Even though there are probably fewer people stocking up on bottled water and ammo today than there were six months ago, it's obvious that there are still grave problems with the U.S. economy.

On Friday, my fellow Fools Morgan Housel and Ilan Moscovitz shone a light on banking institutions like AIG (NYSE:AIG) and Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) that are considered "too big to fail." Morgan followed up with another article yesterday, highlighting exactly why "too big to fail" is a terrible thing for all of us.

But unfortunately, "too big to fail" is a mere symptom of the greater disease that's landed us in such hot water.

The hallowed halls
A closer look at some of the United States' most prized educational institutions says a heck of a lot about the unfortunate direction that our economy has taken in recent decades. Stats from MIT, traditionally a bastion for mathematics and engineering, show that 27% of the school's undergraduate students now end up in the world of finance -- far more than any other industry.

Data from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard paints a similar picture, as 24% and 23% of their undergraduates, respectively, end up in finance. And it should be noted that these numbers don't include Penn's Wharton undergraduate business school -- they apply only to graduates of the university's "Arts and Sciences" school.

Cornell, meanwhile, proudly lists the 10 biggest employers of Cornell's 2008 grads. Half of them -- Citigroup (NYSE:C), Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch -- were in the field of finance.

For a more detailed look, here's a sample of the post-graduation paths that Stanford graduates walk.


Field of Study

Employer / Position


Biological Sciences / Economics

Goldman Sachs investment banking analyst


Biomedical Computation

Goldman Sachs infrastructure systems analyst


Civil Engineering

Moody's (NYSE:MCO) financial engineer


Communications / International Relations

Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) fixed income sales analyst


Electrical Engineering

Goldman Sachs equities analyst



Citigroup quantitative trading and research analyst


Physics / Computer Science

Jump Trading professional trader



Bear Stearns associate

Source: Stanford.

It seems obvious that many of our best and brightest, who have studied in fields such as biomedical computation (the name alone makes my head spin), are being lured away from making truly productive contributions to society. Instead, they opt for the huge paychecks financial companies can provide.

But who can we blame? The school? We could argue that it just wants students to find the best and most lucrative opportunities after graduation. The students? It seems hard to blame them for wanting to score a big paycheck after paying through the nose for their education. Heck, I certainly can't be high and mighty, since my first stop after the University of Pennsylvania was investment banking.

But here's the problem
The problem isn't Goldman Sachs, "too big to fail," the Federal Reserve, or the government as a whole. These things are really only reflections of our society. Where the U.S. was once primarily an industrial nation, making and inventing things, we are now a country very focused on financial engineering and the trading of paper assets.

I'm hardly alone in this opinion. Among others, PIMCO's Bill Gross has been preaching on the subject for a while now. In Gross's most recent commentary, he wrote:

For the first several decades of this history, economic growth, not paper wealth, was king. We were getting richer by making things, not paper. Beginning in the 1980s, however, the cult of the markets, which included the development of financial derivatives and the increasing use of leverage, began to dominate. ... We, in effect, were hollowing out our productive future at the expense of worthless paper such as subprimes, dotcoms, or in part, blue chip stocks and investment grade/government bonds.

And wagging our fingers at the CEOs of big banks only allows us to ignore how pervasive the belief in paper wealth runs. Whether we witness Goldman Sachs's head honcho taking home tens of millions of dollars, or Joe Schmoe getting in over his head flipping houses, we can see the problem almost everywhere. In the end, looking for the next quick, easy way to get rich has become a national ethos.

No easy solution
Just like Mickey trying to chop up all the broomsticks in Fantasia, we can snuff out credit default swaps or break up the big banks, but as long as our underlying philosophy remains the same, new iterations of the same ugliness will keep sprouting up.

So what do we do? I want to hear from you. Head down to the comments section and share your ideas about how the U.S. can get back on a sustainable path of creating solid economic growth, and steer away from chasing the glimmer of paper riches. Or you can tell me that I'm completely crazy, and that none of this is a problem at all.

Is Jim Cramer an evangelist for the paper wealth society? Perhaps. But either way, Nick Kapur thinks you shouldn't be listening to Cramer.

Moody's is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor and a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Motley Fool Options recommended writing puts on Moody's. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer owns shares of Bank of America, but does not own shares of any of the other companies mentioned. You can check out what Matt is keeping an eye on by visiting his CAPS portfolio, or you can follow Matt on Twitter @KoppTheFool. The Fool's disclosure policy is fine with a new national ethos, as long as Flip This House stays on the air.