Dear Edgeworth--When I attended the American Economic Association conference in San Diego, I noticed that all the young economists looked exactly the same. Thousands of economists. Every single one of them in a drab sports jacket and tie. Identical! Do they kick you out of the profession if you wear a pullover sweater? I am worried. Please let me know, as I do not wish to make a mistake when I attend next year.
Forever in your debt, Gunther.
Dear Gunther--I am pleased to answer you on this subject and seize the floor, at last, from my misguided research assistant, P.S.Babcock. This upstart scribbler routinely casts aspersions on his betters, we who practice economics in its purest and most beautiful form, uncorrupted by common sense. How tiring are these naive graduate students with their talk of the "real world." I visited the real world once and I can tell you this much: It wasn't any fun. I had a summer job 40 years ago selling vacuum cleaners. I was fired just because I never learned how to turn the blasted machine on. I knew that it was possible, in principle, to turn the machine on, but did this matter to them? No! The injustice of it still festers inside me. That's the real world for you. They expect you to provide a service that someone else actually values. How's that for dull?
But I digress.
There is a subtle but important reason for you to wear that sports jacket, Gunther, particularly if you will be going on job interviews at the conference. True, you do not need to dress up much on most college campuses. On the West coast in particular, it is perfectly acceptable for professors and assistant professors to wear jeans when they teach. Why then must you wear that jacket and tie while interviewing for a job whose essential duties do not require that you wear a jacket and tie? Applicants interviewing for a job at Burger King need not wear a jacket and tie. Why should you?
We must not forget the powerful signal associated with this implicit dress code. If anyone chose NOT to wear a jacket and tie, this could be interpreted as an impulse toward independent thought. Even worse, it could signal that the non-wearer dislikes pointless absurdity. It could be a sign of creativity, heaven forbid. That's the last thing we need. The greatest threat to our profession, Gunther, is an original idea. We must stamp out creativity wherever it rears its ugly head. If you are an independent thinker, Gunther, I can only pray for you and hope that you are healed of this malady before you damage your career irreparably. Find something someone else has written, Gunther. Better yet, find an entire subdiscipline that investigates some nearly meaningless technical problem in a standardized way--and then follow them. Follow them, Gunther, lemming-like, to the cliff of academic success.
Make no mistake: cleverness is splendid. I adore cleverness. But the cleverness must be facile, vacuous, and completely technical. It must have as little content as possible. It must fit in nicely with the way we're used to posing questions and must never sink to the level of questioning a systematically misleading assumption. If the emperor has no clothes, you must never point out this fact. You must never offer evidence and analysis that shows that he is naked or propose ways to remedy the situation by sewing him a pair of trousers. Who wants to think about a naked emperor? (If the emperor is an economist, the prospect is doubly distasteful). No, what you must do is to pretend the emperor is clothed in a jacket and tie. In your paper, you must cite all the researchers before you who have written about his hypothetical attire. Then you must find some problem with his tie clasp. It's slightly crooked, say, and should be straightened. Write your paper. Title it "Contraction Mappings on the Emperor's Tie Clasp." From then on, other researchers will reward you by citing your work whenever the subject of the emperor's hypothetical tie clasp arises: You're halfway to tenure already.
What would hapen, you ask, if you should casually allude to the emperor's nakedness? You would be flattened, Gunther. No one is better at retreating into solipsism than an economist. An economist will curl up inside a ball of leather-skinned tautologies faster than an armadillo. I have seen it happen in a hundred seminars if I've seen it once.
"The emperor," says the young iconoclast. "I couldn't help noticing..."
"Noticing what?" says the senior fellow.
"Well, you know... He's not entirely.... um... clothed."
"Can you prove that?"
"Well, there's his belly button. It's right there. You see it?"
"Right there. I can see it clearly. It's an innie, not an outie."
"Can you prove it's a belly button?"
"What's the alternative?"
"It could be the bottom of his tie."
"Kracklemeuser and Herbst, in the QJE (2003), demonstrate that many ties extend down over the belly of the tie-wearer. They show that a tie could be painted in flesh tones so that its bottom-most part looked exactly like a belly button. Thus you cannot prove that the emperor is naked, or even that his belly button is exposed."
"But... but... it's an innie!"
"In an recent extension, I, myself, have shown that that a tie could be painted, in fact, to look exactly like an innie."
"What about those three hairs on his chest? Are you going tell me that's just a dress shirt, painted to look like a chest?"
"It certainly could be. I only assert that you can't prove otherwise. Until you prove otherwise, the dominant model in the profession for the past fifty years--the one in which the emperor is dressed in a shirt and tie and a possibly crooked tie clasp--remains the starting point for all discussions on this subject and the nudity assumption is unwarranted."
"But you haven't made an argument. You've only restated your assumptions. The only reason you can refute mine is that you impose absurd, almost nihilistic, standards of proof of my assertion while blindly accepting you own."
"I don't need an argument. I have thousands of insular, self-referencing papers to back me up. I have tradition. I have habits of thought that go back a century. Oh, and I have tenure."
"All right. I admit it. You do have tradition on your side. But what about Occam's razor? You've described something that is convoluted at best. Isn't the simplest explanation--that the apparent belly-button actually IS a belly button--most likely to be true?"
"I'm an economist. We believe Occam wore a beard."
And so it always goes, Gunther. Some people never figure it out, of course. And that is one reason you must wear a jacket and ties at the AEA conference. We can't discern who the independent thinkers are. They do not wear signs on their foreheads. So we reward job applicants who dress according to an arbitrary standard. If this requirement is more irksome to independent thinkers, if they dislike conformity that has no function, then they are less apt to comply. Thus, the profession benefits.
The moral of the story, Gunther: Burn that sweater!