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This past week, Wall Street experienced what might be described as a Maalox moment. On Tuesday, the Nasdaq plunged 574 points, losing 13.5 percent of its value. Only late in the day, in a wild, last-minute upswing, was a Black Monday-style disaster averted.
The next day, President Clinton convened his "White House Conference on the New Economy." Technology entrepreneurs and government officials gathered to discuss the fate of the booming Internet gold rush. While the tone was largely optimistic, Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan reiterated the need for a bracing injection of caution. And finally, also this week, the government ruled against Microsoft in its anti-trust battle. The fate of the software giant remains unclear, but it may ultimately go the way of Standard Oil and Ma Bell.
In short, the past four days have provided more than ample cause for us all to take a step back from the seemingly ceaseless dot-com hoopla and review where we stand. The party may not be over, but now seems like an ideal time to put down the champagne for a few moments and toss back a glass of ice-cold water. While sobriety is most sorely lacking in the nation's financial quarters, this campus could also benefit from some reasoned reflection on the state of the New Economy.
"Irrational exuberance," to use Greenspan's term, has taken many forms in its invasion of this campus, but the most egregious incarnation arrived a few weeks before spring break. Carorder.com, a start-up based in Austin, Texas, began running ads in The Crimson looking to hire Harvard students. They sought students for both technical and business positions. The terms? $400,000 dollars over two years, plus a brand new BMW. The first thing I did upon seeing this advertisement was to send off a rsum. The second was to shake my head in hopeless bewilderment.
I am not an economics concentrator, but I can say without hesitation that a $200,000 annual salary is a generous offer, particularly to someone with only a bachelors degree and, presumably, not much actual work experience. Not only is the offer generous, it is preposterous. Harvard students may sometimes exhibit signs of exceptional intelligence, but at this stage in life, it is unlikely that any of us are in a position to earn $400,000 and a fine automobile. I emphasize "earn" because it once was the case that compensation was roughly commensurate with one's contribution to a company's well-being. And, there is no way that the services of a 21-year-old recent college graduate--particularly non-technical hires working in something like "Business Development"--are genuinely worth close to half a million dollars over the next two years.
Why did Carorder.com make such an offer? The answer is because they can. As we all know, tack the .com suffix onto your company name and, suddenly, cash becomes an abundant resource. Who cares how much the new hires actually deserve? Run an ad offering a small fortune, and recruitment becomes just a little bit easier. So, what's the problem? If Carorder.com wants to share some of its wealth with Harvard students, why should we complain?
The problem on campus is the same problem that currently plagues the rest of the country. It is the problem of expectations. They are simply too high. Harvard does not breed modest expectations to begin with, and the New Economy has only made the matter worse. Before now, Harvard seniors hoping to amass large quantities of wealth faced the prospect of years toiling long hours at an investment bank. The equation of work and reward, while still slightly twisted, remained somewhat intact. That equation no longer exists at all.
Extraordinary wealth appears to be widely available for the taking. In the New Economy, the notions of paying your dues or learning the ropes are obsolete. The world seems to be awash in free money. And people seem especially eager to give that money to men and women in their twenties. For the ambitious on this campus, dreaming of ways to get rich quick, never before has the "rich" been richer and the "quick" been quicker.
It may very well be that we will never encounter a $400,000 dollar offer in The Crimson again. But, it remains to be seen what long-term effect the gold rush will have on those swept up in it. How hard it will be to hunker down in an entry-level job and begin to climb the career ladder slowly. After all, we will remember, there was once a time when employers doled out BMW's like Christmas fruitcakes.
Noah D. Oppenheim '00 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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