Students from Columbia’s School of Professional Studies attend their graduation ceremony on May 10, 2024, in New York City. The college’s main commencement ceremony was canceled amid pro-Palestinian protests on campus. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago via Getty Images)

To the Class of 2024: You Are All Diseased

The commencement speech you need to hear.

If you are graduating from college this year, I suspect you’re not too familiar with George Carlin. So before you become inflamed about the (intentionally) harsh title, let me tell you I plagiarized it from Carlin, who was one of the best American comedians of the last 100 years. His show You Are All Diseased is available on YouTube, and it is so good that I was willing to start by alienating you a bit just to plug it here. You’re welcome. It is especially recommended if you’re in any kind of altered state of mind.

Speaking of states of mind: I’m worried about yours.

Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among people your age in the U.S. are skyrocketing. I myself lost a student to suicide a few years ago—an experience I wish on no one. I’m here to tell you that I think it’s partly our (your professors’) fault. We, along with others, have been feeding you a distorted view of the world and your place in it, and I think this has caused a considerable part of the existential angst you all feel.

But I’m not just aiming to point fingers.

I want to lay a vision of the present and future, which I genuinely believe and yet know many of you don’t share. After all, exposing you to unfashionable ideas is a core part of a healthy education. My deeper hope in doing so is to start a conversation on changing this sad state of affairs and to get you on your way to a happy and healthy life. Isn’t that what commencements are all about?

Whenever I speak with my students—I teach at the University of Virginia—they seem deeply pessimistic about the state of the world. We all know the reasons. Climate change is going to kill us all; late-stage capitalism is running amok; inequality is at an all-time high; racism and bigotry are rampant; gender-nonconforming and queer people are under unprecedented attack; economic anxiety has never been worse; AI is coming for our jobs; and on and on and on.

I then pose a simple thought experiment to them: If you were given a time machine that could take you back to any period in the last 12,000 years—since the dawn of civilization—when would you rather live?

You see, I believe we currently live in the golden age of humanity. Things have never been better for human beings. Yet it seems we have never felt worse about our prospects. 

If you’re a woman, go back more than about 100 years and you become property (of your father and, later, your husband), with no voting rights and little protection under the law. If you’re a person with above-average melanin levels, like me, the same (and worse) happens to you. Gender-nonconforming minorities would find the past just as terrible. 

Based on every objective measure of well-being—safety, health, wealth—if you are a college student in America today you are better off and wealthier than the king of England was 300 years ago. You have better access to education, entertainment, leisure, and healthcare. You have cleaner water and more abundant food. You have a significantly safer and longer life. And you have access to all of the world’s knowledge, including this piece, in the palm of your hand.

And it’s not just you. Throughout recorded history, the vast majority of humans lived in what we would today define as abject, dehumanizing poverty. Income and wealth inequality were measurably worse than they are today by orders of magnitude. Women died during childbirth at staggering rates. Most humans didn’t survive childhood. And various forms of subjugation and slavery were the norm in nearly all societies. On these and a variety of other objective metrics, humanity has made breathtaking progress in the past 300 years. 

Which then raises the question: Why? Why is it that “everything is amazing and nobody is happy”?

Let’s go back to comparing you with the king of England. If you’re anything like my students—I’ve tried that line on them, too—you felt that something was off with that statement. How can it be that you’re better off than the king of England? You certainly don’t feel better off, do you?

We economists call this phenomenon “relative wealth concerns” or “keeping up with the Joneses.” These are just fancy terms to describe a simple psychological fact: we are constantly busy comparing ourselves to our peer group and feel bad when we fall short in that comparison. 

Peer group is an essential term in the previous sentence. No one cares that they’re enormously better off than their grandparents; they just care that they’re worse off than Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. You don’t feel wealthy, despite the fact the median human lives on the equivalent of $5,000 per year. Yes, you read that right. Imagine if you lived in the U.S. but spent only $5K a year at current U.S. prices, and you’ve imagined the life of the median human today. Your “peer group” isn’t humanity; it’s social media influencers and billionaires, and you are deeply unsatisfied when comparing your lives to theirs.

You live in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, yet you feel economic anxiety. The late Charlie Munger summarized it succinctly: “The world is not driven by greed. It’s driven by envy.” And in this era of instantaneous communication networks and social media, envy has been put into hyperdrive. 

But envy has also been transformed and rebranded. Once a deadly sin, it became a virtue. We call it “fairness” (or sometimes “equity”) now and concentrate our attention on all the ways the world is “unfair.” Mostly the ways that lead to others in our peer group having more than us.

The world is unfair. Deeply so. It’s just that you’re the lucky ones. You won the birth lottery. 

In a truly fair world, any dollar you make or spend above $5,000 a year would instead be given to someone else. Maybe a poor Kenyan, or Bangladeshi, or Indian. But that’s not the kind of fairness and equity anyone talking about “fairness” and “equity” around you seeks. 

You’ve been lied to. You’ve been told by the media, social networks, and not least your professors, that this fantastic world we live in is evil. Not only that, you’ve been told it’s your fault. You’re too racist, too greedy, too white, too privileged, not sufficiently attuned to the plight of the marginalized. It is not enough to be non-racist, they say; you must be anti-racist. Anything less than that, and you’re complicit in evil. Some of you are better by default due to some accidents of birth; some of you are worse. Small wonder you feel suffocated, anxious, and depressed. Any human, weighed down with this responsibility and guilt, would be just as down. The cognitive dissonance of being told colonialism is evil, American slavery is uniquely evil, that wealth and the markets that enable it are evil, while going to school at a top-tier U.S. institution built on “Monacan land” using slave labor would incapacitate anyone.

The people pushing these ideas may have meant well. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. But we’ve seen more than enough to know that the outcomes of this worldview are terrible. And yet many of your professors keep reinforcing these harmful lies.

I know that from seven years of teaching juniors at UVA about markets. My first class of the semester is titled “What Is Money?” A deceptively simple question, but simple questions are the most interesting. We discuss the emergence of “barley-backed” money in ancient Sumer; the idea that money is memory of past services rendered; the inherent positive-sum aspect of exchange in free markets, in which by definition both sides to a transaction become better off as a result (why would they both agree to it otherwise?); and the mind-bending idea that when they look around them in the classroom, everything they see, except naked humans, was made by a corporation. To a first approximation, corporations produce all the things and humans consume all the things. And we’re always very rude to them. That seems mighty ungrateful of us.

We also discuss wealth, or the accumulation of money. As a refugee, my family’s “balance sheet” zeroed out in my early life. The money I have today was willingly given to me in exchange for my services, which luckily appear to be in fairly high demand. I taught my students, and they gave me proof commemorating my service to them. I then, of my free will, asked Tesla for the services of a car and passed on some of that proof-of-service to them, to commemorate their service to me. So did many others, with their own hard-earned proof-of-service. We’re better off, Tesla is better off, its employees and suppliers are better off, and so are their employees and suppliers. When my students ask, “Why do Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have so much money?” I answer, “Because we gave it to them, willingly.” They created highly coveted services and managed to secure a teensy fraction of the value they created for other humans.

Without fail, at the end of the class a few students tell me that the content of the course was diametrically opposed to what they had been taught so far. Prior, they had class discussions about the exploitative nature of the market system and its inherent unfairness; the evil and greed of corporations; and the fight of exploited workers against oppressive capitalists. 

I point out to them that these paradigms imply a zero-sum world in which wealth can only be created by taking it from others, whereas they live in the positive-sum world of markets, in which wealth is created by exchange. Markets have deposited a magic wand in their hands, which allows them to freeze moments in time, observe what is currently happening in foreign lands, and conjure loved ones for a face-to-face conversation out of thin air. Kings would have given half their kingdom for such a wand, but now anyone can have it for the low, low price of $69.99 per month. Or about five hours of student work. This is how we got wealthy.

They were told that the wealth of men like Musk and Bezos, and, incidentally, theirs, is ill-gotten (despite the fact it was willingly given to them by other humans). That it was somehow taken from its rightful owners, the oppressed, whoever they may at that moment be. And that this oppressor-oppressed mindset applies more widely, to other realms of human interaction. Because of accidents of birth, pigmentation, and privilege, they are oppressing others. Hence they, the oppressors, must yield the floor to the oppressed, as they have already caused “enough harm.” 

My students arrive at my class steeped in zero-sum ideas, in which one person’s gain must be another person’s loss, and the only way to get a thing is by “oppressing” it from someone else. Then, they are shocked to hear heretical ideas about a world in which wealth is created, not stolen, and human interactions can be win-win and make all of us immensely well-off. The dissonance is severe, and they’re unsure how to deal with all the shame and guilt accumulated by years of accused “oppression.”

I hence want to close by telling you, the class of 2024: it’s not your fault. You are not evil. Being white / black / privileged / downtrodden / well-educated / illiterate / wealthy / poor / healthy / sickly / cisgendered / non-conforming does not make you bad (or good, for that matter). The sins of your forefathers are not your own. You did nothing wrong by being born. Yes, aiming to improve the state of human affairs is noble, but choosing instead to study, play games, and make out with the cute person you have your eye on does not make you bad. It makes you a normal, healthy human being. And no one seems to bother to tell you that. So there, I said it. You are not subject to the “original sin.” Go forth and have a happy and healthy life. There is still (much) room for progress, but things are currently better than they’ve ever been, and improving fast. 

Or as Carlin put it, in his direct way: “Life gets really simple once you cut out all the bullshit they teach you in school.”

Oh, and one last thing: you might wonder why am I saying such heretical things in public. It’s because I committed to it as part of my Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) goals for the year. 

All professors at UVA have a yearly review, covering goals in the all-important fields of teaching and research excellence as well as the recently added “DEIB goals.” The specific DEIB question on my annual review was “Outline your priorities and plans for the coming year, including your specific goals to help foster Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging within the School and within your classroom.”

Here’s what I had to say about that:

  1. Why is this category still here?

  2. I’m one of the most diverse faculty members here (a refugee, veteran, immigrant, person-with-above-average-melanin, and the proud owner of the only mezuzah at McIntire), and I aspire to include all of my students and give them a feeling they belong. Yet, possibly the thing most diverse about me is my opinion in the next point:

  3. Diversity is great, inclusion is amazing, we should all feel like we belong here, but the only interpretation of Equity I’ve had rigorously defined is stock equity in a company. The main meaning of the word I could find seems to be adjacent to equality of outcomes, which I hold to be anti-liberal and deeply misguided.

  4. My DEIB goal for 2024 is to help abolish the DEIB establishment at UVA.

I think I’ve done really well on my DEIB goal for the year with this piece. They’ll probably give me a raise after that, don’t you think? At the very least, no one will accuse me of telling you only what you want to hear. And maybe a few of you will actually heed my advice. If that’s the case, it was all worth it.

Robert Parham is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce; follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @kn_owled_ge. Watch Jerry Seinfeld give his Duke commencement speech here.

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