The interview Ezra printed last week with a Harvard grad turned Wall Street recruit hits on an important point:  the finance sector’s self-serving complexity is partly due to the sociology of who ends up working in it. A lot of the people navigating this deliberately baroque system were chosen not because of any expertise in finance or economics, but because of their ability to navigate deliberately baroque systems. To wit:

What did you study at Harvard?

I focused on history and government and political philosophy.

And why did Goldman Sachs think that would be good training for investment banking?

Why Goldman thought I’d be good for investment banking is a very fair question. There are a lot of Harvard people at Goldman and they’ve put a lot of effort into recruiting from the school. They really try to attract liberal arts backgrounds. They say this stuff isn’t so complicated, that you’ll pick it up as you go along, that it’s all about teamwork, that they have training programs.

The subtext of that liberal-arts open-mindedness is good old Ivy League elitism: we don’t care what you’ve learned, only that you’ve been taught how to think in the right places. When you’re convinced that you’re qualified for your job not because you’re well-trained in finance, but because you’re well-trained in thinking, the complexity of the work you’re doing could begin to seem not just profitable but necessary. After all, if it were easy anyone could do it.

When I watched the Ivy League recruiting process unravel in the fall of 2008, I saw the fallout of this. Students who had been through the finance recruitment process just a few months earlier, for summer internships, were surprised that firms would no longer “just take you because they liked you.” After the Lehman collapse, the only students who stayed in the recruitment game were those who actually knew something about finance. Many of the rest turned to another set of recruiters who (as Ezra’s interviewee notes) used a very similar pitch:

…Wall Street has constructed a very intelligent recruiting program that speaks to the anxieties of the students and makes them an offer that there’s almost no reason to refuse.

Exactly. I wouldn’t speak for everyone and there certainly are people who want to be in finance, but a large portion are intrigued by these jobs for those reasons. I think that’s a majority, at least at Harvard. And the same goes for consulting jobs or even Teach for America (emphasis mine–DL).

Like Wall Street recruiters, TFA recruiters are “really in your face, and they make it very easy.” Like Wall Street recruiters, too, they soothe the anxieties of liberal-arts majors with one hand by promising that no prior substantive experience is necessary, while with the other hand they feed Ivy elitism by promising recruits they are uniquely qualified liberal-arts students. And both emphasize the skills recruits will learn for the rest of their careers — the ability to navigate the system — at least as much as what they’re actually going to do for two years, and whom it will affect.

The similarities between the ways elite college students are sold on managing America’s money and how they’re sold on managing its children tend to be pretty well accepted among people who’ve seen the recruitment processes in person. But it’s not the sort of thing most people outside elite colleges think about. I don’t think that public-school reformists will begin to fetishize complexity just because Wall Street financiers do, but I think it might be wise to think about the other problems that might develop from a recruitment process that tells the “best and brightest” that that’s all they need to be.

Permadisclaimer: my taste in music is entirely my own and is in no way associated with the proprietor of this blog.

Dara Lind

Dara Lind

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