Confessions of an Economics Concentrator

Technically, I am not an economics concentrator — I am an applied mathematics concentrator with an area of application in economics — but for the most part I live in the same academic world as most of the 750 or so economics concentrators at Harvard.[1] I am also a junior, and recruiting for internships with financial firms is on my radar, along with thinking about a senior thesis, graduate school, and frankly, the career that I have to be embarking upon in frighteningly soon.

Since high school, I have wanted to be an academic economist and have had an economics Ph.D. in my sights. Though many people think Christianity and capitalism are in conflict,[2] these warnings do not discourage me from studying. In fact, if economic systems are so critical and have such power, they deserve careful study by Christian thinkers all the more! However, such warnings do caution against another career path common for people with my interests, a path thoroughly saturated with the ethos of profit-maximizing ultra-capitalism:  the path of a Wall Street financial analyst.

The lure of finance has caused me to re-think the academic career path that I have been envisioning. I find myself occupied with questions such as “Do the smiling faces on Goldman Sachs publicity materials truly reveal a legion of overjoyed 20-somethings living the entry-level analyst’s dream?” and “Is the financial world actually the next big step for me — the goal I should strive for?”

At the same time, I have been re-thinking my career for quite a different reason: I am wrestling with the question of whether I should pursue work as a full-time Christian pastor. Now, this is not something that I have been considering all my life. Though I grew up going to church, I never once contemplated becoming a pastor. More than that, by the time I came to college, I was convinced that if I called myself a Christian, I was supposed to put following Jesus at the center of my life, but I was also convinced that I was not putting Jesus at the center of my life. I had serious doubts, and I was not sure whether I was able to believe in God.

Upon starting freshman year, I quickly lost my old identity as the smart kid from a small town. Meanwhile, I was embraced by a wonderful Christian community, I began to openly seek God in prayer and in the Bible, and I began to accept the reasonableness of the Christian truth claims. Through this, I was convicted of my fundamental selfishness and need to follow Jesus Christ as Lord. My heart, desires, and view of the world started to be transformed accordingly.

Still, I did not think about becoming a pastor until midway through sophomore year — through what I can honestly describe as the strong sense during prayer that this is what I should do, that I should work to share the Christian message and God’s transformative power with others as a job. I may have the abilities and passions for the sort of work a pastor does, the work of preaching, teaching, counseling, and leading a Christian community, among other things.

The way that concentrating in economics and being a pastor fit together is not altogether clear, of course, and I am still figuring out if being a pastor is really what I should do. Thus, like many of my peers, I find myself playing a game of mental pinball, bouncing among career ideas that light up and make noise before I ricochet off to the next one.

Amidst career confusion, I have found finance tempting. Surrounded by friends in my classes who are seeking careers in the financial world, I have been told things like, “You should consider finance; you’ve got the skills.” Journalist Kevin Roose, in Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits, writes, “Wall Street banks had made themselves the obvious destinations for students at top-tier colleges who are confused about their careers … and are looking to put off the big decisions for two years while they figure things out.”[3] Though Roose’s description does not fit many of my finance-inclined classmates, I can identify with it.

Beyond the fact that I may have the skills and interests for it, I can make a market-based argument for going into finance. In introductory economics, we learned that wages are equal to marginal productivity of labor — that is, my firm pays me based on how much value I generate. Generating value for my firm, in the private sector at least, means that people will purchase my firm’s products. According to microeconomic theory, people purchase things that bring them welfare. If I follow this logic to the end, I must conclude that the more money I earn, the more welfare I generate for people. God wants me to generate welfare for people, so if finance pays the most, that is what I should do.

Ultimately, this argument does not satisfy me, since market prices are only reflective of what people in the market want to buy – not necessarily what is morally good in an ultimate way, nor what is most pleasing to God. As an illustration, consider the massive pornography industry. Even if I had skills that would earn me money in that industry, I would not think for an instant that following the money would be the same as following God – and this is because I do not think that the pornography people want is actually what God wants for them. The market can simply become a vehicle for human sin.

I must confess another reason I consider going into finance. This is not something I would soberly discuss with an adviser or peer, but rather one that pops into my head in moments when my faith is fading, or when being a Christian seems too hard, or when I stop caring about God and only want what feels good to me. It is the temptation to enjoy my life and run away from God.

From what I have heard, and from what I have read in Young Money, there is a lot to be tempted by in finance. Making money, of course, is part of it, but that is only the beginning. There is the self-confidence of having obtained a culturally respected and desirable position, and the promise of an exciting metropolitan life with luxuries, excitement, power (or at least the proximity to it), partying, and sex.

I do not know that is what life working in finance has to be like, but it is an image I have constructed nonetheless. And I know the power of images, of what Christians might call idols — things we construct ourselves and worship through our single-minded pursuit of them. As a Christian, I believe that idolizing and pursuing this image of finance life is a sin. When this happens, I tell myself to remember Paul’s exhortation: “Flee the evil desires of youth” (2 Tim 2:22, NIV).

One of Jesus’ early followers, Paul, writes in his letter to the Romans, “Don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you can work out and approve what God’s will is, what is good, acceptable and complete” (Rom 12:2).[4] Deviating from common pathways — and the road to seminary and ministry is certainly not a common pathway leading out of at Harvard Yard — is not comfortable. Fortunately, if the message in Romans 12:2 is true, I can take joy and confidence in doing something different, and trust that as I seek Him, God will guide me.

Working as a pastor might pay less, but that does not mean it is wrong in God’s eyes! Neither, however, is having a more overtly Christian job necessarily right in God’s eyes. I can please and serve God in finance, in academia, or as a pastor. Whatever train of reason I come up with, I ultimately do not know what is best for me — but my Creator God does. As I pray and think, I hope to remain near to Him, doing what is right and paying attention to little things I think He wants me to do, and if I believe he calls me somewhere, the best way to follow him is to take up the call — no matter where it leads.

So, I confess that I study economics, and that I sometimes think about becoming a Wall Street financier. I also confess that I am a Christian, and that I often think about becoming a pastor. I confess that I am weak, that I easily stray from the path I believe is right, and I am quick to do what I believe will grant me the most approval and applause from the people around me. I confess that I am tempted by money, power, and other people’s admiration.

I confess that on my own, I cannot do what is right. Yet I also confess Jesus Christ. I confess my faith in the God who created this world, has special purposes for humanity, and desires to draw His people to Himself. I con- fess my faith that Jesus is this God incarnate and that he lived the life of ultimate obedience — obedience that cost him his life in the world that people have messed up, but that was the means by which all of us can return to our God. I confess Jesus crucified and risen from the dead and reigning now as Lord and that through faith and obedience we can live in right relationship with God, and have true life. I pray that He guides me to be most pleasing and useful to Him, regardless of the shape of my career after graduation.

 

1 The economics concentration had “roughly 750 students” as of 2012. See page 7 of Under- graduate Economics: A Guide for Concentra- tors, available at http://economics.harvard. edu/files/economics/files/undergradguide_12. pdf

2 The ways in which they are and are not in conflict is a piece I hope to write another day. To find criticism of Christianity and capital- ism, one need look no further than right here at Harvard, where in April 2014 the Divinity School (HDS) hosted a conference on “Chris- tianity and Capitalism,” rooted in the spirit of organizer and HDS professor Charles Stang’s sentiment that Christianity has “cozied up” to capitalism, an economic system that has “used and abused” many people. See http://news. harvard.edu/gazette/story/2014/04/faith-and- free-markets/

3 Roose, Kevin. Young Money. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2014. Print. Quo- tation on p. 20.

4 This is N.T. Wright’s translation, which I par- ticularly like. I took it from Wright, N.T. After You Believe. New York: HarperOne, 2010.

 

 

Peter Hickman ’16 is an applied mathematics concentrator living in Leverett House, a staff writer for the Ichthus, and the proud roommate of Henry Li.

Tags: , , , , , , ,