Economists Can Be Silly

Money Man
Photo by Eric MesaCreative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

If you are a B-list celebrity and want to resurrect a bank account, go on reality television; if you are an economist and want to make more money than your tenured academic post provides, lecture everyone on how to live their lives.

At least this seems to be the current trend. Reality television series with has-beens and never-beens can be so embarrassing it is hard to look away. Economists of the should’ve-beens and could’ve-beens schools for misunderstanding global economies bring their accredited erudition to change the choices we make every day. This, too, is hard to look away from.

The latest fast-talking, fast-thinking, fast-writing economist to join the pop-fray is Tyler Cowen. Through his blog, his academic web page, and his books, Cowen covers an incredibly wide range of opportunities for applying economic theory to everything from the practice of scheduling doctor’s visits, eating strategies, the social value of Microsoft, to a new look at arts funding.

In fact, culture is high on Cowen’s list of loves, interests, and experience. Art opinions and recommendations are a constant presence in his work, and his time.

How does a master polymath do it all? Why, he apparently has systems for absorbing as much culture as possible with the least expenditure of time. According to Hugo Lindgren’s review in New York Magazine of Cowen’s next book (available on August 2) Cowen poses better approaches for audiences of culture.

Why traipse through a whole museum to see so many paintings? Just go straight for the most famous one, and leave the rest behind. Don’t spend the time to read a whole book, but follow only one character, skip around, and quickly get to the last chapter. Whatever you do, do not waste two hours watching one movie from beginning to end, but go the multiplex and jump from one to the other playing at the same time to have notched three flicks on your belt of cultural currency.

I know that economists dislike irrationality, or at least find that it so often gets in the way of their predictions and expertise. But, why ruin the experience of our best expressions of irrationality: art.

In an equation where the scarcity of time is most important: Why spend any time to find out if Hans Castorp gets off the Magic Mountain, just cut to the end; Why spend any time listening to complications of Carmen’s love life, just check out if the end is tragic; Why spend any time watching all those scenes with the different camera angles, just cut to the end to find out what was so important about Rosebud; or, why spend any time waiting to see how Hamlet is going to do it, just cut the finale of sword and dagger play.

In a world where the difficulties of living and providing for others can be so challenging, perhaps we enjoy cultural experiences precisely because we do not apply an economist’s valuations to an audience experience.

Of course, we’ve all had experiences where we regretted the lost time; but, we’ve also had experiences that transported us away from our daily clock calculations and ticks. In search of lost time, indeed.

Perhaps Cowan does not have the patience, the willingness, or the openness to listen to others. In other words, Cowan does not want to be an audience member for someone else’s story.

The economic solution is simple. He should create his own art. Surely, he won’t mind if we skip around.

- Bill Reichblum

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