. What life's wisdom is Brooks drawing upon to predict that utilitarianism implies corruption?

Third, and most importantly, Brooks is fighting the basic prescription of the economic theory of comparative advantage (which Trigg has understood and put into practice). In the second quote above, Brooks does acknowledge that by Trigg not working at the hedge fund, fewer people would be saved from malaria. It reads like a grudging acknowledgement. But he should also acknowledge that if Trigg went to a malaria-infested region to do field work, he would compete for resources with someone else who actually wants to do that. His competitor might be squeezed out of the opportunity entirely or simply be paid less to do it.

The effort to achieve good ends requires both human and financial resources. Why fault those who derive value from providing the latter if they have no talent or interest in the former?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

All we need to know about the moral substance or ethic of David Brooks:

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9906E2DF1E39F932A25752C1A9659C8B63

Avoid War Crimes

To the Editor:

In ''A Burden Too Heavy to Put Down,'' * David Brooks writes, ''Inevitably, there will be atrocities'' committed by our forces in Iraq. Did he forget to add that they must be prosecuted?

War crimes are indeed more likely if influential commentators foreshadow impunity for perpetrators of the ''brutal measures our own troops will have to adopt.''

The choice is not between committing war crimes and retreating ''into the paradise of our own innocence.'' A third option is for the United States to strive to avoid complicity.

It is untrue that ''we have to take morally hazardous action.'' Those who choose it, or urge others to, cannot evade or distribute responsibility by asserting that ''we live in a fallen world.''

* http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/04/opinion/04BROO.html

BEN KIERNAN
New Haven, Nov. 4, 2003
The writer is director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University.