I (started to) write this on an American Airlines flight to the Left Coast, where I’ll be attending a wedding and visiting old friends for the next week. Hasn’t really felt like spring break so far, what with the job hunt in full blast, but I suppose I should count my blessings that I have vacation at all! It’s been a busy week on the internet, and here’s some of what’s passed across my browser:
- Sudhir Venkatesh (who may just be my favorite blogger on the planet) sat down with some kingpins of the “other” street to get their take on things. Perhaps surprisingly, they have AIG’s back 100%.
- Speaking of the crisis on Wall Street, business schools end up with a whole lot of egg on their faces in this article from the New Republic. Some choice quotes:
Back in October, not long after Lehman Brothers collapsed and triggered a meltdown on Wall Street, one of the hottest e-mail forwards making the rounds among finance types was a letter by Andrew Lahde, a hedge-fund manager who had posted eye-popping 866 percent returns in 2008 by betting on increases in U.S. subprime mortgage defaults. Lahde was getting out on top, and his “So long, suckers!” missive made headlines–partly for his broadsides against predatory lenders, partly for his earnest digression in support of hemp products, and partly for his boasts about getting rich at the expense of Wall Street’s “low hanging fruit, i.e., idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA.” These MBA grads, Lahde sneered, “who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government.”
“In a way, finance professors caused this problem–I’m not bragging about this,” says Charles Trzcinka, who chairs the finance department at Indiana University-Bloomington’s Kelley School of Business. He points out that many of the financial tools that played a starring role in the current crisis, from the countless ways to divvy up and sell mortgage-backed securities to the explosion of credit default swaps, were taught and developed in business schools without, often, a full appreciation for how they could go sour–if, say, housing prices cratered or large counterparties went bust.
Trouble was, many students weren’t exactly taking Ph.D. courses. “There were so many people who just wanted to learn enough to get a job in this field,” says Trzcinka. “This market was full of people who were really just salesmen. You’d get them in class and ask them questions [about the latest financial innovations], and, for the first ten minutes, they sound sophisticated. Then you probe a little deeper, and, for the next ten, they’re an idiot.”
Economic theories that would have been heretical 20 years ago–the idea, say, that people and markets don’t always behave rationally–are being greeted with fresh interest. At Harvard, informal debates are said to be breaking out in faculty lounges about whether professors should focus more on teaching students how to run businesses that are sustainable in the long-term, rather than just pawning off the latest hedging techniques.
Still, the changes amount to something less than an outright revolution. When I asked current MBA students what sorts of things they weren’t hearing discussed in class, the list of still-too-delicate topics included: whether executive pay schemes might have led people to take excessive risks; whether investment banks are really “value creating”; and, of course, what role MBAs might have played in the current crisis. Khurana told me that business schools still need to have a perhaps-uncomfortable discussion about their broader purpose in the world–a question that involves pondering “the fundamental relationship between the economy and society.” Not the sort of thing, alas, that’s easy to stick in a textbook.
I’ve avoided for the most part the hardcore corporate finance classes here at SOM, so I can’t comment on the specifics of them, but in my own school’s defense it is worth noting that we have on faculty here one of the few Cassandras who called out the housing bubble way before it was fashionable, Robert Shiller. In general, the economics and finance faculty here seem to have a more behavioral orientation than average (that is, they believe that markets can be affected by human foibles, unlike Chicago-school economists who hold that markets are so perfect that any inefficiencies will automatically be arbitraged away immediately). That said, I’ll admit to experiencing more than a few “huh?” moments as someone with an outsider’s perspective looking into this crazy world.
- And maybe there is something to the value of that outsider’s perspective. Last week, I linked to a column that facetiously argued that artists and Wall Street execs should switch places for a day. Well, now we have an article that makes a much more serious—and fairly compelling, if you ask me—version of that same argument, pointing to the workshops that Pilobulus Dance holds for corporate employees. These types of training sessions are not unique—Benjamin Zander of the Boston Philharmonic is also known to do them, as are members of the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. As someone who built a chorus with a similar model to that of Orpheus, I think that businesses could learn a lot from the arts. We are taught over and over again that competition is the panacea to everything and should be fostered in every context possible. But competition run amok leads to major agency problems, as we see in the current financial crisis, with employees looking out for themselves rather than the long-term future of their company (not to mention society). A functioning civilization relies on a delicate balance of competition and collaboration, market forces focused and directed by regulation and communal norms. Businesspeople have the competition part taken care of; artists can help with the collaboration.
- Along the same lines, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal last month suggesting that business professionals look to Hollywood for career cues.
- Andrew Dubber invents the Unconsultancy, a great idea for freelancers short on business or working with clients who can’t afford to pay very much.
- Fun article from a professional musician who spent a day lobbying in DC.
- So, all of the sudden everybody’s freaking out about the future of the arts. USA Today ran an article pointing to difficulties in fundraising, which was followed by similar themes in the Wall Street Journal and now philanthropy bloggers Allison Fine and Beth Kanter are getting into the act. Listen, I know things are bad out there, but the arts are going to be fine. The only field in human existence that specifically celebrates creativity for its own sake will be able to find creative solutions to its problems. That is not what I’m concerned about. What I am concerned about is the potential missed opportunity for the rest of society if the arts’ critical role to play in healing the massive damage from the last six months is not adequately understood or acknowledged. It kind of makes me think of the way the conversation about the environment has progressed in the past century. Public policy talk about the environment was once limited to talk about parks and conservation of natural preserves outside of urban areas. Then there was the backlash against pollution in the ’60s and ’70s, with the attendant laws and regulations that came with it. But it’s taken until today for the environment and energy to become inexorably linked in peoples’ minds, for “green” concerns to be incorporated into any urban or regional development plan worth its salt, for for-profit companies to be thinking about sustainability at every turn. That’s where the conversation about the arts needs to end up if we really want things to move forward. It’s already starting to happen thanks to the work of Richard Florida and many others in making that case. But you know, it’s a two-way street. At some point people on the “outside” are going to have to realize what they’re missing by not taking fuller advantage of one of the greatest natural resources in their midst, the surging creativity and imagination of their own fellow citizens.