Machine Design

Those dead­beat liberal-arts students

I once had a classmate in college who bailed out of aerospace engineering and into political science. He really didn’t have much choice. He was on academic probation and close to flunking out of engineering school. But the switch seemed to be the right decision for him, as he went from a D to B+ average.

I thought of my old classmate as I reviewed one of the more-interesting viewpoints on why the U. S. economy has recovered at a snail’s pace since the financial crisis of a few years ago. It comes from Edward Conard, once a manufacturing engineer with Ford Motor Co. who later switched into management consulting.

Conard thinks slow economic growth is partly the result of university students choosing to pursue liberal-arts degrees. To Conard, they fall into the category of underutilized talent. “Many liberal-arts majors choose selfish solipsism over the burden of shouldering the risk and responsibility critical to increasing economic growth,” Conard writes in a best-selling economics book he authored called Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong. “They study literature and art history rather than computer programming and engineering,” he goes on. He’s particularly incensed that “these people” (liberal-arts majors) often cite a lack of fulfillment as a reason for “choosing not to take risk or shoulder responsibility,” meaning, at least in Conard’s eyes, that liberal-arts majors are less likely to have an entrepreneurial bent. “They recognize that working hard won’t make them happy. Yet they claim hard-working business leaders, problem solvers, and risk underwriters are the selfish ones,” he goes on.

You might wonder what all this ranting about liberal arts has to do with the financial crisis. Conard’s point is that every kid who decides to study art history instead of engineering drives up the cost of economic activity. “On one side of the equation, opportunities go unrealized for want of supply (of talented workers),” he says. “Given their enormous contribution, it should be obvious that small increases in the supply of talented risk takers will produce significant increases in GDP.”

Conard’s method of increasing the supply of talented workers seems to involve getting lazy, dead-beat liberal-arts majors to switch into more-useful fields. “It’s clear that the economy is capable of enormous growth in productivity and wages — if it can motivate this underutilized talent to shoulder greater responsibility for its growth and take the personal risks necessary to achieve it,” he says. “We should demand their leadership and risk taking as a moral responsibility — no matter their happiness — and declare as selfishly immoral the unwillingness of talented people to shoulder the burden of contributing to this supply.”

One incident in Conard’s background may help explain his stark outlook on making life choices. His Wikipedia page says he selected his wife after applying a mathematical formula in his search for a suitable spouse. Someone with this kind of mindset might have a hard time understanding that not everyone is cut out for a career in engineering or programming computers.

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