Consider the life of a poor man. To make money, he must work every day. And for his employer to pay him, that work must (to a first approximation) be economically valuable.

Now, consider a rich man. What does he do all day? For the most part, whatever he wants. He’s rich enough to not need money, so he can write math papers saying 2 + 2 = 5, and not care if no one reads them.

Of course, being rich is higher status than being poor. But, because of human psychology, this means rich behaviors are higher status than poor behaviors. Sometimes, that’s good – we want blowing money on the lottery to be low-status. However, it also means useless things (which the rich can do) are higher status than useful things (which the poor are forced to do). And that leads to unfortunate consequences.

Consider education. Which is higher status: philosophy or welding? Philosophy, clearly. But how did it get that way? Are people, commuting on the subway, moved by insights they read in philosophy papers? Has philosophy given us great powers, like flight and electricity? Of course not. Most modern philosophy could be lost in a disk crash, and no one would notice, let alone care. (Note that many “useless” things, like music, actually fail this test: everyone would be sad if all modern music was lost.) Philosophy is high-status because it, like the impractical dresses noblewomen wore, is the domain of the rich.

It would be OK, although sad, if the rich sent children to philosophy schools. The real trouble comes when everyone tries to imitate them. How many high schools – ordinary high schools, not expensive prep schools – have eliminated welding classes? I don’t have statistics, but I’d guess most. Why avoid giving people valuable skills? They’re too useful. It would be so declasse.

It’s gone so far that almost everyone can spend sixteen years – a decade and a half!, consider that sixteen years ago, Bill Clinton had just been re-elected – learning “to get a good job”, without having the faintest idea what their skills are, or how they might create value for an employer. After which, of course, they are scooped up by the likes of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, for lack of anything better to do.

We, as a society, have largely inherited the aristocratic notion that making a living is disreputable, without inheriting the human capital that would allow us to not need to. And then we wonder why the economy is such a mess.