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The Humour of Economists

Updated on November 28, 2016

In the 19th century, Thomas Carlyle gave economics the nickname “the dismal science;” he did not intend it as a compliment. It may be dismal but the profession has proved to be a goldmine for comedy writers and even economists themselves are prone to poking fun at their own calling. The Journal of Political Economy uses its back page to publish amusing stories about economics and even those that deal with the subject in “irreverent ways.”

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The Wit of J.K. Galbraith

One of the world’s most respected economists, John Kenneth Galbraith, was a rich source of giggles at the expense of his own profession’s foibles

A few examples of Galbraith’s sometimes pithy take on economics:

  • “One measure of an idea, though economists have not always thought well of it, is whether it works.
  • “Economics is a subject profoundly conducive to cliché, resonant with boredom.
  • “On few topics is an American audience so practiced in turning off its ears and minds. And none can say that the response is ill advised.
  • “Few matters have been more studied with less clarity of result than the role of monetary policy in the years of the Depression.”
  • “Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists.”
  • “[Karl] Marx, like Adam Smith and more than any other figure in economics except perhaps Keynes, has the distinction of greatly influencing the thought of the many who have never read him.”
  • “In economics, the majority is always wrong.”

Economists Asked to Predict the Unpredictable

One of the reasons economists have a poor public image is because they are constantly asked what the future holds.

As everybody who has watched the world’s frequent upheavals knows, the future has a habit of being unpredictable and capricious. But that doesn’t stop people from prodding economists for their opinion about what’s in store.

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U.S. President Harry S. Truman got frustrated by the economists who gave him advice in the Oval Office. As The Economist relates he “… famously asked to be sent a one-armed economist, having tired of exponents of the dismal science proclaiming ‘On the one hand, this’ and ‘On the other hand, that.’ ”

Economists are asked to provide the sort of penetrating analysis such as was delivered in August 2007 by Andrew Capon of State Street Global Markets: “Market participants don’t know whether to buy on the rumour and sell on the news, do the opposite, do both, or do nothing, depending on which way the wind is blowing.”

All of which ties into John Kenneth Galbraith’s oft-quoted remark that “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”

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Laws of Economics

Aside from the law of supply and demand there are a host of other, tongue-in-cheek, economics rules.

Some of these whimsical rules have been collected at a University of Houston website:

  • “The First Law of Economics: For every economist, there exists an equal and opposite economist. The Second Law of Economics: They’re both wrong.”
  • “Bentley’s Law of Economics: The only thing more dangerous than an economist is an amateur economist!”
  • “To which can be added Berta’s Fundamental Law of Economic Rents: “The only thing more dangerous than an amateur economist is a professional economist.”

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There are other fanciful rules:

“Newlan’s Truism: An “acceptable” level of unemployment means that the government economist to whom it is acceptable still has a job.”

Murphy’s law of economic policy: “Economists have the least influence on policy where they know the most and are most agreed; they have the most influence on policy where they know the least and disagree most vehemently.”

Contradiction in Economics Prompts Humour

Ask 12 economists a question and you’ll get 13 different answers.

Economists frequently disagree with each other, something that is noted in Parade Magazine publisher Arthur H. Motley’s statement that, “If the nation’s economists were laid end to end, they would point in all directions.”

This is a variation of George Bernard Shaw’s observation that, “If all the economists were laid end to end, they’d never reach a conclusion.”

Others have suggested the arrangement might lead to an orgy of mathematics.

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It’s said that university economics exams never change from year to year; the questions are always identical, it’s just the nature of correct answers that are different.

For proof of this check out the winners of the 1974 Nobel Prize for Economics that was shared by the socialist Gunnar Myrdahl and the libertarian Friedrich Hayek. They each put forward diametrically opposing economic theories.

This paradox was repeated in 2013 when two economists who held opposing views on the cause and extent of the U.S. housing bubble of the mid-2000s shared the coveted trophy.

Yoram Bauman - The world’s first and probably only stand-up economist

Economics One-liners

Have you heard the one about..?

Tracking down the origin of many jokes about economics is a frustrating endeavour, almost always without reward; they have been passed around so much in university common rooms and by after-dinner speakers that their authors have become anonymous. A selection:

  • If you rearrange the letters in “ECONOMICS,” you get “COMIC NOSE.”
  • Economists get to say “trickle down” with a straight face.
  • Economics is the painful elaboration of the obvious.
  • An economist is someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about - and makes you feel it’s your fault.
  • An economist is a person who has one foot in the oven and the other in the freezer and says, “On the average, things aren’t too bad.”
  • An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today.
  • Not so much a joke as a statement of fact; Mick Jagger and Arnold Schwarzenegger both studied economics. Just saying.

One Final Classic

A man walking along a road in the countryside comes across a shepherd and a huge flock of sheep. He tells the shepherd, “I will bet you $100 against one of your sheep that I can tell you the exact number in this flock.”

The shepherd thinks it over; it’s a big flock so he takes the bet. “973,” says the man. The shepherd is astonished, because that is exactly right. He says “OK, I’m a man of my word, take an animal.” The man picks one up and begins to walk away.

“Wait,” cries the shepherd, “Let me have a chance to get even. Double or nothing that I can guess your exact occupation.” The man says sure. “You are an economist for a government think tank,” says the shepherd. “Amazing!” responds the man, “You are exactly right! But tell me, how did you deduce that?”

“Well,” says the shepherd, “I’ll tell you if you put down my sheepdog.”

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Bonus Factoids

It wouldn’t be right to leave without a few light bulb jokes told at the expense of economists.

Question: How many economists does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: None, because, look! It’s getting brighter! It’s definitely getting brighter!

Answer: None. There is no need to change the light bulb. All the conditions for illumination are in place. Recent surveys show growing confidence in the light bulb lighting up again.

Answer: None. The invisible hand does it.

Answer: None. If the light bulb needed changing the market would have already done it.


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Sauces

  • “One-armed Economists.” Buttonwood, The Economist, June 7, 2010.
  • “Hold on Tight.” Andrew Capon, State Street Global Markets, August 10, 2007
  • “Economics Jokes.” University of Houston, undated.
  • Mikeroeconomics.

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    • Glenis Rix profile image

      GlenR 12 months ago from UK

      I wait with bated breath to see who amongst the economists is right about Brexit.