Recently, the New Statesman ran a short piece on a study that tracked the majors of millionaires by the baccalaureate and graduate degrees that they have completed [http://www.newstatesman.com/business/2013/10/top-ten-university-degrees-taken-millionaires].
The ten most popular degrees among this select group were reported as follows:
5. Business Administration
8. Computer Science
10. Political Science
It should come as no surprise to anyone that six of the top ten degrees are in business-related disciplines.
That the law should be the fourth-ranked discipline might be a surprise, but, as the author of the piece, Oliver Williams, points out, most of the millionaires holding law degrees are not practicing attorneys but have, instead, used their legal expertise to accelerate their rise through the ranks in financial institutions.
The inclusion of engineering and computer science reflects, of course, the relatively recent but immense impact of the tech sector on the U.S. economy. But I suspect that, like many of the millionaires with law degrees, many of those with degrees in engineering and computer science are not actually practicing engineers or computer scientists but, instead, entrepreneurs or financial managers with a focus on the tech sector. If this is true, then the case that the brightest young minds are being drawn away from the STEM disciplines by the easier money to be made in finance is not just validated but given an additional turn. For even some of those students completing degrees in the STEM disciplines become more focused on business opportunities related to the disciplines than on research and development work within the disciplines themselves.
Williams notes that despite the case for the value of a liberal arts education, the humanities are notably absent from the list. It is worth noting, however, that the physical sciences and the health sciences, as well as education and human services and almost every other discipline outside of business, engineering, and computer science, are also not represented on the list.
The one at least initially surprising exception is, of course, political science. Although any sort of extrapolation from its inclusion of the list is extremely speculative, I would suggest that it likely reflects the growing corporatization—and profit potential–of the public sector and the growing linkages between public- and private-sector institutions. That is, despite the Far Right assertions that public employees are prospering unduly at the public expense and all out of proportion to the public services that they provide, very few people are becoming millionaires through actual civil-service employment. On the other hand, there is a great deal of money to be made through federal contracts, the attendant lobbying, and the more direct privatization of formerly public services.
The most basic underlying insight to be gained from this study may be simply that millionaires become millionaires by having a nose for where the money is.
Although I suppose that a case can be made that John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, and Henry Ford have had as profound an impact on American life as such figures as Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and Mark Twain, I think that an argument can also be made that the single-minded pursuit of material wealth can very easily become a culturally bankrupt and therefore ultimately self-defeating obsession.
At least the 19th-century Robber Barons built industries that actually made things. The 21st-century versions of the Robber Barons are creating such “things” as credit-default swaps and mortgage-backed securities from sub-prime mortgages.
Ultimately, individual wealth can be said to serve the public good only to the extent that the pursuit of it is animated by some sense of how it is part of the broader cultural or national narrative. Otherwise, it is just greed and venality taken to an extreme. It almost inevitably degenerates into self-parody, such as Rockefeller’s carrying pocketsful of dimes to give to schoolchildren. And self-parody is just one step away from extreme self-delusion or self-loathing.