Service Pays In Other Ways

by | Sep 18, 2008

…the cult of the individual has caused the commonwealth to wither. – Roger Cohen

Roger Cohen of The New York Times wrote a splendid op-ed on the culture of Wall Street and how the nation needs to move beyond this epoch of unchecked greed into something better, something wholesome and sustainable.

The leverage party’s over for the masters of the universe. Shed a tear. When you trade pieces of paper for other pieces of paper instead of trading them for real things, one day someone wakes up and realizes the paper’s worth nothing. And Lehman Brothers, after 158 years, has gone poof in the night.

We’re witnessing the passing of more than a venerable firm. We’re seeing the death of a culture.

Cohen taught a journalism class at Princeton recently, where he saw first hand how attractive the high paying jobs in the financial sector are to the young minds coming out of Ivy League schools.

According to the Harvard Crimson, 39 percent of work-force-bound Harvard seniors this year are heading for consulting firms and financial sector companies (or were in June). That’s down from 47 percent — almost half the job-bound class — in 2007.

These numbers mirror a skewed culture. The best and the brightest should think again. Barack Obama put the issue this way at Wesleyan University in May: beware of the “poverty of ambition” in a culture of “the big house and the nice suits.”

Cohen recommends that we read Nick Taylor’s stirring American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the W.P.A.: When F.D.R. Put the Nation to Work. It shows how the Works Progress Administration, a linchpin of Roosevelt’s New Deal, put millions of unemployed to work on dams, airports and the like.

Maybe all the ex-paper pushers could be put to work, building things of value to the community. It seems far fetched at the time of this writing, but it might be less so in the not too distant future.