Imagine for a moment that your college senior is a computer science wiz at MIT and is currently deciding between three job offers. The first is Facebook. The second is a leading video gaming company. The final one is less familiar – a start-up in Seattle. It’s called Convoy. The company reduces the percent of time trucks spend on the road with an empty load.
Which job would you want your child to take?
I know, “Whatever makes my child happy,” is the emotionally correct answer. “What are the career trajectories?” is another question that you might suggest your child explore. Listen for a second to your inner voice, and ask your child to do the same. Where do you think he or she would make the most difference to the world?
Markets value current and future financial returns. By building a social media platform that disrupted the advertising market, Facebook is worth billions. Gaming companies, by creating a new form of entertainment, also garner high evaluations. Investors also value Convoy to a tune of over a billion dollars. The high valuation arises because the low-margin trucking industry will pay to reduce the 25% of the time that trucks are empty, accelerate payments, and make scheduling far more efficient.
However, should money be the only measure of value? One of the things I hate about cost-benefit analysis is that it is always easier to measure financial costs than total benefits, squeezed into a monetary calculation. As a result, cost-benefit assessments negate many a critical social or environmental policy whose benefits cannot be adequately quantified.
Sitting with my daughter in a lodge at the base of Grand Tetons years back, I marveled at the breathtaking view across a vast empty field of grassland framing imposing mountains. What if the Rockefeller Family had not purchased and protected that grassland? I would have been looking across an un-zoned mishmash of commercial, retail, mobile home parks, and housing so prevalent in the West. Without philanthropy, cost-benefit analysis would suggest monetizing the acreage.
I would not want the hypothetical kid to work at Facebook. Moreover, it saddens me that so many of our nation’s top young talents go to work there. Facebook is not solving a significant problem. Instead, its created terrible ones, from loss of privacy, energizing white supremacy, stifling innovation through acquisitions and hurting the fairness of our 2016 election through fake news (the real kind, not the Trump kind). Social networking has financial value, but Facebook needs to clean up its act to deliver actual societal value. Its newest initiative — creating a retail Bitcoin in an attempt to disrupt banking — is not the path for redemption.
A (GOP) US Senator, Mr. Hawley of Missouri, captured my thinking in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial. “There was a time when innovation meant something grand and technology meant something hopeful, when we dreamed of going to the stars and beyond, of curing diseases and creating new ways to travel and make things. Those are the dreams that fuel the American future. Those are the dreams we need to dream again.”
What if we valued the importance of problems-to-be-solved above money-to-be-made? Disrupting advertising and news made billions for Facebook shareholders. The trucking innovation will not make as much money, but it creates a lot more societal value by reducing the environmental damage of trucks driving empty.
I don’t know the answer, but I do know that many in the younger demographics are asking the right questions and seeking more meaningful work. Moreover, that is a good thing.