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Monday, August 3, 2009

Boring and Interesting at the Same Time

Recently some loosely related fragments of thought about economics were circulating in my mind. They seemed to be trying to find a way to coalesce into some form of higher level connection.

The first fragment was simple enough, on the surface. I was wondering what the origin was of “The Dismal Science” as a nickname for economics. One might think I would have looked into that before deciding to name my blog Undismalization, but I didn’t. So I finally decided to do some research into the question.

But before I began that research, I had already started to form some speculative hypotheses. One was that the name may have emerged as a reference to what some might simplistically think of as a “dryness” of the field compared to some other sciences, due to its focus on money and numbers. I reasoned that this supposed dryness, in the popular mind, might in turn make economists vulnerable to some of the same stereotypes to which practitioners of related fields, like accounting, fall victim.

As it turns out, I will need to deal in a separate post with the results of my investigation into the actual origin of the Dismal Science nickname, since it took me in a very surprising and unexpected direction that is quite different from the relationship that ultimately emerged among the original strands of thought that led to this post.

But meanwhile, as I continued to speculate about the nickname’s origin, my thoughts shifted to current representations of economists in popular culture, namely a couple of television advertising campaigns. One features Ben Stein and Shaquille O’Neil. Another uses actors to portray nerdy-looking economists who are, as they say, “with the government and here to help.” They go house to house and knock on doors--which, predictably, are peremptorily closed in their faces.

So the popular mind thinks of economists as dry, monotone, socially awkward types. According to the stereotype, they are all nerds. And they are all male, a misleading stereotype that in itself is worthy of further study. If you‘ll forgive my own indulgence, for the sake of argument, in a different stereotype, I know of some economists whom I would have to describe as “hot babes.”

I hope this point will be taken from my intended perspective of suggesting respectfully that being both an economist and a hot babe could be viewed as an empowering redefinition of what it means to be either. I approach this issue, of course, from a heterosexual male point of view, but the same principle could just as well apply to male economists who would defy the stereotypes.

But as portrayed in popular culture, economists are guys who probably didn’t get too many dates in high school. Or college. Or grad school. Or as postdoctoral fellows. Or as tenured professors, think-tank scholars, or investment analysts. And so on. So, I wondered, is this stereotype related to the origin of the Dismal Science nickname?

These two strands of thought made me think back in turn on how, years ago, I used to describe my undergraduate economics courses to people who would ask me how I liked them. Usually, the person asking the question seemed to be operating from a preexisting assumption that economics courses were boring.

The question always made me chuckle to myself, because my feeling about the issue was somewhat two-sided. The best way I could answer was to say that the courses were “boring and interesting at the same time,” or that they were “interesting but could still put you to sleep.”

I’ve mentioned this before in this blog, but I’ll repeat it for the benefit of newer readers: I’m not an academically credentialed economist. My formal training in economics is limited to an undergraduate minor. So I only got so far into advanced level coursework, and I have little doubt that if I had gone further in the field the courses would have become more stimulating.

But “boring and interesting at the same time” was only a slight indulgence in hyperbole for the elementary- to intermediate-level courses I took. On one level I was attracted to the elegantly pure logic of the process of thinking through how the basic market forces of supply and demand play out in scenarios at the macro and micro levels, ranging from the determination of energy prices or mortgage rates to the formulation of urban land use policies.

Yet I’d still often find myself dozing in class, or paying a lot more attention to unrelated distractions, such as how some fellow student a couple of seats away was crossing and uncrossing her legs (who knows -- maybe she went on to get her PhD and is now one of those “hot babe” economists I mention above!), than to the professor’s lecture.

Maybe this was all a random function of the personalities of the professors whose courses I happened to select. They were a notch above the Ben Stein stereotype in personality and charm, but not a very big notch. So, I wondered, is this further evidence that observations about common personality traits among some economics practitioners may have something to do with the Dismal Science nickname?

But I then thought about how engaging and unboring some of the most noted economists are--to me, at least. I’ll leave it to others to judge whether the fact that I consider the likes of Paul Krugman, Larry Summers, and Austan Goolsbee to be interesting people may simply mean that I am boring.

And then I thought about how ironic it is that Ben Stein, the figure whose public persona arguably embodies most closely the “nerdy economist” stereotype, has, to the best of my understanding, only a shaky claim to being an economist. Trained as an attorney, he holds only an undergraduate degree in economics.

Do these stereotypes discourage some bright and talented people from becoming economists, just as the nerd stereotype, in general, discourages some people from taking up other sciences? If so, that’s a shame--because the current crisis, and the dumbed-down, reduced-to-soundbites character of so much of the media dialogue about it, demonstrates just how much need there is for engaging, passionate economics experts who can communicate authentic, innovative ideas to the public on how to solve our problems and move forward constructively.

Yet the debate that is trickling down to the “man on the street” level seems to still be frozen in a language that dates, at the latest, to the Cold War, and that has limited relevance to complexities of the global, interdependent, technology-driven world we live in today. The language of this debate is simply inadequate to the task of helping the constituents of our elected officials make informed decisions on what policies and rules of the business playing field they should support. Yet maintaining this outdated language seems to help the cause of those whose interests are best served by conserving the status quo.

In some cases, conservative commentators seem to be deliberately perpetuating stereotypes about economists as part of their rhetorical strategy. Rush Limbaugh, for example, has verbally caricatured Austan Goolsbee as “one of those eggheads, those Ivy-educated economists,” in the Obama administration.

I know that there are professional economists among the readers of this blog, and I intend no offense to any of them. I am not suggesting that there are not plenty of economists who are among the best and brightest in intellect and who have personality, passion, and social and communication skills to match.

But given the fact that my undergraduate experience partially reinforced the negative stereotypes, and given the prevalence of those stereotypes in popular culture, it may be worth a pause to ask whether the so-called Dismal Science is doing a good enough job at selling itself for what it in fact really is: a very important and most Undismal science that focuses on one of the most fundamental ways that human beings in organized societies navigate their relationships to one another: through the medium of money. As such, it’s a science that should inspire excitement rather than a fear of being bored to death. It’s a science that should matter a lot to everyday Joes and Janes as well as intellectuals.

And, who knows -- maybe a Web gallery of “The Sexiest Economists Alive” would be a lighthearted yet empowering way to start breaking the stereotypes. Sphere: Related Content

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