In Praise Of Personal Interest

One of the many things I dislike about Chicano Studies as a major is its over emphasis on “nonprofit activism” vs “personal interest”. In the status circles of Chicano Studies students, you are admired more for your desire to ‘build a community outreach center for disadvantaged children’ than for say, getting an engineering degree and ‘making the big bucks’. Obama’s recent graduation speech at Wesleyan University reminded me of that. My strong dislike stems from the belief, based on three reasons, that the emphasis is counterproductive and winds up harming more than helping.

First, it is the wrong message to give to the poorest members of society who have very little to fall back on. If an upper middle class white kid decides to go into nonprofits that kid is accepting a lower standard of living than the one she grew up with but it is far different than a kid from a low income background. Even without financial assistance from the parents, the upper-middle class kid knows that if some financial disaster results, her parents can step in and help. Then there is inheritance, vacation assistance, and other perks that come with having upper middle class parents.

On the other hand, a kid from the ghetto is taking an enormous risk by accepting a low salary. They are, in effect, “putting all their eggs in one basket”. And unless they are the lucky ones, they are doomed to rear their next generation of children in the very same environment they were raised in (I was shocked to hear of a Phd in Chicano Studies buying a house in Compton…you have to have a Phd in Chicano Studies to consider that progress). As I tell my family and friends who are entering the college age, “Leave the charity to the rich kids”.

Second, it is inefficient. Minorities in education, in community outreach, and in most other nonprofits are literally “a dime a dozen”. Another minority, because of diminishing returns, is not likely to make much of a difference. Factor in the effectivity of community outreach (very low) and the contributions that minorities in education add, and you are looking at near insignificant levels of added value.

Contrast that to the number of minorities in the for profit fields like engineering, chemistry, and technology. They are a scarcity and companies are thirsty for more. In short, you are likely to do more good for yourself and for the community as one additional engineer than as one additional member of a community outreach program.

Third, and most importantly, the two are not mutually exclusive. Making more money gives you more choices. If charity is your goal, you are likely to do more good by making alot of money than being just another ‘worker bee’. When I explain this to my friends I use the analogy of Warren Buffet. I ask my friends, imagine if someone had convinced Warren Buffet to abandon what his talents are especially good at and pursue a career in nonprofits, or teaching, or politics? Now, billions later, he can do much more for charity organizations by funding the most efficient ones then by simply being another ‘worker bee’.

In other words, again if charity is your goal, with extra money you can provide valuable resources, fund efficient charities, be a stronger role model to the next generation (three people in my family want to be engineers now, just because of my experience), provide a better future for your children, assist your family out, or, just as importantly, be a testament to those around you that hard work and dedication pay off, that there is a way out of the ghetto.

Lastly, unlike nonprofits, even if altruism is not your goal, capitalism works in such a way that when pursuing personal interest “you are led, as if by an invisible hand, to do things that improve the lives of others”. So I say to the next generation of students, please, ignore your Chicano Studies peers, ignore Obama, and ignore anybody who tells you that making money is somehow less respectable. Your children, your family, and maybe even some charity organizations will thank you.

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