The ``dismal science" has its lighter moments. The back cover of the Journal of Political Economy has published amusing stories about economics for a number of years now. It's great reading and I recommend it highly. As just one example, I will mention Martin Feldstein's hilarious variation on "Twas the Night Before Christmas," with Milton Friedman as the jolly Santa driving a sleigh pulled by a team of monetarists. Here is a random collection of a few more jokes about economics. Economists will appreciate them. As for mortals, I can't say...

* If you can find a copy, take a look at Sydney Harris, What's So Funny About Science?

An economist is someone who, when he finds something that works in practice, tries to make it work in theory.

If you laid all the economists in the world end to end, they still wouldn't reach a conclusion.

Everyone has heard the old joke about the physicist, the architect, and the economist marooned on a desert island with a can of beans. The question was how to open the can. The physicist observed that the can could be placed on the fire. Eventually the heating of the can would create so much pressure that the can would explode and the beans could be retrieved. The architect thought that this would be a rather messy solution to the problem and suggested building a small enclosure around the fire. Then, when the can exploded, the beans would splatter on the walls of the enclosure, from which they could then be scraped. The economist had a better solution. First, he said, "Assume that we have a can opener ..."

Admittedly, that's a somewhat tired old story. I came across some amusing contributions in sci.econ a while back, however, about what might be the parting words of an economist lying on his deathbed. As a variation on the can-opener story, someone suggested that the economist's last words would be, "Assume that all agents are infinitely lived ..."

A colleague tells a story that he attributes to Jagdish Bhagwati, who happened to be visiting an LDC and came across a former student. Economic conditions were bad, markets seemed chaotic, policy was confused. The former student, undoubtedly recalling beautiful theorems about market efficiency from graduate micro theory courses, complained that in this economy, at least, "The invisible hand was nowhere to be seen."

Ways to Validate Economic Forecasts

Economic forecasters never get it right; it has ever been so. Of course, one could always try to enforce forecasts with extreme prejudice. I was listening to an old-time radio tape of Will Rogers radio programs and came across a little gem about planning, forecasting, and taxes:

This last week has been one of the biggest plan weeks I've known of. Right on top of my advice not to plan -- well, there came a plan from Secretary Morgenthau. He come out with a plan to put a bigger and better tax on these big estates. He gives figures that show what this new inheritance tax would bring in every year. He says in 1936 we get so much, in 1938 -- oh, right along. He seems to know just who's going to die each year. Now, brother, that's planning, ain't it! Now suppose, for instance, he's got scheduled to die J.P. Morgan. Now I think Mr. Morgan is a nice man. I think his patriotism might compare with some of the rest of us, but whether he'd be patriotic enough to want to die on this year's schedule or not -- I mean that's asking a good deal of a man. I say, old men is awful contrary. So in order for Mr. Morgenthau's plan to work out, I -- well, he's got to bump these wealthy guys off, or something. Well, now, the government's doing everything else, you know, but there is a humane society.
--- Abridged from Will Rogers, Good Gulf Show, April 28, 1935.

Back in the bad old days of the centrally-planned economy, people in the Soviet Union had long, long, waits to get all kinds of goods and services. For instance, there was the fellow who went to see the electrician to make arrangements for some repairs to an electrical appliance. The surly electrician pulled out a calendar and said, "I can't schedule you any time soon. In fact, my next open appointment is three years from today." The guy said, "Three years from today, eh? Well, can we make that in the afternoon?" The electrician, somewhat taken aback, said "Yes. But why in the afternoon?" Came the reply, "Well, you see, the plumber is coming in the morning."

It's tough to get tenure these days. Faculty are under all sorts of pressure to get articles published in professional journals, and if they don't, they lose their jobs. One economist who was denied tenure ended up working at a public utility company but was delighted to find that the pay there was much higher than in academe. His comment: "Yes, the pressure for research in universities is immense. It's a matter of publish or prosper."

Q: How many economists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None, the market will take care of it.

Attributed to Robert Heilbroner: The use of mathematics has brought rigor to economics. Unfortunately, it has also brought mortis.

Harry Truman is alleged to have complained that he could never find a one-handed economist. Whenever he would pose a question for an economist, the response would be, "Well, Mr. President, on the one hand ... And then again, on the other hand ..."

Bucks for Brains?

A traveler wandering on an island inhabited entirely by cannibals comes upon a butcher shop. This shop specialized in human brains differentiated according to source. The sign in the shop read:

Artists' Brains $9/lb
Philosophers' Brains $12/lb
Scientists' Brains $15/lb
Economists' Brains $19/lb

Upon reading the sign, the traveler noted, "My, those economists' brains must be popular!" To which the butcher replied, "Are you kidding! Do you have any idea how many economists you have to kill to get a pound of brains?!"


The foregoing joke has always been a favorite of mine, especially apt because it echoes the famous Diamond-Water Paradox. (How can essentials like water be so cheap while baubles like diamonds are so costly? A basic question about price determination.) It took on new meaning for me, however, when I discovered that the Research Challenge Trust Fund program at the University of Kentucky, under which I was hired, is popularly known as "Bucks for Brains."

The First Law of Economists: For every economist, there exists an equal and opposite economist.
The Second Law of Economists: They're both wrong.

Q: What do you get when you cross the Godfather with an economist?
A: An offer you can't understand.

Finally, for those who don't have the opportunity to partake of the curiosities that have adorned my office door from time to time, here is a sample what you might find there:


The Italian merchant Niccolo dei Conti who converted to Islam and traveled in the East between 1415 and 1439 reported this extraordinary treatment of debtors in Java:

"Debtors unable to pay their debts become slaves to those whom they owe, but others avoid this service by choosing death voluntarily in this way: they take a sword, go out in to the streets, and kill everyone they meet until they encounter one who is better, who kills them; then the creditor of the dead man arrives and demands that the one who killed him must now pay his debts, and he is forced by the judges to comply."

-- from The Guiness Book of Records 1492.


Is faculty violence a growing problem at Vanderbilt University? You might think so, considering this intriguing headline from the Vanderbilt Hustler, Tuesday, February 16, 1999:

Faculty Violence Policy in the Works

This certainly got my attention.  One wonders: what form does faculty violence take? I got to thinking ...

During a recent final exam period, noted Professor of Economics Harry Callahan addressed his class ...

"... I know what you're thinking: is the answer (a), (b), (c), or (d)? Well, to tell you the truth, in all the excitement, I sort of forgot myself. But being that this is the final examination for Economics .357, the most difficult course in the world,  you've got to ask yourself one question: Am I feeling lucky?"


Eternal Life, Eternal Jobs, God, and the Modern University

Why God Never Received Tenure at any University:

1.  He had only one major publication.

2.  It was in Hebrew.

3.  It had no references.

4.  It wasn't published in a refereed journal.

5.  Some doubt he wrote it himself.

6. He may have created the world, but what has he done since?

7. The scientific community can't replicate his results.

8. He never got permission from the ethics board to use human subjects.

9. When one experiment went awry, he tried to cover it up by drowning
the subjects.

10. He rarely came to class and just told students,  Read the Book.

11. Some say he had his son teach the class.

12. He expelled his first two students.

13. His office hours were irregular and sometimes held on a

14. Although there were only 10 requirements, most students failed.

A colleague sent the above item to me via email; it's been floating around the internet for a while. It is attributed to graffiti found on the door of the Religion Department at Whitworth College, Spokane, WA. Not quite up to the standard of Martin Luther's 95 theses found on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, but still cute.

Speaking of 95 theses: It's interesting to note that Luther was a Professor of Moral Philosophy, just like Adam Smith. Did either actually have tenure? It occurs to me that maybe our Ph.D. students should also write 95 theses. Let's see, at an average rate of two years per thesis ... well, I guess we wouldn't have to worry too much about them ever coming up for tenure. As Luther might have said, hier schreibe ich, ich kann nicht anders...


Here's not a joke, but a fact (cf. Will Rogers, quoted on my home page). I was doing some research on intergovernmental cooperation. As everyone knows, one of the original objectives of the Treaty of Rome of 1957 was to encourage free trade among member states of the European Community, the predecessor of today's EU. The preamble of the treaty, for example, states that

"His Majesty The King of the Belgians, the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, the President of the French Republic, the President of the Italian Republic, Her Royal Highness The Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, Her Majesty The Queen of the Netherlands, ...,

"Desiring to contribute, by means of a common commercial policy, to the progressive abolition of restrictions on international trade, ...

"Have decided to create a European Economic Community ..."

So now, a half-century later, how are we doing? In the famous fable about the mice trying to bell the cat, Aesop notes that it is one thing to propose and another thing to execute. I came across the following notice at a European Commission web site:

To achieve this objective the European Parliament and the Council adopted on 19th December 1996 ( Decision No. 210/97/EC ) the Commission proposal for an action programme for Community customs, called Customs 2000. This programme, covering the period 1 January 1996 to 31 December 2000, provided a basis for co-operation between the 15 national customs administrations and the modernisation and harmonisation of customs control systems. This programme has now been updated and extended to the end of 2002 ( Decision No. 105/2000/EC of 17th December 1999 ).

And this is followed by the announcement:

Customs 2000 is now Customs 2002

I think that the customs union part of the EU will be worked out RSN (Real Soon Now). (Thought No. 3.141592653.../2002/DEW of 25th May 2002.)

Of course, to be fair, policy change never ends. The preceding quotation about "the 15 national customs administrations" is now obviously dated, since the EU has grown to include 25 member states. So it's not surprising that "Customs 2002" is now out of date; see What is Customs 2007 ? It's a safe bet that further updates are in the offing.

Acknowledgments: I won't try to give specific acknowledgments here, but colleagues will notice that I have been paying attention to them when they have been telling amusing stories. Also, I have stolen a few from the web page of Pasi Kuoppamaki (see below).

This web page proves the existence of economic humor.  There is another web page with economics jokes, maintained by Pasi Kuoppamaki. Reassuringly, this proves non-uniqueness. I take instability to be self-evident.

Universal WWW Disclaimer

This page is under construction. Expect changes.

David E. Wildasin / dew@davidwildasin.us

Martin School of Public Policy
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY 40506-0027

Telephone: + 1 859 257 2456
Fax: + 1 859 343 1937