Too Smart For Their Own Good

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idea light bulbWhile the blog was down a very interesting Op-Ed appeared in the New York Times.

A journalist had a discussion with a man who could explain how the financial industry collapsed last year in one sentence.

Intrigued, the journalist pressed the man to explain. The answer? Wall Street got too smart.

In the old days, the Wall Street guys were not the top of their class, they were the jocks and slackers.

But now, all the MIT brainiacs are going to Wall Street.

Huh? If they were so smart how did they mess the whole thing up?

They were too smart.

Briefly, they were so smart they realized they could leverage their assets to make money and they could explain it in a way that made sense to investors.

Read the NY Times column for the more expanded explanation.

The article also makes a statement about which industries smart people choose for their careers. For the last couple of decades the smart people have been choosing Wall Street. Working in finance is exciting, fun and can be lucrative. However, it is not productive.

Justice Scalia said the same thing about lawyers. So many lawyers are very bright, and they do help people and they help society, but they are not producing anything. Scalia said:

I mean there’d be a, you know, a defense or public defender from Podunk, you know, and this woman is really brilliant, you know. Why isn’t she out inventing the automobile or, you know, doing something productive for this society?

I mean lawyers, after all, don’t produce anything. They enable other people to produce and to go on with their lives efficiently and in an atmosphere of freedom. That’s important, but it doesn’t put food on the table and there have to be other people who are doing that. And I worry that we are devoting too many of our very best minds to this enterprise.

The point is that for too long, the greatest minds in our country have not pursued industry and instead work in fields that do not have long-term benefit to society.

I discussed the evils of such a system in this post called Yosef and the Economic Light of Wisdom and Kindness.

I agree with the man the jornalist spoke with and I agree with Justice Scalia. We need to somehow get our smart people in industry. When was the last time a U.S. carmaker made a car that really caught your eye or impressed you more than an import? We import clothes, we import technology and we import food.

Instead we should be producing the best cars, the nicest clothes, the greatest technology and the most food. But we are handicapped because our smart people don’t go into those industries.

We need to find a way to fix it.

  • Yehoshua Dalin

    I disagree with you, Rabbi Fink. Wall Street traders are necessary and in fact do produce – they enable investment. Most people don’t have time to spend figuring out the best investments. So they turn to surrogates. The problem is that it was artificially easy to engage in high risk investments, due to government meddling, and additionally, they knew that the government would bail them out when the investments went sour. Just because they don’t “produce” physical objects doesn’t mean that they aren’t productive. Is being a Rabbi not productive, even though you don’t physically produce things?
    Lawyers are also necessary, both in court and out of court. People can’t spend all their time studying the legal system, so they hire surrogates. This helps societies function, which I believe to be very admirable.

    • Necessary or useful does not equal “productive”. Rabbis produce nothing but may be necessary. Wall Street traders may be useful in that they make money, but we lose the actual productivity a smart innovative person could have in a different field. That is the point.

      And the point is not mine. It is from some stranger in a bar in NYC. It is also Justice Scalia’s opinion. Read the link.

    • By the way, I am in Law School. Obviously, I think Lawyers are important. I am banking my career on it. The point is still well taken.

  • Yehoshua Dalin

    Another point-would you like to have your life and death decided by an idiot? For that matter, would you like to have the decision of where even a penny of your money goes made by an idiot?

    • In the “old days” investments were not managed by idiots. Rather they were above average in intelligence and not risk takers with algorithms and charts and leveraging. I only invest conservatively. So I am all for the old style Wall Street making a comeback.

  • Yehoshua Dalin

    Which old days? In the old days of the Great Depression? Of the sharks and railroad tycoons?

    • Yehoshua Dalin

      In fact, the entire Jewish people’s purpose is to “produce” something intangible, an enabler – morality. To complete the world under the kingdom of God. How much more intangible can you get?

      • Please. There are more agriculture mitzvos than any other category. The Jewish people were farmers. Plain and simple. That is as tangible as it gets. We only got into money when we were not allowed to own land.

        • Yehoshua Dalin

          The way in which we realize the connection of spiritual to physical is by acting in the physical plain, but what we produce isn’t physical. It’s something greater than the sum of the physical things that we do. It’s an idea. It’s a way of life. If it wasn’t, who needs people? Robots can produce just as well . . .

        • Yehoshua Dalin

          Among Jews, Jews are not allowed to take interest- but there is nothing wrong with investment. Investment is a partnership. Stealing and lying aren’t allowed, and that is what went wrong here, not the idea of investment.

        • Yehoshua Dalin

          In addition, the firms themselves weren’t held responsible- they were bailed out! After all, we wouldn’t want to ruin the economy . . .

        • Yehoshua Dalin

          (there’s a whole Halachic problem with being a Rabbi, as you know)

        • Yehoshua Dalin

          “Please. There are more agriculture mitzvos than any other category. The Jewish people were farmers. Plain and simple. That is as tangible as it gets. We only got into money when we were not allowed to own land.”
          The laws were on the owner of the field. If the owner of the field had slaves/servants than he was producing the crops only indirectly.

        • Yehoshua Dalin

          You’re right- I didn’t express myself correctly. If the only thing produced is intangible, it is worthless. However, if the tangible thing that is produced is only produced sencond or third hand, it is still produced.

  • Yehoshua Dalin

    Or the “new days” in which high tech is growing at an exponential rate, due to – smart wall street bankers betting on high risk up and coming companies?

  • 1948 – 1998

    • Yehoshua Dalin

      I come from a Zionist point of view (I hope). I believe in acting in the physical on all levels. However, working in finance is also acting in the physical! Working as a lawyer is also acting in the physical! Working as a Rabbi . . . I don’t know . . .

      • Yehoshua Dalin

        (there’s a whole Halachic problem with being a Rabbi, as you know)

  • Yehoshua Dalin

    Or the “new days” in which high tech is growing at an exponential rate, due to – smart wall street bankers betting on high risk up and coming companies?

  • Yehoshua Dalin

    The fact is, even though business and finance don’t ‘produce’ anything, the smarter the people you have in business and finance, the more efficiently the available money will be spent. The more efficiently money is spent, the more money (resources) you have to spend. Additionally, the more money is spent on things that will produce, as opposed to things that won’t produce, the more stuff is produced. so things are produced, just not directly. But then, what in the modern economy IS produced directly?

    • Your theories are lovely, but wrong. The proof is in the pudding. Being “Too Smart” cost is trillions of dollars. Over leveraging and credit default swaps are not things that non-MIT grads think about or can implement.

      The economy is recovering now because these “too smart” ideas are now seen as dangerous and harmful. That is the point. Being “too smart” HURT us. Yes it is counterintuitive, but it is plain as day to see that is what happened.

      Read the link in the NY Times. Then come back.

  • Yehoshua Dalin

    “When the smart guys started this business of securitizing things that didn’t even exist in the first place, who was running the firms they worked for? Our guys! The lower third of the class! Guys who didn’t have the foggiest notion of what a credit default swap was. All our guys knew was that they were getting disgustingly rich, and they had gotten to like that. All of that easy money had eaten away at their sense of enoughness.”

    The problem would seem to be not that there were smart people handling the money, rather that there weren’t smart people handling the money! If the people running the firms knew what the people doing with the money were doing, there would have been no problem, according to this article. The problem wasn’t smart or not smart, the problem was responsibility. The people who handled the money (the traders) weren’t responsible for the outcome. If they had known that they could be fired if they misused the money, then they wouldn’t have done it. If there is no responsibility, there won’t be any encouragement to do good.