Four lessons economists could learn from Elvis

People tell lots of stories about Elvis Presley. One of the most widely told, and my personal favorite, is about the time that he was hanging out with some law enforcement men at Graceland. Elvis suddenly decided he wanted a Fool’s Gold Loaf, an outrageously unhealthy sandwich that a restaurant in Denver sold for the price of 50 dollars. Any normal person would have NOT flown to Denver on his private jet at midnight for a sandwich. However, Elvis was not normal and he did, returning home only after he and his posse, which included the owners of the restaurant that made the Fool’s Gold Loaf and the pilots of his plane, had consumed 22 of the insanely large sandwiches.

I’m not sure why I think about this story so often. I do believe, however, that everyone should have at least one moment in their lives at which they say, “screw it–I’m flying to Denver for a sandwich on my private jet.” The lesson I take from it is one of staring common sense in the face and saying, “not this time, common sense.” Yet, there are times when following a dream at any cost pays, and other times when it does not. Elvis died less than two years after this incident allegedly occurred, probably from a heart ailment caused by years of drug abuse, though the peanut butter and bacon abuse likely didn’t help matters. Was his life worth a sandwich? That’s not for me to say, though I bet those were the best sandwiches of his life that night in Denver.

I’ll ruminate more on this later, but for now I want to get to my list of things economists could learn from the King:

1. Sometimes, combining seemingly incompatible elements makes magic.

R&B+a little bit of country+white man+irreverent gyrating=ROCK ‘N’ ROLL. All the recent discussion about macro models’ limited ability to predict policy outcomes has me thinking that  economics is in the same place that music was in the early 1950s. We’re all Perry Como and Patti Page, not realizing that a simple formula that seems too outlandish to work could snap us out of this easy listening purgatory. All that is needed is a humble economist from Tupelo with a dream.

2. When something doesn’t work, don’t do it over and over expecting different results.

I had to include the perfunctory austerity-bashing point. But seriously, this has been going on for longer than many people realise. It didn’t work in East Asia in 1997, it reeeally didn’t work in Germany in the 1930s, and, as Mark Blyth points out, it’s an even worse idea if every country does it at the same time. And so it goes with Elvis’ acting career. He started off slow with Love Me Tender–the best we can say about it is that it wasn’t that bad. This initiated a brief run of mediocrity that ended with the disastrous Kissin’ Cousins. (who am I kidding…every single one before and after Kissin’ Cousins was deplorable!) But still, Elvis soldiered on with his acting career, encouraged (forced) by his drill-sergeant manager, the Colonel. For some economists, the Colonel is their own ego telling them they cannot backtrack on anything they’ve said. They must, lest they find themselves in this situation. Or doing the clam. If that’s not an effective deterrent, I don’t know what is.

3. Innovation is first ridiculed, then canonised

This is an old, old lesson that’s not exclusive to Elvis Presley or economic thought. When Elvis first became popular, there was widespread moral panic over his “obscene” performances, which in retrospect seem amazingly tame. Every innovator first deals with ridicule and reactionary rage, until his/her ideas/actions/invention become accepted facts. Just ask Copernicus! That being said, it is a difficult thing to remember when you are the object of ridicule among your peers. Economists can be especially snooty and tend to staunchly defend their chosen dogma (see above), which greatly hinders progress. Obviously this is not true of all economists, but to those who used to snicker at conferences when someone mentioned Keynes in a lecture: STOP! Don’t be that guy on the wrong side of history who said that thing about having tamed the business cycle…just don’t.

4. Don’t let success change you

I don’t think Elvis was a bad person, but he did many things that I find morally reprehensible. One of the main ones was repeatedly cheating on his wife and expecting that to work out fine. Elvis made the mistake of thinking he was invincible because of past successes that were due in large part to chance. Most investors can empathise with this course of events. Elvis believed that certain things could not happen because of who he was and what he had accomplished–wrong! Economists must ask themselves if the excellent results they achieve are a product of good work, or simply a serendipitous correlation of happy circumstances. Priscilla leaving Elvis amounted to the same catastrophic wake-up call that economists were treated to with the advent of the recession. While one of these events changed history just a liiiiitle more than the other, they were both arguably the product of hubris and a long run of good luck.

Thinking about the sandwiches again, I still don’t know why I like that story so much. At best it’s a symbol of the inequality that has only grown in recent years, and at worst it’s representative of the gluttony that excess can breed.

But maybe we can be more optimistic than that: it’s the story of a man who wanted a sandwich, had the means to get that sandwich quickly, and did so efficiently, disregarding those who would call his actions bizarre. When you think about it this way, it kind of sounds like a good way for the world to work.

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