The three kinds of economist jokes…:-)

Michael Munger has a great post on economist humor. He is apparently writing a paper to on the topic and asks to send jokes.

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.”

Why do economist jokes exist?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!

Meanwhile, he says there are three kinds of economist jokes: funny, insightful and mockery. There is thin line of difference between the three categories. For instance insightful:

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.

Hmm.. 🙂

Then there are jokes which mix all three called portmanteau jokes.

Do send the jokes to Mr. Munger and please mark e a copy as well.



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