Mark Twain said, in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar, that “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” Our propensity to tell, or enjoy, jokes seems to parallel this need to recognize that we don’t always live up to our inflated sense of our own importance.
Problems of inflation are often studied by economists. Having myself been catechized in that church, I am still a bit sensitive to the particular branch of humor called “economist jokes.” You’ve probably heard them, often along the lines of “Economists were invented to make the weatherman feel better about his predictions.”
I’ve been working, with my Duke colleague Geoffrey Brennan, on a paper on “economist jokes.” We are trying both to catalog and to explain the phenomenon of economist jokes. (If you know any good ones, please do send them along!)
In this essay, I will summarize the reasons we have come up with to explain why economist jokes exist, and to give an example of each of the three “types” of economist jokes that we have identified.
One could object that our theory is too abstract, or that our jokes are not funny, but c’mon, we’re economists!
We narrowed down the varieties of economist jokes to three categories:
Many — perhaps most — jokes have elements of all three, of course. And the very notion of being “funny” may be a question of personal taste. But most economists are subjectivists, meaning that there’s no accounting for taste. (That may be way so many economists study accounting, not taste, as you can tell from our wardrobes…)
One way of defining “funny” is behavioral: people laugh. But why do they laugh? What makes one joke or situation funny, and another just a home for crickets?
One possibility is Isaac Asimov’s pithy observation that humor lies in the sudden, possibly inappropriate, and (from the point of the view of the listener) unexpected alteration in point of view. That is, humor has two elements: a pleasing incongruity, and an unanticipated result that is nonetheless logically consistent with the setup. We arrive at an unexpected place, but could have seen it coming if we had been aware of the trick.
An example of a “funny” economist” joke might go like this:
An economics graduate student was crossing a road one day when a frog called out to him and said, “If you kiss me, I’ll turn into a beautiful princess.” He bent over, picked up the frog and put it in his pocket. The frog spoke up again and said, “If you kiss me and turn me back into a beautiful princess, I will stay with you for one week.” The graduate student took the frog out of his pocket, smiled at it, and returned it to his pocket.
Desperate, the frog then cried out, “If you kiss me and turn me back into a princess, I’ll stay with you and do anything you want.” Again the grad student took the frog out, smiled at it and put it back into his pocket. Finally, the frog asked, “What is the matter? I’ve told you I’m a beautiful princess, that I’ll be your girlfriend and do anything you want. Why won’t you kiss me?” The grad student said, “Look, I’m an economist. I have no idea what it would even be like to have a girlfriend. But a talking frog has got to be worth a fortune.”
One might object that this joke is actually mockery, because it implies that (male) economists are perhaps not all that romantically successful.
But, as in slander cases, truth is a defense against mockery charges — and there is an element of truth to this joke.
A joke may contain no unexpected alteration in point of view at all, but simply be intended to encapsulate or aphorize some feature of the economics profession. Whether this is “funny” to the listener may depend on whether that insight is recognizably true.
Here it’s worth noting that the truth may sometimes be exaggerated, which may make it even more true as a general description. Of course, the things that are “true” of economists are never true of all, and may not even be true of most real economists. But the exaggeration of a quality that all economists recognize can be the basis of amusement.
One of my favorite “insightful” jokes might also contain elements of mockery (although I must admit almost no one finds it very funny). The joke goes like this:
Three friends — a priest, a psychiatrist, and an economist — decide to play a round of golf. They get behind a *very* slow two-some, who, despite a caddy, are taking all day to line up their shots and four-putting every green, and so on. By the eighth hole, the three men are complaining loudly about the slow play ahead. The priest says, “Holy Mary, I pray that they should take some lessons before they play again. Standing around this much is a sin against God!” The psychiatrist says, “I swear there are people that like to play golf slowly, as a passive-aggressive reaction to their hatred of their mothers.” The economist says, “I really didn’t expect to spend this much time playing a round of golf. This is costing me a fortune.”
By the ninth hole, they have had it with slow play, so they tee off while the group in front is still on the fairway. Shouting “FOUR!” they all three hit, scattering the other golfers willy-nilly. Almost immediately, the course marshal comes up on his cart and admonishes the impatient threesome. “Those two guys are blind! They are firefighters who lost their eyesight saving people in a fire. Show a little respect!”
The priest is mortified; he says, “Here I am a man of the cloth and I’ve been swearing at the slow play of two blind men.” The psychiatrist is likewise also mortified; he says, “Here I am a man trained to help others with their problems and I’ve been acting like someone with a neurotic compulsion.” The economist stares at the ground for a moment, and then tells the marshal: “Listen, this is a terrible situation, and I feel awful that I didn’t see this before. Tell those good men that next time they should play at night.”
The point being that the priest and the psychiatrist are mostly concerned about their own socially embarrassing action, but the economist is concerned about the social optimum. It would be a Pareto-improvement, at least weakly, for the blind men to play at night. They would be no worse off, and the costs of the slow play would be eliminated since only blind people would be willing to play at night. Economists are concerned about the efficient allocation of resources, and much less about the distributive consequences of that allocation.
Does that mean that economists are “bad people?” You can hear the joke that way (and many people do consider this joke to be mockery in the negative sense). I don’t think, however, that it is necessarily a bad thing to think in terms of efficiency.
Regardless, there really is an insight to be had about the way that economists think.
The mockery of economists is common, approaching the level of mockery directed toward attorneys or politicians. Further, given the number of actual economists, as opposed to people who offer opinions about economics, it may be the case that “economist mocking” is the single most focused kind of pundit ridicule.
There are some instances of this genre that are simply self-deprecation (“An economist is someone who actually wanted to be an actuary but lacked the charisma!”), and some are instances of self-mockery mixed with illustrative insight. But what we have in mind are stories, narratives, or “lines” that are mostly derisive: “If all the economists in the world were laid down end-to-end, they still wouldn’t reach a conclusion.”
The most famous of all the “mockery” genre is probably the single best-known economics joke, the most common form of which is the following:
A physicist, a chemist, and an economist are stranded on an island, with nothing to eat. A box washes ashore, and when they open it, it turns out to be a box of canned soup. But how to open the cans? The physicist says, “Let’s break the can open with a rock, using precisely the correct vector of force so the contents aren’t spilled.” The chemist says, “Let’s build a fire and heat the can just to the point where the contents break the metal but don’t explode.” The economist says, “Well, let’s do this in an a priori manner. First, assume that we have a can-opener…”
I hate this joke. The point seems to be that economists make assumptions that are so extreme, and unrealistic, that the analysis that follows is simply pointless.
It is true that economists use abstract models, and that these models leave out many factors that “matter” in the real world. But the assumption (for example) that preferences are fixed and exogenous forces economists to focus on the variables that are important for an economic analysis. The variables usually being prices of the product in question, prices of other products, and income. If the beginning of every analysis simply invoked “preferences changed!” we would not really have a model at all, but just an ad hoc story about taste.
Our thesis in our work on economist jokes is that there are really three factors: whether the joke is funny, or insightful, or makes fun of economists. If the unexpected alteration in point of view is too great, seems strained, or violates the internal logic of the joke itself, then we may say, “That’s not funny.” This may mean that the joke is not intended to be funny — though the teller finds it so — because the object is not humor, but rather mockery. And even mockery can be funny if the joke is also insightful.
Sometimes, truly good jokes are a kind of portmanteau, a combination of the three categories. I will close with one such here; this joke has something to make almost anyone laugh, and get offended, all at the same time.
In the late 1970’s, economists from around the world were visiting a South American nation for a conference. After one of the sessions, four of them — a Pole, a Soviet, a Texan, and a New Yorker — walked out together to get some lunch. An excited young newspaper reporter approached them, and tried to get their attention: “Excuse me! Excuse me, but I can get your personal opinions on our recent meat shortage?”
The Pole looked puzzled, and said, “What is this ‘meat’ you speak of?”
The Russian looked puzzled, and said, “What is this ‘personal opinion’ you speak of?”
The Texan looked puzzled, and said, “What in the world is a shortage?”
The New Yorker looked puzzled, and said, “Forget all that. What does ‘Excuse me’ mean?”