Graduating MBAs Heed Washington's Siren Song

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Here's a bemusing news story sure to get you muttering in your coffee. Our budding masters of the universe, those freshly minted MBAs that once flooded Wall Street with their acumen, are increasingly turning toward government jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, federal government payrolls are growing as other sectors of the economy shrink. Especially in finance, which once offered the lion’s share of Business School graduates lofty bonuses for concocting, selling, and analyzing those complex derivatives we’re now struggling to detoxify. It looks like the next graduating class of these wunderkids may end up operating the Rube Goldberg machinery hastily being erected by Congress to finance, control, and direct ever larger swaths of our economy.

Yeeha. It's not challenging enough keeping our heads above water. Get ready to navigate oceans of red ink snared in reams of red tape.

As investment banks serve out their penances in purgatory as wards of the state, it's ironic that the same skills and values that brought the finance industry to its knees are being called into service by these fallen companies’ new owner - Uncle Sam. These kids will likely report to the same executives that traded their imploding Wall Street jobs for posts in the new Administration, recruited to fix the problems they created. Bit of the hair-of-the-dog treatment, eh?

How's that for change you can believe in?

Top business schools churn out a crafted product, transforming bright, ambitious twenty-somethings with one entry-level job under their belts into confident generalists, educated to believe that two years of reading business cases makes them especially equipped to solve the most complex business problems. Gangway - they are destined for the top and in a hurry to get there! It doesn’t matter whether they've ever scrambled to make a payroll, launched a dicey product, flushed a salesman's lie, or learned the wages of hubris watching reality demolish their best laid plans.

What they lack in hard-won experience they make up for in education. Tutored by the world's wisest professors - four out of five of whom have never held a job outside academia - there's one phrase they're trained to avoid lest it pierce their cloak of competence. "I don't know."

Does anyone really believe that reading a hundred war stories is a substitute for leading troops into battle? Or that studying Cliff note interviews with disabled veterans is as powerful a teacher as getting your own butt blown off? Or that writing a boffo strategic plan qualifies you to quell a panicked retreat?

It's like asking priests to do marriage counseling. Or policy wonks to plan a national economy. Wait a minute. We are asking policy wonks to plan a national economy!

How can failure truly teach when it doesn't really hurt? Think about it, how often do you find yourself rubbing your own scar tissue when you need a reminder to practice prudence? It's easy to be fearless when life is a videogame. Showing up at the high stakes table with someone else's money to win and nothing of your own to lose is exactly what just happened on Wall Street. Do we really want the same cast of characters repeating that performance in Washington?

Ah, but civil servants are never in it for the money, right? No fat bonuses here! What do these MBA newbies have to gain besides a steady paycheck, a good health plan, and a safe place to lay low while this storm blows through?

Think ahead a few years. Imagine 20,000 MBAs fresh off cobbling together 457,000 pages of enabling regulations controlling the financial industry, the energy industry, the healthcare industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance industry, the auto industry, and whatever other industries Congress decides to "fix." Think of all the relationships these uber-schmoozers will have cultivated with Congressional staffers, K Street lobbyists, beltway bandits, and the countless other courtiers that infest the 20004 zip code. Now picture the lot of them fanning out through the revolving door once the coast is clear, a diaspora eager to cash in their guanxi in a Pelosified economy.

Goodbye entrepreneurship. Hello crony capitalism.

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