Bryan Caplan  

Conventional Reflections

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My Comic-Con epiphany: Economics doesn't really have superstars. Even if Adam Smith himself showed up at the American Economic Association meetings, he wouldn't have thousands of economists fall on their knees in awe. But that's basically what happened at Comic-Con when Neil Gaiman held some public Q&A.

To put it more analytically, imagine graphing the distribution of status at Comic-Con versus the AEAs. Put density on the x-axis, and status on the y-axis, and center the densities around the x=0. (Like this).

At Comic-Con, the status distribution is a steep pyramid. At the bottom are the fans, many of whom have given up on the quest for real-world success altogether. At the top, you have Neil Gaiman, Joss Whedon, the cast of Battlestar Galactica, Summer Glau, Matt Groening, and so on - fabulously rich, famous, and beloved. It's almost impossible to imagine the two groups socializing on equal terms.

At the AEAs, in contrast, the status distribution is much stouter. At the bottom, you've got Ph.D. students from low-ranked programs. At the top, you've got Clark and Nobel prize-winners like Paul Krugman, Steve Levitt, Gary Becker, and Daniel Kahneman. And though the grad student may feel uncomfortable walking right up to these luminaries, it's do-able. The cynic might observe that Krugman has to be nice to the grad student - one day he may be a professor who picks textbooks for 800 students. There's something to this, but the deeper social reality is that the Krugmans accept even grad student as peers - at least within "an order of magnitude."

Which convention is more fun? Comic-Con, hands down. The fanboys rejoice in the reflected glory of their idols. Envy is the furthest thing from their minds; they revere Gaiman as their rightful king. At the AEAs, in contrast, you'll see a lot of bored faces - and there's much evidence of envy. Though the economists at the top of the pyramid are, all things considered, quite gracious, that doesn't save them from resentment.

What's the lesson? Hierarchy breeds happiness? Maybe, but my experience at GenCon, the world's biggest gaming convention, suggests otherwise.

GenCon is almost as egalitarian as the AEAs, but attendees seem to have even more fun than they do at Comic-Con. At least that's how things look to me. Why? As happiness researchers would expect, the folks at GenCon have more fun because they are participants, not just spectators. They go, for the most part, to play games, not observe celebrities - and therefore enjoy a strong sense of "flow" throughout.

When I think about all the bored faces at the AEAs, it's hard not to wonder if economists have something to learn from the fans of comics and gaming. Even I don't want to turn the AEAs into a circus, but I would like to see a little more enthusiasm. Any suggestions?


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Scott W writes:

Games can spice up any gathering. Why not the AEAs too?

Aaron writes:

1)Bryan, you're my hero. Econ guy at GMU and taking trips to Gen Con Comic Con? That's the life.

2)Why not play board games at AEA? I'm sure people would be dying to wipe an Ivy/Stanford/MIT etc. prof off the board during Caylus or Settlers. "Yeah, gripe all you want, you ain't getting any sheep from me, Chicago."

Rue Des Quatre Vents writes:

Hey Bryan, are you going to Gen Con this year? My brother needs an extra player for his team.

A.W. Hogan writes:

Encourage decentralized gatherings. My favorite conference of the year is always BlackHat/Defcon. Its odd for presentations there to be boring and when they are hackers wander out and regroup with more interesting people. Worst case is you sit there scanning the crowd to play the organized game of Spot the Fed.

Also: booze.

David J. Balan writes:

I've heard it said that this is why people like monarchies. You want to vicariously enjoy something glamorous and exciting, but to do so you have to put the people you're admiring so far above yourself that they are not remotely in your reference group, so you can't ruin it by getting jealous.

BTW, meeting Paul Krugman at the AEAs a couple of years ago was probably the most star struck I've ever been. The proposition that Paul Krugman is always right is, while not quite literally true, a more reliable guide to life than almost any other.

8 writes:

For a board game, I suggest Diplomacy. For a videogame, Capitalism or Civilization would work.

Matthew c writes:

The proposition that Paul Krugman is always right is, while not quite literally true, a more reliable guide to life than almost any other.


You should post that one to "Overcoming Bias" and see what kind of reaction you get there. . .

tom writes:

All grad students in Spock ears or Buffy outfits.

ad writes:

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Gabriel writes:

Uh... I think there's an omission. The bottom of the bottom of the Econ pyramid are undergraduates (prospective or wannabe future graduates--like myself) who would lick the boots of graduates at low ranking schools, who would in turn kiss Krugman's pinky ring.

Ironically, perhaps telling of the state of Economics, I wouldn't feel like going up to the 4 people named as superstars. They just aren't that interesting to me. I wouldn't even bother listening to their speeches. There are at least a half a dozen graduate students, from regular programs, from which I'd rather hear a talk.

Bryan Caplan writes:

Gabriel writes:

Uh... I think there's an omission. The bottom of the bottom of the Econ pyramid are undergraduates (prospective or wannabe future graduates--like myself) who would lick the boots of graduates at low ranking schools, who would in turn kiss Krugman's pinky ring.
With a handful of exceptions, I don't think undergrads are part of the hierarchy at all. They don't go to the AEA meetings, and few of them actually want to become professional economists. :-)

Bryan Caplan writes:

Rue Des Quatre Vents wrote:

Hey Bryan, are you going to Gen Con this year? My brother needs an extra player for his team.
I'll be there, but my schedule is packed. Still, tell your brother to feel free to email me.

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