Sunday, July 19, 2009

Existential Questions and Utopian Salaries

I know this is impossible, but wouldn’t it be great if everybody was paid a salary proportional to how much they actually helped humanity? In my book, then, stock traders or hedge fund analysts would get smaller salaries than they do now -- sorry to all of my friends who have chosen the financial world; while I think you’re great people and some of you have helped individuals make some money, I think we all agree that most of you are not helping humanity out in proportion to your multi-million dollar salaries. On the other hand, farmers should be making bank -- no farmers, no food; no food = bad.

My question then is, if salaries worked this way, how much should scientists or professors be paid? More specifically, how much should computer science professors make? I became a professor in part because I wanted to help the world. But am I actually doing so? What does it mean to help the world? How do we measure this? Carnegie Mellon pays me a very healthy salary (although I wouldn’t mind a raise, boss), but I’d like to think that professors are underpaid compared to how much they would make in such a utopian system. It's not clear to me they are.


  1. Here's the table to assist you.

    A - 4
    B - 3
    C - 2
    D - 1
    R - 0

    Multiply the corresponding grade number for each student by $1000 and then add up.

    More A's = More confidence.
    More confidence = Change the world.

  2. On a serious note, I think a professor's income should be decided by the amount of change/help-to-humanity their students are doing. So, if the educate better, the get paid better. For every X a student gets by helping humanity by some degree, a professor should get X/20. Sounds small, but imagine that professors teach 100s of students every year.

    But I think this is a no-brainer.

  3. but students have multiple professors...doh :D

  4. How would you measure by how much would you 'help humanity'?
    Yes, farmers help us a lot because without them we have no food - or do we? suppose all farmers stop working for some reason. My bet is that it wouldn't be too hard for other people to replace them - sure they'd be inefficient, wasteful etc. but they will be able to grow some vegetables (hell i even manage to grow a few at my own garden). Now, if all surgeons decide to stop working - it'll take much more time to replace them and at least for a while many people will die for not getting/getting very poor surgeries.

    So maybe the measure of your 'helping humanity' should be in some way related to how irreplaceable you are. So it shouldn't be the value: (humanity now - humanity without me) but more like: (humanity now - humanity with someone else doing the job instead of me). In this measure, some people of course have negative contribution to humanity (well also in the first measure, but i bet that less people). So the question is how does academics as a profession score in this metric?

  5. Annonymous on first post:

    That discourages telling someone that he is not fit for a certain major by giving him a bad grade.

  6. Looking only at the salary doesn't give the complete picture. That gives the nominal change in salary. It makes more sense to talk about the change in a CS professor's salary relative to the change in other fields. One also has to take into account the effect on supply and demand.

    I think that such a scheme would cause the concentration of wealth to shift to those who take part in widly used innovations. An engineer working on even the most basic aspects of Microsoft Word should be making much more than he does today because this product affects millions of people. I suspect a CS professor's pay would depend on 1) how much his research affected industry and 2) if he was able to give students knowledge that translated into industry success. I'd think that many professors would do very well under this system, some of the less practical might do extremely poorly

    In terms of supply, this scheme should clearly increase the supply of useful goods (as everybody would try to maximize their utility to society). This should increase the purchasing power of one's salary.

    Demand is tricky. I think that demand would depend on how evenly wealth would be distributed. If there's a large wealth gap, people who have money end up not spending it all (since spending money gives diminishing utility). OTOH, a small wealth gap would mean that many people are spending most of their income on basic goods. It's unclear what this plan would do to the wealth gap.

  7. Unfortunately ideas like these stay in the realm of utopian fantasy. is it possible though, that we can take our highest ideals,and apply them more thoroughly to our best creations? Are computers not the symbol of order that we all strive towards in our collective works? Well anyway i`m mostly a hardware guy, i`m sure that someone like you in CS could turn that into something useful for all the rest of us. or maybe i could. someone think about it!

  8. I don't like the idea of *not* paying someone a salary because they had no "merit". I think we have to say that all people deserve a minimum salary, simply for existing ... that we all contribute something merely by being here. Otherwise we justify letting some people starve. Capitalism, however, is doing a pretty good job of letting some people starve already.

  9. Luis I think you need to separate the research from the teaching aspect of a computer science professor. Like you had said in one of your previous posts if you managed to create a hollywood style video that students actually like to watch it wouldn't be too hard to see a lot of universities exchanging their computer science lecturers by paying a licensing fee for these videos. Hell even I watched almost all my CS lectures online at Stanford (mostly because they were taught at 9am) and they were far from being Hollywood quality. Your research on the other hand is a much harder thing to automate. Unless knowing you, you have cleverly devised an algorithm to tell you which problems to solve ;) I believe in some aspect that people are paid by how hard it is for their job to be automated, farmers get replaced by gps controlled harvesting machines, sales people are getting replaced by online sales systems, airline receptionists getting replaced by airport kiosks etc... Your research is probably what the university values most and I believe you are probably getting compensated fairly based on that.

  10. In a purely utopian society, money would not be an issue. People who have jobs that are considered public service, like myself as an educator, do so knowing that money is not the objective. I view this as a mute point.

  11. well.. lets see...
    God would get paid $0
    I would get paid $0
    Fundamentalist religious organizaitions and fundamentalist churches (and anyone who teaches religion as a fact) would actually owe money to everyone for their diservice to humanity in instructing and indoctrinating people (specifially children)into a ridiculous set of beliefs.

  12. Moot, not mute.

    Why would farmers get paid any more? To use your simplistic logic, no parents = no children = extinction of the human race, therefore pay should be based entirely on how many children you have. It is a trivial problem to feed everyone, so much so that we have to pay farmers *not* to grow food.

    For most of the world, "helping humanity" means growing the GDP. By this criterion, perhaps the financiers aren't overpaid. To me, "helping humanity" means something more like increasing human knowledge, so real science professors should be paid much more. By either criterion, I don't think computer scientists come out very well, sorry. ;)

  13. Actually, taking your question seriously, the most underpaid profession is probably the politician. The only places people are starving are because of their terrible governments (often but not always self-imposed). (Some economists would also argue that it is because of high birth rates, but since that would contradict the previous Anonymous's argument, I will leave it alone.) Across all the countries, and across all levels of government, the difference between competent and incompetent politicians is larger than any other variable.

  14. By the logic "more people == better society", we'd end up over crowding the planet. Really we'd want to find the number of people such that the *average* person had the greatest utility -- we wouldn't want a population too small (too few innovations, risk of extinction too high). OTOH we don't want to be too large (or we must find ways to survive outside of the earth).

    On a more practical note, in the US poor households tend to have the most children:

    Many of the welfare type systems in the US seem to focus on families with children. We really ought to be encouraging members of society with excess resources to take on the burden of reproduction.

  15. I think it's clear in any case, Luis, that CS Professors would earn less than high school teachers...

  16. That's not clear to me, since CS professors do research that sometimes changes the world. Think of e.g. the Internet, Akamai, the underpinnings of Google, etc.

  17. E. Dexter Young SrJuly 19, 2009 at 10:25 PM

    I think the measure of your contribution to humanity can be measured by how many times can your contribution be duplicated so that many can be guided in the same direction to one or several similar causes or goals. That is to say if it is something like reCaptcha where one person designs something that many can use to contribute so that all will benefit this is a great example. Something profound where only a few understand that will benefit all in the future is something not attained or realized therefore noone is benenfiting today. So my conclusion here would have to be based uopn what I have said thus far would be something created that many can participate so that all will benefit........immediately. Thats the highest measure I can visualize. Something like reCaptcha is a poster child for the format. SETA and its cluster of everyday pc's in millions or homes working together is another great example. Curing Cancer comes to mind. I seem to remember reading that $800mil and 15yrs would cure cancer. How about a $500mil of supercomputers using chips that are running speeds like 300ghz and are carbon based $100mil facility and $150mil in grants for equiptment with $50mil in salaries and ovehead? There has to be a monetary vs hardware budget ratio to achieve this cure in less then 10yrs. How about $200mil each from the top 10 on forbes 500 list. I think we could cure cancer in 5-8yrs. One time $1mil cancer tax for anyone making $10mil as a salary or more from every athlete, businessman, and biilionaire in the US. We would cure it in 3-5yrs. Ratio has to be there, but whos listening? Im off in a random. I do that in my head alot. Sorry Luis..

    E. Dexter Young Sr ( On Your Facebook List )

  18. E. Dexte Young SrJuly 19, 2009 at 10:28 PM

    SETA = SETI I cant believe I made that mistake...

  19. But isn't that the same wrong argument? Without any farmers we would all starve to death. Without any CS professors we would not have Google. By itself, this does not mean that a farmer or a CS professor is especially valuable, nor that one is more important than the other!

  20. Anybody is replaceable. I would argue CS professors are relatively hard to replace. Certainly harder to replace than high school teachers.

  21. E. Dexter Young SrJuly 19, 2009 at 10:46 PM

    So "Its not important what you do its just important that you do it" -Ghandi We are all destined to do something and as long as we contribute to oursleves we contribute to the whole? Then what connects our good work and research so we can improve exponentially? Far too much sits in desks, hard drives, in seperate parts of the world and because they are not aware of each other the new invention, cure, or theory isnt realized. We are too "by industry". If I search "clean oil spill fom ocean" why cant the answer include "nanwire"? Its left to a coincidental cross reference or accidental mmention in the presence of like minds. Alot is lost just in that way. A laymen like myself I have seen things on TV years and years ago that should have been used in current disasters and dire situations. Is money really the solve? I dont believe that.. CVD diamonds, nanowire, carbon based solar panels, etc etc. The solve is there, whos doing the connecting for everyday use?

  22. Well, there are two questions. First, how easy is it to replace an individual CS professor? It isn't trivial, but there are usually at least twenty or so grad students and postdocs with similar abilities in an area, who are willing to work for as little as one fifth as much money. Second, you can ask how easy is it to replace a group (e.g., all CS professors or all in a given area)? How much value does the group contribute?

    I think capitalism basically assigns salaries based on how easy it is to replace individuals---your salary is your marginal value-added. This can considerably underestimate the value added by a group (hence unions). For scientists, the enormous government involvement distorts things considerably.

  23. This comment has been removed by the author.

  24. Luis,

    Doesn't free-market capitalism do it's best to do exactly what you were suggesting? There are problems of market interventions, and problems of large temporal delays, but at root your pay derives from other people voluntarily giving up money (as a proxy for other resources) and .
    Farmers don't make more because .

    It's reminiscent of the old "Diamond Paradox": why are diamonds, the uses of which are largely driven by luxury vastly more expensive then water, which is so fundamental to life itself. It's because we never choose a world where there are only diamonds or only water: value comes at the margin, and one more unit of diamond is vastly more valuable to people-- even if only for relatively frivolous reasons-- then one more unit of water.

    Similarly, one more unit of farmer time only improves peoples live by a little bit. But a tiny amount of time from someone who can really improve the allocation of vast amount of capital is fantastically valuable.
    Note that it is unlikely that many of the people working in the financial industry are actually improving capital allocation. Many were just increasing variance to increase returns, knowing that a "Greenspan Put" was there to prevent the downside variance from biting them.

    As for your question about whether profs are overpaid: I think there are two things you can check for that: 1) How much government intervention is there in your industry? Likely a great deal-- If so, it's likely propping up your salary. 2) How strong are union/forceful relations between employers and employees? If strong (ala teachers or auto-workers union), likely significantly overpaid.

  25. I'd imagine lot of ppl will take less money home - especially the people who are making $70k+ /year. reason? we have lot of people around the world who are doing lot more stuff for humanity - and are not getting paid enough.

    But I also imagine - is this not what socialism is all about in some sense?

  26. Academia is an investment industry. It would be pretty hard to set a salary down for results you can only expect years from now. Money brokering has immediate effects - how would drowning in 5 years of academia after general education help humanity? Hint: It doesn't. And there's no guarantee that the result ever will. So, in such a system, how would you give out the 'expected value' for any given professor? From the beginning, they wouldn't have any track record to help them out, so there's no history-given guarantee that they actually will accomplish some great goal. Among the stars in academic accomplishments, there are also many, many duds. It'd be rather difficult to gauge that kind of payment with a distribution such as this, but it would both 1] propel professors to research things that are 'popular' or whose effect is more clear to see rather than pursuing subtle fields with giant long term gains and 2] likely result in professors' salaries taking a dive and their payment correlating directly from the success of their research alone. Not very encouraging for many, when they can enter the vocational world and have a much more financially stable salary curve.

  27. So I take it you don't buy into the argument:

    1) hedge funds increase liquidity and more accurate price estimates
    2) better price estimates mean better information revelation/aggregation

    In other words improving market efficiency.

    I'd be willing to pay a lot for better capitalism.

  28. No, I don't buy that arument to the tune of so much money. Sorry.

  29. everybody ought to do the BEST they can, everyday they can - that is the contribution to humanity and the bonus is - you get paid $ for it.

  30. I think running "Hot or not" contests is not helping the world very much...

  31. High school computer science teachers. They're the ones who should be paid the most.

    After all, we are the ones who recruit students and get them ready for to be worked on by the lovely CS faculty and encourage a broader group (who will eventually create amazing life-changing technologies) to participate... right?

  32. Luis if you will bring money into the scene, you will take away honor from the teaching profession. People do have immense respect for professors and teachers because these honest, selfless souls work at universities when they could have earned lots of money in the industry....
    So its up to you, honor or money!!!

  33. im almost certain that the answer to the question is 3/5. Any asnwer is correct and valid at the right time.

  34. "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth." Muhammad Ali.


  35. Luis if you will bring money into the scene, you will take away honor from the teaching profession. People do have immense respect for professors and teachers because these honest, selfless souls work at universities when they could have earned lots of money in the industry....

    It actually works just the opposite in the US: people don't generally respect professors and teachers, due to the "if you're so smart, how come you're not rich?" reaction. Adding more money could fix this. :-)

  36. According to the survey about most prestigious jobs, professors come out second or third every year in the US. I think professors are well respected.

  37. "I think professors are well respected."
    But if you will make this profession commercial, and introduce bonuses and options and other wall street stuff, then perhaps this respect will vanish away.
    My suggestion to you Luis. Conduct a quick survey in the next blog post about the reasons, why people respect professors so much.

  38. "wouldn’t it be great if everybody was paid a salary proportional to how much they actually helped humanity?"

    While I am intrigued by the concept, let me play devil's advocate on this issue.

    I'm not certain that it compensation based on ones "contribution to humanity" would indeed be so great. Humanity is not an indivisible whole - it consists of many groups and subgroups. Quite often what helps one group comes at the expense of another. How do you value the "benefit to humanity" when the same thing can be both harmful as well as beneficial. Should we start measuring how many people benefit and how many suffer and compensate in proportion to the net difference? Should we consider things that dramatically benefit only a small group (such as helping the blind or those suffering a rare disease) to be fundamentally worth less than things that benefit very many in a minor way (let's say entertaining people)?

    "The good of the many outweighs the good of the few... or the one."

    It is a cold calculus to employ in my opinion - but yet seems inevitable in a society where we compensate on the basis of "benefit to humanity".

    Fundamentally, the concept of benefit to humanity may be flawed because the benefit changes both as a perspectives of culture, values, and time. Something that may be perceived as beneficial in the near past (let's say the invention of the internal combustion engine) may in the present or future be viewed as harmful (say if man-made global warming destroys civilization as we know it). How can you reward proportional to benefit where the true (long-term) benefit is unknowable in the contributors lifetime?

    Furthermore, compensation based on such a concept may be just as oppressive and restrictive to poor people as systems in place today. Poor people often have a subsistence lifestyle - the majority of their labor goes to keeping themselves and their families alive. Very little may go to improving the overall condition of humanity. Should these individuals receive little compensation for what they do simply because their effort does not somehow improve humanity as a whole? In fact, in a perverse way, you could consider that such individuals should not be compensated at all because they may in fact be a "drag" on humanity - the resources expended on their existence could in principle be employed to benefit others more.

    Finally, if "benefit to humanity" is poorly defined it may squelch the incentive for people to take risks. Taking risks is often balanced (and sometimes driven) by the potential for reward and growth - but if we only reward net benefit, individuals who are motivated in this manner are likely to pursue vocations in which the benefits are more obvious, and the compensation greater. We could very well stagnate those endeavors where the benefit to society is unclear or middling.

    While the idea of humanitarian compensation sounds appealing at an emotional level - it's quite unclear if it would necessarily bring about a society that more equitably allocates resources or creates incentives to bring about improvements to society.

  39. Great! This is my favorite topic since I was fourteen. A few related questions:

    which contribution is worth more, harry potter the novel, or harry potter the movie?

    which contribution has been more beneficial to people, (re)-captcha or tetris? (tetris has been found to reduce stress and may be a treatment for post traumatic disorder)

    should someone be allowed to make his living from his parents fund, merely for being their child?

    is philanthropy beneficial to humanity?

  40. A hotter professor should earn more. This will significantly increase the amount of X chromosome in computer science and mathematics. Come on! We need more girls in Math!

  41. I saw you on Nova last night and I was blown away on what you have done for the entire security portion of the internet. Keep on doing your cool stuff sir!

  42. This questions seam to limit compensation to $$ what is the value of feeling good about making a positive impact?

  43. "According to the survey about most prestigious jobs, professors come out second or third every year in the US. I think professors are well respected"

    and child-care workers make next to nothing - but they are making a huge contribution to society by freeing up talented parents to work.

  44. The biggest question should be to define what humanity means. The value of humanity should be equal to justice. Without quantifying what the definition of humanity is as the measured goal, then fulfillment is ambiguous. Justice is the core of defining humanity. -jMO

  45. "I know this is impossible, but wouldn’t it be great if everybody was paid a salary proportional to how much they actually helped humanity?"

    Heck, if’in the last twelve words of the 5th Amendment were not fiction moi’d be in the three billion + bracket.

    Stay on groovin' (Just up the river from moi) safari,

  46. "If only we knew that money is only an idea. There is no scarcity or loss connected to it. Nothing cost anything."

    Roy Lee Scott

  47. I like your post, but there are other ways of viewing thins then just been materialist. Not everything is about money, salaries or how much you earn. There is more into how to help humanity improve itself, and actually your question is very well put on your post "What does it mean to help the world?". So, in my view, I would say that we should re-evaluate our existentialism in our daily life, to see what is the purpose of all this. At the end, shouldn`t the satisfaction of helping humanity be more important than just getting a raise!

  48. Surely you need some ground rules and have a clear definition of what it means to have helped humanity. Sure there are tangibles, that any profession such as Teacher, Professor, Nurse, Doctor and even Hedge fund manager can be measured on. But what of the intangible deeds that many, including all of the above professions are involved in. Also what may appear to help humanity at one point in time may well be contradicted, with hind sight, some point later in time. So would you consider having penalties for this? After all Nuclear bombs didn't just invent themselves and I am sure Professors were involved. For that matter if robots replace people, in the name of efficiency, is that considered helping humanity. Clearly not if viewed from the people who lost their livelihood. Our system of payment is based on supply and demand, something relatively easy to measure and clearly tangible. The other factor that boost the salary afforded is based on how many people thrive off this one individual (or group). So if you are center of that cluster then you can expect high salaries, just ask any top athlete.

  49. Oh, as a continuation of my last post forgot to add: So why do we pay politicians as much as we do, which is lot more then teachers and they don't even do half a job!