I ask a question, Gabaix insults everyone else in the room

Like most economists, I like to ask questions in seminars and conferences. Sometimes the answers are quite informative. One interesting case was In November, 2017, I attended the Midwest Macroeconomics conference (https://editorialexpress.com/conference/MMMPitt/program/MMMPitt.html#block_detail_3). Xavier Gabaix was one of the plenary speakers. The tile of his talk was “Behavioral Macroeconomics” and he presented a paper titled “Behavioral Macroeconomics Via Sparse Dynamic Programming” (http://pages.stern.nyu.edu/~xgabaix/papers/brdp.pdf) .

He spoke about “sparse” models. Sparse approximations have been developed over the past 25 years by many applied mathematicians. Xavier cites a couple of papers from the math literature and uses its jargon, but the presentation made very little mention of how the mathematical ideas were connected with the paper. In particular, some examples of “sparseness” in his presentation were not sparse in the sense used in the math literature. I patiently listened to Gabaix’s exposition. After the end of his talk, I asked him to tell us how his work was related to the math literature on sparse methods. His answer was surprisingly frank and honest:

“We should take this offline because you are the only one in the room who would understand my answer”.

I did not appreciate the flattery. I was appalled at Gabaix insulting well over 100 people in the room. All my degrees are from the University of Wisconsin, a Midwest university represented at the conference. This insult was particularly inappropriate given the fact that Big Ten universities and other universities in the Midwest were the leaders in mathematical economics in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Perhaps Gabaix’ comment would be appropriate for some other audiences but that was not the case on that day.

Because he was in the room, Xavier’s response reminded me of my mathematical logic courses where self-referential assertions are often invoked to illustrate logical puzzles. You are welcomed to explore where that goes, but on your own. Been there. Done that.

I often ask questions about the mathematical foundations of the research presented in a presentation. In many cases, the speaker refuses to answer. In one seminar, the speaker announced early in their presentation that they would not take any questions from me about computational methods, saying that was something they would talk to me about later. As I expected, that future conversation never happened. In consecutive years, two Harvard job market candidates responded to my computational questions by saying “I will contact you later to discuss your questions”. The similarity in their responses makes me suspect that this is part of their training. “Later” never seems to come, which I suspect is also part of their training.

I used to attend macro seminars. Many papers contain some computational steps. I would wait patiently and ask questions about the computational method when the speaker would get to that part of the talk. However, one of the seminar hosts would usually declare “Time is short and we want to see the results.” This is an example of how my education, which was mostly as a math major (four years as an undergraduate and four years as a graduate student), differs radically from economics practice. Economists tell stories with a beginning and an end, and like to gloss over how they got to their destination. Mathematicians put more emphasis on the journey, wanting it to be consistent with the laws of logic.

These experiences have much in common: economists don’t like questions about how they reached their conclusions. What are they trying to hide?

I have advice for people not part of the elite when they organize conferences. You surely know that many economists at elite universities have no respect for you, particularly if they, like Gabaix, have never spent time in the “wilderness”. I see and hear this all the time. However, unlike Gabaix, I am not going to generalize. There are people at Harvard (and more generally at the CHYPMS cartel) who do not have these condescending attitudes. If you make more effort in vetting potential speakers you will find ones who won’t insult you. Unfortunately, you do have to make some effort to find such economists.

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