Thursday, February 23, 2012

Economists, release your inner nerd!

Time for a lighter post, on the culture of economics. (Warning: this post is tongue-in-cheek.)

Every field of study has its own peculiar conventions of how "very smart people" are supposed to act. If you're in physics, you should have unkempt hair, juggle or do some other unusual hobby, be sexually promiscuous, and try to make your intellectual achievements look effortless (i.e. you should do a Feynman or Einstein impression). If you're in computer science you should talk like a character out of a Neal Stephenson novel, use hacker jargon, and know every XKCD joke by heart. If you're in math, you should either act genuinely crazy (like Grothendieck or Perelman) or very soft-spoken and mild (like Fefferman or Tao) - i.e., you should convey the impression that you have a lot of very powerful software running in the background of your brain. I'm not sure what biologists act like, but it seems to include wearing a goofy grin all the time.

But all of these disciplines share some common markers of nerdiness. One of these is enthusiasm for new technologies. Another is a love of - appropriately enough - science fiction. the "gee whiz" attitude is an integral part of being a science nerd.

Economics is different. Very few economists read a lot of sci-fi (or, at least, are reluctant to admit it openly). At social gatherings, economists tend to discuss sports, politics, and money rather than augmented reality or driverless cars. They tend to be better-dressed and better-coiffed than natural scientists. In other words, they are a little bit like MBAs. In this way, economists show that they are about Business; that they are worthy of consulting gigs and Congressional testimony.

But economists can't be just like MBAs; they have to also show that they are Smart as well as Business. But if you can't show you're smart by quoting Vernor Vinge and gushing about Augmented Reality glasses,  what are you supposed to do?

Answer: Act like you have mild Asperger's. Don't pump people's hands when you encounter them at the AEA Meeting; stand there awkwardly as if you're not sure whether to shake their hand or not (then finally shake it). When discussing economics, pepper your explanations with excess formalism: instead of saying "figure out how the business cycle works," say "examine the joint time series properties of macroeconomic variables." Instead of "mean and variance," say "moments of interest." Talk...very...slowly...with...random...long... ... ... ...pauses. Drop the occasional politically incorrect comment, and then pretend you didn't realize you did it and apologize sincerely. If all else fails, start wearing Hawaiian shirts and make your hairstyle a combination of fauxhawk and mullet (OK, just kidding, don't do that).

But for Milton Friedman's sake, don't be a science nerd! If someone references Star Trek or Mass Effect, give them the hairy eyeball. Remember, "technology" has nothing to do with semiconductors or machine learning or General Relativity; "technology" is the Solow Residual! Economists evaluate technology from on high; we do not descend into the muck of knowing how it actually works. And remember: you do math well, but you don't like math, not for it's own sake. Do not gush about all the cool difficult math you just did, whine about it.

To sum up, let your social awkwardness indicate that you are a Smart Person, but let your self-consciously normal personality and appearance indicate that you are also Business.

OK, OK, I joke. But man, I wish that the economics profession would let loose its inner geek once in a while! Face it economists: you do math, stats, and coding for a living. It's too late; you are a nerd. You are not a backslapping deal-making executive or a trash-talking caffeine-guzzling Goldman Sachs trader. You are a scientist of some sort, or at least you should be. Embrace it! Watch Fringe. Grow your hair out. Learn to juggle.

Actually, I see some encouraging signs of a move toward nerdiness in the econ profession. Bloggers like Tyler Cowen, Karl Smith, and Robin Hanson are beginning to gush about the Next Big Thing in technology (while Brad DeLong regularly quotes all my favorite sci-fi authors). When he taught my macro field class, Miles Kimball kicked it off by talking about how in 100 years we'd all be cyborgs (a more optimistic variation on Keynes' quote about the Long Run).

Think about it. We are living in the Age of the Nerd. Economics is one of the last places where being a geek is not yet sexy. But the times, they are a-changin'. Live long and prosper.


  1. Great post! Now if I could only encourage consultants to do the same thing...

  2. I was just about to say, being an economist sounds a lot like being a consultant, in any field. Better read the sports page the night before your meeting, so you'll have something to talk about.

  3. If you think economists are in denial about their nerdiness, you should see lawyers!

  4. Daniel4:27 PM

    Oh man...I embrace this fully. I'm finishing my masters in economics and I definitely talk more about Stata and derivations than other things of normal conversation. My sister even caught me giving her advice in econospeak; after she complained about a rough day at work I offered the encouragement, "It's not like one data point is a trend."

  5. Economists may wear sports coats and khakis, but the garb is typically ill-fitting and paired with sartorially misinformed shoes, e.g., Krugman.

    I believe you meant to describe financial economists - just compare the respective lobbies at AEA and AFA.

  6. Anonymous5:50 PM

    If you're nerd, (used to free-ranging discussions of interesting questions with colleagues from different fields) just try and get an economist to even consider discussing an idea even slightly different from the orthodoxy of whichever school to which he belongs.

  7. @Anonymous:

    I think that's a bad comparison. I believe that nerds (like myself, at times), you probably have strong opinions about areas of interest, like individuals characters in Star Wars or Star Trek, which will cause intense frictions when there are disagreements within those areas. I think that's pretty much how economists of different schools are. They disagree strongly, maybe even passionately. Don't get me started about Jar-Jar...

  8. This is great. I wish undergrads did this too. (Which is where I am right now.) Maybe applying seemingly dull micro material to "cool kid situations" (sports, working out, girls, etc.), would make young people more interested in basic econ ideas.

  9. Anonymous8:02 PM

    In reply to Julian Jansen

    If it were a matter of general conversation, you would be correct, but I was interested in a specific issue in economics concerning assessing the long term value of government investment in supporting future growth. vs. 'crowding out' of private investment capital. e.g. Shouldn't a project be evaluated on its ability to repay its costs, plus the probable future value of markets it creates to absorb private capital in productive ventures?
    Interstate Highway System/dispersed manufacturing/efficient distribution
    Rural Electrification Administration/increased farm productivity, market for appliances.
    Hoover Dam/production and jobs created from additional irrigated farm land, power and water to allow further development of Los Angeles and WWII aircraft industry. etc etc.

    Seemed like an interesting economics question to me.

  10. Hahha this is pretty true! One day I asked 3 or 4 of my classmates if they thought our metrics TA looked a little bit like a Romulan and they had no idea what I was talking about... :/

  11. Hysteresis? Remind me, is that more like hysteria or a hysterectomy?

  12. Anonymous3:52 AM

    But economists read sci-fi all the time!
    -Atlas Schrgged (Remenber the joke from Krugman)
    -All the Neo-Classical Sysntheses...

    Mainstream Economics is mainly sci-fi

  13. Anonymous8:57 AM

    Krugman got into economics through sci fi - I've certinly never been under the impression that econonomists didn't read it!

  14. Anonymous10:08 AM

    Honestly, you might be hanging around the wrong economists. I gave a member of my dissertation committee a guide to the flora and fauna of the Star Wars universe as a parting gift (I knew it would be appreciated). I may be the only person under 40 who has read the entire "Foundation" series. I can cite entire episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" from memory. I work with economists who rush home the night "Vampire Diaries" is on and aren't ashamed to admit it.

    Now, are economists the kind of nerds you can find in other departments, with noticeable nose hair, strange body odor, who dress like they were forced to choose their outfits blindfolded from a Sears rack? No, and I'm etermally grateful.

  15. Larry Headlund10:27 AM

    I think you miss a key part of being a nerd: you care a whole lot more about your interests than you do about the opinions of the 'danes. If you conceal your passions or hide behind professional jargon you aren't going to make the cut.
    On the other hand, if your absolute first thought on hearing "there will be a measurable amount of precipitation" is 'Measureable? With respect to what sigma algebra?" you've got it made.

  16. fantastic post, noah. i love reading your stuff these days, and this made for a fun morning.

    hope you're doing well and contracts! may you help user in the new era.

  17. that was meant to say "congrats", but perhaps "contracts" could be interpreted as some kind of inside joke for the nerdy.

  18. Yes! I think culture is important. I, like you, was a physics major turned economist. But having finished a master's in econ, I decided to go back to physics for the PhD. I had many reasons for doing this, but one part I can't deny was that I definitely felt more at home in the nerdy physics crowd.

    My recommendation for econ nerdiness: make bad puns by applying econ jargon to totally unrelated topics and situations. I remember in my intermediate macro class in college, we had to one day move the tables around in the classroom. When I and another student had to pull a long table backward, I said "Looks like we need to take on a contractionary policy." The other kids in the class thought I was being ridiculous. But this kind of thing is standard fare in the physics department.


  20. Anonymous4:17 AM

    I totally agree. Economists are some of the most boring academics I have ever met, which is not really too much of an insult given that academics are typically pretty cool. I think a lot of it is due to the fact that economics is something a lot of the people who are not intellectual and just want to major in something you make a lot of money in major in. They then discover that it is pretty cool, but that effect is still there. The same effect can be seen in law, some of biology, etc.

  21. Anonymous3:02 PM

    That's the problem, Noah. There's nothing accessible for economists besides political debates. That's why we are the way we are.

    Take Isaac Asimov's "The Gods Themselves." It's a story about how mankind connects with beings from a different dimension and we trade seemingly stable elements in this realm, which are highly reactive in the other. Result: infinite energy. If that wasn't nerdy enough, the people in the other dimension had three genders, were made of gas, and could form together to make solid people that live thousands of years.

    Now, obviously, bio and physics nerds would go to town on that. However, what can economists like about that? Not much, really. If you're into the economics of energy, then perhaps it'll have some redeeming qualities, but otherwise no.

    Long story short, you need to make nerdiness more accessible to economists. However, I think your quest will be hopeless.

  22. Hahaha. This post had me laughing out loud.

    Nerdy IS Sexy. But it's true, none of my professors have ever been traditionally nerdy. Strange!

    great post.

  23. Anonymous7:02 AM

    Your description of our view of technology extends to business in general: only viewed from on high. Economists are proud about how little they know -- or want to know -- about the specifics of business. In any university, we economists are hated by the liberal arts profs and the engineers but positively despised by the business profs for our arrogance!

    Economists are the proverbial smartest and wisest guys (still very, very few women economists!) in the room and we know it. Unfortunately, the profession attracts misanthropes -- think "House" (our favorite show!) -- who too seldom deign to provide the "obvious" policy solutions to intractable problems unless it "interests" us. Or it meets the Spock standard of "fascinating."