“We are fantastically good at identifying and developing athletic skills–better than we are, really, at almost anything else,” Bill James writes in his new book Solid Fool’s Gold: Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom. Why are we so good at building athletes and not so good at producing, say, writers?
The answer isn’t secret. Top baseball players like Alex Rodriguez have higher salaries and higher exposure than top writers. David Mitchell might be the world’s best novelist, but he surely makes less than $25 million annually, even in a good year, and there aren’t many 24/7 cable channels dedicated to tracking his statistics. If you’re a young persuadable student, which path looks more promising?
Another way of putting this is that there are hard and soft incentives to pursue a certain career. The hard incentive is salary: The best professional athletes earn more than the world’s best novelists. The soft incentive is the aura and prestige that media and family and friends “create” around a profession.
Sometimes, the soft and hard incentives line up. Sports and entertainment celebrities are rich and considered role models. Doctors are wealthy and considered do-gooders. Sometimes the soft and hard incentives point in different directions. We respect elementary school teachers, but their starting salary is squat. Conversely auditors and accountants are considered mind-numbing jobs, but they’re paid nicely.
What does this discussion of salary and prestige have to do with the U.S. economy? According to some economists, everything.