How doing economics is like riding a HarleyPosted: December 19, 2011
When I was a grad student at UCLA, I had the great good fortune to marry a management consultant. As a result, my grad school experience was, well, richer in some ways than those of many of my fellow students.
At one point, my wife became manager on a project her firm was doing for Harley Davidson. She hopped on a plane and disappeared for several weeks, organizing work teams on the Harley assembly line.
One day, some time after her return, we were driving north on the 405 when a couple riding a Harley Road King (the big, two-seater highway bike) zoomed by. My wife said, “Maybe we should consider riding.” Needless to say, I couldn’t believe my ears. This was a sudden, unexpected, miraculous piece of good luck!
I offered a quiet prayer of thanks and replied, “Great idea! We could get a Road King and tool all over the state!”
“A Road King?”
“Yeah. We could get one and ride up the Pacific Coast Highway. Wow. It would really be a blast. Romantic!” I helpfully suggested.
“Are you planning on riding bitch [recently acquired slang from the Harley shop floor referring to a motorcycle passenger]?“
“… uhm … what …?”
“If we ride, I’ll be on my own bike!”
And, thus, began a canonical SoCal adventure. We took riding classes and purchased two brand-spanking new Super Glides, mine black and hers red. It really was a wonderful experience. We still have a number of long-standing friendships that originated within the Harley community.
During our SoCal motorcycling romps, I frequently had the following experience. Upon pulling into the parking lot of a motorcycle bar, Macdonald’s, gas station, etc., and minding my own business, some complete stranger would walk over, point to his Honda (BMW, Kawasaki, etc.), and launch into a rant about why Harleys sucked and why his Honda (BMW, Kawasaki, etc.) was totally superior. Often, these diatribes were delivered red-faced, veins popping, and spittle flying.
So much emotion. Which was puzzling. I mean, I never felt compelled to walk up to some stranger riding one of those other brands and lecture him on the inherent faults of his preferred machine. I was happy that he was happy and spent exactly 0 milliseconds agitated about his choice. I never saw anyone in our Harley group — or even anyone who happened to be riding a Harley — engage in this puzzling behavior.
Don’t get me wrong, I was always interested in chatting with folks who sincerely explained why they liked their choice of bike (and did not try to use the explanation as a pretext to launch a vicious attack on my character). Much can be learned from such friendly exchanges and, indeed, there were several occasions on which much was.
I was reminded of these experiences when I read Teppo’s Freakonomics post the other day. The link is to a rant by a couple of statisticians cataloging the technical faults of an economist writing popular tracts for a nontechnical audience (and you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to detect the vitriol directed at economists as a whole). I often get this as well. Non-economists berating me on the post-modern philosophical failings of my methods, non-modelers excoriating me about the pointlessness of using math in the social sciences, and so on.
So much emotion. Guys, go write Freakostatics or something. Seriously. We’re fine with that. You get on with your ride and we’ll get on with ours.