Barry Smith: The economics of lunchtime
October 10, 2002
There were 50 economists and only 20 microphones, which created an immediate supply-and-demand problem. The economists were all in the same room with me, the Audio Visual Guy, the one in charge of all the microphones.
The economists had gathered for two days to solve the problems of the world, at least the economic ones. They all sat in a big circle and took turns pontificating and predicting. These were heavy hitters in the glittery, star-studded economics world. Big, big names, I’m sure.
The moderator of this meeting constantly reiterated the ground rules: speak up so everyone can hear you, keep your comments brief and don’t interrupt. He was also a champion mumbler ? sounding a bit like Tom Waits on Valium ? seized every chance to speak out of turn and rambled on way too long when he did. Leading by example was clearly not a hobby of his.
The room was situated such that the circle of tables and chairs extended to the very edge of the round room, leaving very little space to walk. Those already seated had to scoot their chairs in and lean forward when someone wanted to walk past.
Let’s recap. Economists, solving the world’s problems, crowded room.
Now comes the good part. Since there was much to talk about and little time, the moderator decided that rather than an actual meal break, they would instead have a “working lunch.”
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Like this: Lunch is announced, and when people are so moved they leave the room quietly, fill their plates from the outside buffet and return to eat lunch at their table, all the while listening intently to whomever was on the mic.
Lunch is served. Let the fun begin.
The first wave of people left quietly enough, but when they returned they had a soup bowl in one hand and a plate in the other.
Loud whispers of “Excuse me, excuse me, sorry, excuse me” filled the room as they made their way back to their seats. Meanwhile, some guy was talking about Panama.
“Excuse me, excuse me, sorry, excuse me.”
The first wave went back outside for their drinks, then returned. The sound of 8 soda cans opening at the same time was a nice indicator of what was to come: Start your engines.
As the next random wave headed for the buffet area, the clinking of silverware and slurping of soup began to rise, mixing nicely with the now loud whispers of those needing some room to walk. I turned up the microphone of the poor guy talking, but I can only do so much.
“CLINK, SLURP, SORRY, EXCUSE ME the situation in Panama is quite dire and requires our immediate PARDON, EXCUSE ME, CLINK, SLURP.”
The floor would then be turned over to another economist, and as soon as they opened their mouths a big clump of people would stand up and head for the door. Man, what that must do for your ego. You’ve flown all this way to say your bit about the Euro, and everyone is either out getting soup or is so focused on eating the soup they have that you are essentially talking to no one. Even the AV Guy has made a run for the buffet table by this point.
These staggered waves went on for two and a half hours, as there were seconds to be had, as well as desert, then coffee. Silverware clanked to the floor, drinks were spilled, laughter from the outside buffet table spilled into the room. Your average preschool indoor recess would have been more orderly and focused.
Since these people are leaders in their field ? world experts, even ? I have to assume that something was going on that I didn’t understand.
I mean, there must have been some underlying economic principle at work. Some law that says a successful lunch break is one which creates a constant, incredibly distracting din for hours on end, such that any economic points raised during that time are either inaudible or simply ignored in favor of cold cuts.
This must be the case, as they did it the exact same way the next day.
To me it was just good comedy. Obviously I have a lot to learn about economics.