What someone is paid has little or no relationship to what their work is worth to society.
Does anyone seriously believe that hedge-fund mogul Steven A. Cohen is worth the $2.3 billion he raked in last year, despite being slapped with a $1.8 billion fine after his firm pleaded guilty to insider trading?
On the other hand, what's the worth to society of social workers who put in long and difficult hours dealing with patients suffering from mental illness or substance abuse? Probably higher than their average pay of $18.14 an hour, which translates into less than $38,000 a year.
How much does society gain from personal-care aides who assist the elderly, convalescents and persons with disabilities? Likely more than their average pay of $9.67 an hour, or just over $20,000 a year.
What's the social worth of hospital orderlies who feed, bathe, dress and move patients, and empty their bedpans? Surely higher than their median wage of $11.63 an hour, or $24,190 a year.
Or of child care workers, who get $10.33 an hour, $21.490 a year? And preschool teachers, who earn $13.26 an hour, $27,58 0a year?
Yet what would the rest of us do without these dedicated people?
Or consider kindergarten teachers, who make an average of$53,590 a year.
Before you think that's generous, consider that a good kindergarten teacher is worth his or her weight in gold, almost. One study found that children with outstanding kindergarten teachers are more likely to go to college and less likely to become single parents than a random set of children similar to them in every way other than being assigned a superb teacher.
And what of writers, actors, painters and poets? Only a tiny fraction ever become rich and famous. Most barely make enough to live on. (Many don't, and are forced to take paying jobs to pursue their art.) But society is surely all the richer for their efforts.
At the other extreme are hedge-fund and private-equity managers, investment bankers, corporate lawyers, management consultants, high-frequency traders and top Washington lobbyists.
They're getting paid vast sums for their labors. Yet it seems doubtful that society is really that much better off because of what they do.
I don't mean to sound unduly harsh, but I've never heard of a hedge-fund manager whose job entails attending to basic human needs (unless you consider having more money a basic human need) or enriching our culture (except through the myriad novels, exposes and movies made about greedy hedge-fund managers and investment bankers).
They don't even build the economy.
Most financiers, corporate lawyers, lobbyists and management consultants are competing with other financiers, lawyers, lobbyists and management consultants in zero-sum games that take money out of one set of pockets and put it into another. They're paid gigantic amounts because winning these games can generate far bigger sums, while losing them can be extremely costly.
It's said that by moving money to where it can make more money, these games make the economy more efficient.
In fact, the games amount to a mammoth waste of societal resources.
They demand ever more cunning innovations, but they create no social value. High-frequency traders who win by a thousandth of a second can reap a fortune, but society as a whole is no better off.
Meanwhile, the games consume the energies of loads of talented people who might otherwise be making real contributions to society -- if not by tending to human needs or enriching our culture then by curing diseases or devising new technological breakthroughs, or helping solve some of our most intractable social problems.
Graduates of Ivy League universities are more likely to enter finance and consulting than any other career.
For example, in 2010 (the most recent year for which we have data), close to 36 percent of Princeton graduates went into finance. Add in management consulting, it was close to 60 percent.
The hefty endowments of such elite institutions are swollen with tax-subsidized donations from wealthy alumni, many of whom are seeking to guarantee their own kids' admissions so they too can become enormously rich financiers and management consultants.
But I can think of a better way for taxpayers to subsidize occupations with more social merit: Forgive the student debts of graduates who choose social work, child care, elder care, nursing and teaching.
Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "Beyond Outrage," now available in paperback. His new film, "Inequality for All," was released in September. He blogs at http://www.robertreich.org.