My freshman year, I took Ec 10 along with 682 other students. This class is widely seen as an important first step in the direction of careers in finance or consulting.
The political bent of the class is clear. Taught by N. Gregory Mankiw, former chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, the class makes short work of rent control, minimum wage, subsidies, import quotas, and other restrictions on the workings of the free market.
Although Harvard offers a class titled “Economics: A Critical Approach,” ridiculed by conservative students as “Commie-nomics,” the enrollment is much smaller. The fall that I took Ec 10, this alternative class had only 55 students. Fittingly, the professor is known to bring apples from his orchard to share with his students.
In the last discussion section of my Ec 10 section class, the teaching fellow encouraged me and my fellow students to apply our newly acquired economic wisdom in the world of business. “Now go out there and do some good for America,” he said.
I was shocked by this statement. Going off to college just a couple of months after the US stock market hit its low point in the 2008 financial crisis, I was sure that financiers were deserving of blame, not praise. I thought back to photos of bankers walking out of Lehman Brothers with their personal belongings in cardboard boxes. Certainly these weren’t the people “doing some good for America.”
I was sure that the good for America was done by politicians—from the president to city councilmen and school board members, and by other public servants, including legal services lawyers, civil rights activists, and even part-time food pantry volunteers. Abroad, I thought that groups like the United Nations and the Peace Corps, not multi-national corporations, would provide the answers to economic and social problems.
Yet, one summer spent in India changed all that.
Near my apartment in New Delhi last summer were a KFC, a Domino’s Pizza, and a McDonald’s, each with a small army of delivery personnel and a sizable fleet of motorcycles. I saw how these American companies provided jobs and stimulated economic growth on the other side of the globe. In addition, domestic companies had figured out how to make substantial profits off of inexpensive products and services for local consumers. For example, the Tata Group provides everything from cell phones to a very cheap car designed for the Indian market, the Tata Nano.
It seems to me that governments and nongovernmental organizations are unwilling or unable to solve problems in the ways that businesses can. Providing comfort and food to slum dwellers in New Delhi or Mumbai is an admirable task that makes an invaluable difference in the lives of those who are served, but it won’t lead to long-term economic growth. In other words, it’s a good thing that Jamsetji Tata started a business rather than a charity.
None of this is meant to belittle public service. After all, political and economic progress can be quite slow, and while people in America and around the world are struggling, those who are fortunate enough to have been born in the world’s richest countries ought to provide support for the downtrodden with their time, effort, and money.
Furthermore, there are some areas in which business will likely never provide full solutions. Corporate social responsibility initiatives may be part of the fights for education reform, women’s rights, and an end to political corruption, but I doubt they will be sufficient. Domestic and foreign governments, NGOs, and courageous individuals must play the dominant role in tackling these challenges.
Although NGOs and businesses both have certain limitations, bankers, politicians, entrepreneurs, and elementary school teachers all have something to offer to the world. Personally, I plan to apply for post-graduation jobs with both consulting firms and NGOs, and I know that discerning the more socially valuable one will be more difficult than some may think.
Put simply, industry and service are partners in progress. Rather than disparaging and demonizing the individuals and organizations that have chosen different methods of addressing the same problems, these two groups should learn to work together for a better America, and a better world.
Henry A. Shull ’13, a Crimson news writer, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House.