"The Trader Who Donates Half his Pay"

My parents forwarded me Nick Kristof's NY Times column from yesterday, "The Trader Who Donates Half His Pay." I think it's worth a read.

Reading it pulled me out of this very unique Patagonian world I'm living in for five days - intense geography, rural schools, wool prices, grass regeneration, sheep - and took me back to the decision-making that got me here in the first place. 

A year ago, I was working an interesting job in New York that paid well but had me looking at a screen most of the time. It wasn't arbitrage or trading, but it had me using numbers and making money for big companies. My rationale for taking the job had been some combination of "learn practical, business skills here you can use later to make government or NGOs or whatnot more efficient" and "make money here and save it to give away, also later." I can still see the value in both of these ideas, and I don't fault anyone who takes a job for those reasons. For me, that was not the right job. I missed interacting with people other than at lunch time. So I made moves to become a teacher, and in the meantime I am enjoying a stint as a freelance reporter.

Reading about Matt Wage (also, nice last name), I questioned my decision-making. Maybe I had just been selfish, wanting to do a job that made me happy. At the least, his idea - making such intense calculations as to the effectiveness of your job in improving the world - is interesting.

And I applaud him. I don't think giving away half your salary is easy when you start working in a world made out of money. I think what Wage does is extremely relevant for my peers who enjoy their jobs in finance or consulting. Even if they didn't start their career with the objective of giving away most of their salary, they could take a page out of his book.

I recognize Wage from college - or I think I do, and I'm going to make a lot of assumptions. He's a good person who's hard-wired to enjoy close analysis, philosophic or financial. He'd be that brilliant guy in my philosophy section who made one amazing comment each class and who did all of the reading and stayed after to talk with the TA because he was able to focus in one one line from Singer and keep that focus even when it was 5 pm and everyone else was going to hear Sonia Sotomayor give a master's tea, or play soccer on Cross Campus. He'd definitely be a nice guy. (I can also imagine that, like most people would be, he is a little relieved that his moral calculus took him to an arbitrage job in Hong Kong rather than to a refugee camp in Syria).

But extending the "effective altruism" argument too far ignores a few things, which Kristof points out. First:

 "There is more to life than self-mortification, and obsessive cost-benefit calculus, it seems to me, subtracts from the zest of life."

As an extension of this, Matt Wage's calculus works for him - but we also need people who are going to run the NGOs that do the best work he donates to; who are going to write the articles that show us how bad the malaria crisis is in developing countries; who are going to teach kids in struggling schools across the U.S.

When you have the privilege of an education like Wage's - like I do, and like many of you reading this, I assume - you also have the privilege of making choices. This means that you can pick where you think you can do the most good AND be your best self. I know that I would not be happy in Wage's job, even if I were giving away half of my pre-tax income. I would feel that some essential part of me was lying fallow (and I'd be sleep-deprived and mean). And so I think I'd be missing out on some of the good I can do in the world.

I worry that a story like Wage's will be yet another selling point for the finance and consulting companies that take a disproportionate number of "elite" graduates each year. To people who are still in college, I say: if you know you love teaching, or writing, or tracking endangered birds, or titrating cells to find a cure for cancer, I believe there is unquantifiable benefit to the world in you doing what you love. 

I write all of this pretty sure, especially after the past two months, that business is an essential tool for fixing most things going wrong in the world. Money makes things happen, as Kristof's piece lays out. And I think I'm heading in the direction of business, of some sort, as a career. I just want to intertwine the ultimate impact I make with the way I live. 

I'd love to hear what people think about this, in comments or by email or whatnot. This is an interesting, deeper-dive into the question, from 2013 in the Washington Post.