Marginal Difference

Related to yesterdays post, I have previously tried to explain the concept of marginal return and why, because of the already overwhelming flow of educated minorities going into social services fields, the hard sciences may be the place to make the biggest impact – if that is your end goal.

I wrote:

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.

This argument escaped some of my friends, they simply didn’t understand it. On my bicycle ride to work this morning, while listening to a bloggingheads discussion on genes, a related point was made.  Except that instead of social workers and engineers, it was doctors vs engineers, and how an additional engineer may make more of a difference than an additional doctor. Well, being a big supporter of outsourcing, I will let them explain what I tried to explain before:

The full bloggingheads discussion can be found here.

41 Responses to “Marginal Difference”


  • HP,

    While I agree with you that minorities ought to also go into other fields, especially the hard sciences; I think you are missing the point in the video that you posted. The point about prices qua signals not being the only indicator in economic choices coupled with the potential necessity of irrationality (a point I do not agree with) within the macroeconomy is actually a defense of high-risk choices.

    The choice to go into a field that will make you more money such as law or medicine is the safe choice governed by the law of diminishing marginal returns. The point about engineering is that a successful innovation (only few will attain this)would have much more impact then someone who is applying existing science or even law. That does not mean that a good lawyer (say the lawyers in the desegration cases that helped us just enough that we might have this conversation at all) cannot also have a major impact on the community or society. It’s the ones that just practice law or medicine but do not push the envelope.

    Social Service employees can innovate to, but unfortunately they like most lawyers are often just low-level practitioners who do not achieve systemic change. Yes, those folks are a dime a dozen. Other community outreach people are conscious about their power and relationships and have gone on to make great impacts (e.g. Cesar Chavez) or even to be President of the United States.

    I think you are conflating your issues about Chicano activists in California and the need to for poor people to get out of poverty. Where I live, Latinos are often on the lowest rung of the nonprofit world and they are still a scarcity. Also, nonprofit leaders on the highest levels make way more money than one would expect (6 figures is not uncommon).

    What we need are community minded people in ALL fields, everywhere. This was one of the fundamental tenets of the Chicano movement. Unfortunately, Chicano studies has ghettoized itself into one room on one floor of the Ivory Tower. That is why some Chicano Studies folk have become myopic and show disdain for other career choices outside of academia and social service. But to me, that does not mean that the pursuit of Chicano Studies as an academic passion is a an irrational choice. It just means that someone ought to take these academics to task for missing the point about Chicano studies in the first place. They are Akerlof and Shiller in your example in need of a Posner to point out the wisdom of the original sources.

    Last point: judging by your other posts about education, you know very well that most of our public schools are not sewing the seeds necessary for our children to master and enjoy math and science enough for them to even have hard science on the plate of rational choices by the time they have to make them. A few Horatio Algers with strong natural abilities have overcome the overwhekming crapitude of their public school experience, but the average Jose or Maria that needs to be encouraged into the hard sciences is going to need a lot more than a pep talk about the greater return of innovation vis a vis the economy.

  • Hey CP,

    You are right – this probably wasn’t the best example to prove my point (maybe this clip was better). But the point still stands: choices should be based on the margin and there is a point where so many minorities go into the social service fields that one additional minority in that field will make less of an impact (from an altruistic perspective) than one additional entrepreneur, engineer, or ‘builder of goods’. We may disagree where that point is – and we probably will, given our different political paradigms – but we can atleast agree that there is such a point. Most Chicano Studies types I talk to don’t.

    You write, the average Jose or Maria that needs to be encouraged into the hard sciences is going to need a lot more than a pep talk about the greater return of innovation vis a vis the economy. This is true – but this a problem no matter what the major one picks. Choosing to be a lawyer pits one against white people, who have been speaking and arguing in English all their life. Pursuing a liberal arts major pits one against white people that have been writing and speaking high level English far longer than most minorities. What makes math and science any different? On the contrary, I would argue that math and science gives the minority the highest comparative advantage (shitty public schools excluded). In other words, minorities are at a disadvantage no matter what field they go into but I would argue that the hard sciences is the levelest of all playing fields. Assuming the person entering the sciences is at roughly the same natural ability (which, I would argue, is on net a positive for minorities, as we tend to be good at math, IMHO) as his/her peers, math provides a path with the least life long advantage difference from ones peers (again, ignoring shitty public schools for the moment). Math, in other words, is like learning a completely new language with English and Spanish speakers starting off at roughly the same point. Granted, because of the abysmal quality of public schools in the ghetto, many of us will have to take remedial math classes (as, btw, I had to take and so does my sister – even though she took honors and AP math classes in public school) to bring us up to speed with many of our peers, but once that has been done the race is much more equal than any other major.

    One last point, when choosing majors and what path to choose, I tend to advise against evaluating based on the extremes. Of course lawyers in the 90th percentile can make alot of money, but what do lawyers in the 50th percentile make? (not very much actually, see here and here) We all have a tendency to over estimate our own potential. It’s far better to plan as we are average and try our best later to be far above average. This is a concept that escapes some of my “I’ll one day be a famous rapper” friends. The 95th percentile in almost any field is going to make a lot of money (including, for example, Avon sales associates), but that doesn’t mean that you will be in the 95th percentile. Look at where the center of the normal distribution curve for that field is, and base according to that – not the far right levels.

    In the end, as far as minorities are concerned, I think bang for your buck, based on marginal differences, comparative advantage, and probabilistic outcome, few majors are better than a simple Bachelors of Science in Electrical Engineering from a relatively cheap Cal State college in California. Anything else, and the cost/benefit ratio goes up.

  • We don’t disagree on most of the issues, but what if you sister had decided that she prefers the hard sciences to engineering (e.g. theoretical physics)? Based on your argument you would have to discourage her from being a career scientist where she is likely to make less money and not likely to have a great impact. I can’t agree with that. And just having one more Latina in a science department is not necessarily a major gain unless she makes a big discovery and inspires other Latinos to enter the hard sciences (or engineering if you insist). Either it’s ok to make a high-risk choice or not. That’s our disagreement.

    I know a few lawyers who make quite a lot of money but who also spoke Spanish as their first language. I don’t buy the math gives minorities a comparative advantage argument (I don’t see how ESL folk would have a lower opportunity cost than white people entering the exact same field). Also, if you are teaching math to children in ENGLISH they are not starting at the same point as English speaking kids. I do agree that there is less English to master once they get the basics down. But the basics are precisely the things that are not being taught properly in the “shitty” public schools.

    Why can’t your sister double major? She clearly likes CS. By creating a false dilemma, you only push her further the other way. If you were my brother I probably would have majored in CS precisely to piss you off. By developing different sides of herself (you imply that she likes math) she has more choices and would develop relationships in different circles. She could do far worse. A double major would also help mitigate the cost of her high-risk CS choice.

  • Let me clear up a couple of misconceptions here (all, my fault). First, I didn’t mean to give the impression that my sister wanted to major in Chicano Studies. That is certainly not the case. In fact, because I’ve made fun of the major for so many years now and she has witnessed personally the sorry financial state some of her older cousins and friends are in, all of which pursued the liberal arts majors (with some doing Chicano Studies), she is in full agreement with me that the major is worthless. In fact, even if I now encouraged her to take that major, she wouldn’t.

    Second, what my sister does care about is ‘making a difference’. She isn’t just concerned about monetary gain, she wants more. My arguments above were in addressing that concern of hers. I should also point out that this is almost entirely her concern. I personally believe that me becoming an engineer and the monetary benefits that come from that – the ability to help my extended family financially, be a role model to my peers and others, change stereotypes and perceptions etc – have made more of ‘a difference’ than if I had pursued more altruistic goals, but that is still beside the point. I see nothing wrong with a poor kid from the ghetto focusing only on the monetary aspects of a major – monetary gains that will lift him and his future family out of the ghetto. I would still do engineering even if all the outside altruistic aspects were removed. My primary concern is always to my immediate family.

    Third, we seem to have missed each others point on the 50 percentile discussion. I never meant to imply that there weren’t any minorities who do well in law. Certainly there are. My point is that you have to judge the outcome based on how well the mean student does. And frankly, based on the mean student, I am not too impressed with law degrees – whether received by minorities or not (did you click on my previous links? See here and here). Granted, law school is a far better investment than Chicano Studies is, but then again so is every other major.

    Fourth, it is simply not true that a theoretical physicist has low job prospects. Even a low GPA theoretical physicist can get a job as an engineer and many other professions. Certainly far more than any Chicano Studies person could.

  • “Fourth, it is simply not true that a theoretical physicist has low job prospects. Even a low GPA theoretical physicist can get a job as an engineer and many other professions. Certainly far more than any Chicano Studies person could.”

    I never said that. My question was about the **definitive** choice of being a pure scientist that would make high-income earning less likely and societal impact less possible except for the rarest of individuals (a point well fleshed out in your initial video clip).
    Is that acceptable? We were talking about high-risk choices versus safe choices.

    I understand your point about the median, but it subtracts the possibility that your sister or anyone else is exceptional rather than average. There has to be space for the ineffable, animal spirits as it were.

    BTW, my grandfather was an electrical engineer who got most of his training in the US Navy. He worked for a private firm without a 4 year degree back when that was still possible. I don’t have anything against engineering. I just think that education is partly utility and partly personal development. I will concede that that is my inner elitist talking.

    I don’t assume that people in the non-profit world are actually altruistic despite what many of them say in public.

  • Keeps getting blocked…

    “Fourth, it is simply not true that a theoretical physicist has low job prospects. Even a low GPA theoretical physicist can get a job as an engineer and many other professions. Certainly far more than any Chicano Studies person could.”

    I never said that. My question was about the **definitive** choice of being a pure scientist that would make high-income earning less likely and societal impact less possible except for the rarest of individuals (a point well fleshed out in your initial video clip).
    Is that acceptable? We were talking about high-risk choices versus safe choices.

    I understand your point about the median, but it subtracts the possibility that your sister or anyone else is exceptional rather than average. There has to be space for the ineffable, animal spirits as it were.

    BTW, my grandfather was an electrical engineer who got most of his training in the US Navy. He worked for a private firm without a 4 year degree back when that was still possible. I don’t have anything against engineering. I just think that education is partly utility and partly personal development. I will concede that that is my inner elitist talking.

    I don’t assume that people in the non-profit world are actually altruistic despite what many of them say in public.

  • I don’t assume that people in the non-profit world are actually altruistic despite what many of them say in public.

    I completely agree here.

    PS: Sorry for the continued spam problems. I traced it down to your domain being blacklisted from the previous time. I removed the blacklisting and (hopefully – please tell me if otherwise) everything should work now. I even “whitelisted” you…so you can comment here with impunity. 🙂

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