An illusory trade-off

Is working for a corporation a selfish or complacent use of an MIT education? Not necessarily.

Editor’s Note: This column originally ran in the Sept. 24, 2013 issue of The Tech as a response to Madeline O’Grady’s column published in the previous issue.

In Friday’s issue of The Tech, Madeline O’Grady ’16 asserts that MIT students should be “better than the career fair.” Instead of settling for comfortable, lucrative jobs with corporations, she writes, we should aspire to solve the world’s most challenging problems.

O’Grady goes on to lament the fact that students are not only settling for these jobs, but many even seem to prefer them to more altruistic career paths.

The problem with O’Grady’s argument is that it ignores the contributions corporations have made to expanding opportunity for millions of people and also the role corporations have played in trying to solve the problems that have come with expansion.

Have the interests of large corporations and private companies always aligned with the best interests of society as a whole? Of course not. But what should not be overlooked is the fact that profit-driven companies and industries have contributed in significant ways to addressing many of the challenges that have confronted societies since the onset of the industrial era.

Just a cursory browse through the career fair brochure yields a variety of companies that are all addressing important societal challenges. Google has transformed the way people and businesses connect and share information. IBM has driven hardware and software innovation for over a century. And in the face of dwindling public investment in spaceflight, SpaceX has grabbed the baton in an attempt to sustain our collective reach for the stars.

True, some major investment banks exploited lax regulation and consumers’ lack of information to trigger the great recession. But one must look at the bigger picture. Investment banks have been critically important in fostering entrepreneurship, economic growth, job creation, and products (think pharmaceutical and medical products, fuel-efficiency technology, irrigation systems) that have improved life for untold numbers of people in the last two centuries. Even the banks that were entangled in the 2008 financial crisis played key roles in accelerating global economic growth and opportunity over the past 50 years. Furthermore, these companies are often the only ones equipped to provide tailored expert advice as firms take on the challenges of an increasingly globalized economy.

Fossil fuel corporations are certainly contributing to the alarming advance of climate change, but should they really shoulder all of the blame for our international dilemma? They are supplying a commodity that the world demands, but at the same time, they have been pouring resources into alternative energy research and development. In their own self-interest, they are diversifying — perhaps later than they should have — but diversifying and investing in new technologies nonetheless. They are part of the problem, for sure, but also increasingly part of the solution.

Corporations address problems indirectly as well. I’d imagine that O’Grady would applaud those students who elect to pursue careers in academia. After all, that’s where she would suggest that many real world problems are solved.

But money for this research has to come from somewhere. Between corporate research and development, and private contributions to universities, businesses do a great deal to support applied research — all the more important at a time when federal funding (the lifeblood of post-war scientific research) is being eviscerated by the sequester. Moreover, universities are built and funded by major gifts from corporations and wealthy capitalists who become philanthropists.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that corporations never help to solve important problems, and that they don’t fund applied research. Should students still be “better than the career fair?” A large and growing portion of college students face enormous student loan debts, and they are under incredible pressure to begin repaying those debts as soon as they graduate. Should they be condemned for pursuing well-paying jobs to pay off those debts? Should students be condemned for trying to provide a better future for themselves and the families they will one day start?

Granted, not all corporations are helping to solve important problems; and even if a corporation is providing value to society, it isn’t necessarily motivated by a sense of social responsibility. The challenge for those students who do decide to take jobs in the private sector is to look for ways to influence corporate cultures from within, to push them in the direction of social responsibility. Today’s job-seeker will be tomorrow’s business leader. And through enlightened leadership, companies large and small can do more and more to mitigate the adverse by-products of business, and to contribute to the solution of social, economic, and environmental problems.

Ultimately, O’Grady raises an important question — to what extent should we balance our individual need for some measure of financial security with a selfless drive to solve the world’s problems? I commend O’Grady’s idealism, but the answer isn’t always a trade-off.

Unfortunately, there is so much in this world that needs to be improved. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to go about improving it.