In Defense of Art History
When I read the Edward Conard profile, I was most struck by the section where he is dismissive toward some college-age students that were sitting close to him:
A central problem with the U.S. economy, he told me, is finding a way to get more people to look for solutions despite these terrible odds of success. Conard’s solution is simple. Society benefits if the successful risk takers get a lot of money. For proof, he looks to the market. At a nearby table we saw three young people with plaid shirts and floppy hair. For all we know, they may have been plotting the next generation’s Twitter, but Conard felt sure they were merely lounging on the sidelines. “What are they doing, sitting here, having a coffee at 2:30?” he asked. “I’m sure those guys are college-educated.” Conard, who occasionally flashed a mean streak during our talks, started calling the group “art-history majors,” his derisive term for pretty much anyone who was lucky enough to be born with the talent and opportunity to join the risk-taking, innovation-hunting mechanism but who chose instead a less competitive life. In Conard’s mind, this includes, surprisingly, people like lawyers, who opt for stable professions that don’t maximize their wealth-creating potential. He said the only way to persuade these “art-history majors” to join the fiercely competitive economic mechanism is to tempt them with extraordinary payoffs.
“It’s not like the current payoff is motivating everybody to take risks,” he said. “We need twice as many people. When I look around, I see a world of unrealized opportunities for improvements, an abundance of talented people able to take the risks necessary to make improvements but a shortage of people and investors willing to take those risks. That doesn’t indicate to me that risk takers, as a whole, are overpaid. Quite the opposite.” The wealth concentrated at the top should be twice as large, he said. That way, the art-history majors would feel compelled to try to join them.
It was a pretty galling section, and Conard's attitude meant that I read the rest of the piece with a lot of skepticism towards his arguments. (Gawker was more blunt.) However, I have taken a step back mull over it to think about what Conard is saying, even if he is being gruff about it.
I don't think Conard would think highly of my current job, I edit, write, and aggregate news for a living. I am not investing in companies, developing a new iPhone application, or improving an industrial supply-chain somewhere.
But is that because the rewards don't pay well enough? I am certainly aware that if I change careers and go into a high-risk high-reward field I could get paid very well.
On the other hand, I actually enjoy what I currently do for a living.
Conard's argument is hard to take seriously because Conard also pushes for an outlook on life that is out of step with what many people would consider to be human. Davidson writes that despite Conard's great material wealth, in other ways, he is actually very spartan:
There’s also the fact that Conard applies a relentless, mathematical logic to nearly everything, even finding a good spouse. He advocates, in utter seriousness, using demographic data to calculate the number of potential mates in your geographic area. Then, he says, you should set aside a bit of time for “calibration” — dating as many people as you can so that you have a sense of what the marriage marketplace is like. Then you enter the selection phase, this time with the goal of picking a permanent mate. The first woman you date who is a better match than the best woman you met during the calibration phase is, therefore, the person you should marry. By statistical probability, she is as good a match as you’re going to get. (Conard used this system himself.)
This constant calculation — even of the incalculable — can be both fascinating and absurd. The world Conard describes too often feels grim and soulless, one in which art and romance and the nonremunerative satisfactions of a simpler life are invisible. And that, I realized, really is Conard’s world. “God didn’t create the universe so that talented people would be happy,” he said. “It’s not beautiful. It’s hard work. It’s responsibility and deadlines, working till 11 o’clock at night when you want to watch your baby and be with your wife. It’s not serenity and beauty.”
It's this part that has been bugging me. It's one thing to argue that American higher education is badly structured and that we can create better systems to foster human capital.
It's another thing to argue that it is wrong to want to study art, or to become a lawyer, or to find meaning in something that is not venture capital.