Monday, November 27, 2006

Mixed Feelings About the Big Money

The New York Times has a fine piece by Louis Uchitelle on professionals who opt out of the comfortable money that their professions often bring, in favor of the huge money that comes from working for the top of the corporate heap.

The lead story is of a $160,000 per year doctor, married to a better-paid manager, who instead leaps to Wall Street to consult on medical firms. He won't say what he is making, but it is likely to be at least ten times what he used to make, and his net worth is probably nearly $20 million. A story even closer to my heart is of a business professor turned Wall Street buyout guy, with a similar income and wealth jump. Since he and his wife are "serious Presbyterians," they are trying to avoid the gravitational pull of ostentatious living that their new peers often succumb to.

Both of these guys talk about the strong model of philanthropy that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have created for the monstrously rich, as well as for the merely rich guys featured in this story. I am glad that the Carnegie standard of giving away huge wealth has returned to the very rich. I thank Ted Turner for leading the way with his billion-dollar gift to the U.N. (and I don't often find myself thanking Ted Turner). To have the same ethic filter down to the mere centimillionaires is a good thing.

My first reaction to the doctor's story, though, was that giving up a research career that might possibly have found a cure for cancer just to make more money seems to me to show distorted priorities. As the story added further detail, though – they had kids, he thought he had a better chance to do good by helping promising drug companies than by making promising drugs, and with a big pile he could give some of it away – I developed more sympathy for his choice. And underlying several of the cases cited in the article is the couple's desire for the family to afford to have the highly trained wife home with the kids when they were little. This is, I think, an honorable choice, and the most ancient Good Reason for him to want to make more.

So opting for the big money can be done honorably if the work itself is worthy, the family is helped more than hurt, and if you give a bunch of it away.


ceemac said...

Havn't read the article but the puritan in me asks:

what if instead of going to Wall Street the doc had gone to an undersrved area.
Cost of living is low.
Spouse doesn't have to work but uses her skills with local non profit for free.
Doc may be highest paid person in town.
Doc walks home for lunch everyday.
Walks to kid's events at the school.

Gruntled said...

I think that would clearly be a very honorable choice. I would honor such a person more than the Wall Streeter. My ambivalence was about whether Wall Street was as good as being a doc/researcher in the comfortable suburbs.