“The ideas of economists and philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.”
John Maynard Keynes
In 2014 Nick Lemann contacted me about a profile he was writing about Janet Yellen for the New Yorker. He had a brilliant idea. In his essay, he wanted to assign bird names to Janet Yellen and other prominent economists, including her Nobel laureate husband, George Akerlof.
Two birds are used to describe the monetary policies of economists, especially central bankers who have great power over the lives of ordinary people. Hawks tend favor high interest rates in order to keep inflation low. Doves favor monetary policies like low interest rates and quantitative easing that tend to grow the economy and stimulate job growth.
Oddly, the hawk-dove generalization persists, even though, as numerous observers have argued, the labeling is oversimplified to the point of being meaningless. One proof being that an individual economist can shift from hawk to dove depending on circumstances. Yellen is mostly a dove, but she has and could be again a hawk. Better that each economist have his or her own bird name, based on background, economic philosophy, individual inherent traits, public persona (bombastic, arrogant, measured, modest), what they like to do in their spare time, and morphology (short, tall, thin, plump).
I never specifically discussed with Nick what prompted his idea. As is often the case when colleagues, even ones who’ve not spoken to each other in decades, toss around an idea, I just “got it.” I was immediately on board with his idea.
Nick knew I knew something about giving people bird names. I am the Brown Pelican, and around the Texas Monthly office, where Nick and I overlapped in the 1980s, my coworkers referred to me, amusedly, as such. I am part of a clan of birders who received bird names 50 years ago from the esteemed Texas birdwatcher and mentor of young birders Edgar B. Kincaid, Jr. After he died in 1985, his mentees carried on the tradition.
I spent a several hours over a couple of days reading about Yellen and her fellow economists and coming up with bird names for them. Jizz is the term birders use to identify a species by its general appearance and behavior – by the vibe the bird gives off. Jizz birding is a skill acquired with experience. The same concept applies to assigning bird names to humans. I compiled and sent to Nick a chart documenting the bird names for his list of economists and my jizz reasoning behind each. My selections were spot on – not that anyone but I would care.
I named Yellen the Bluebird. Specifically, the Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis. She strikes me as a quintessential East Coaster, born in Brooklyn, educated at Brown University and Yale. Yes, she was on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley for years, where she is now Professor Emerita. So? I still identify as a Texan, even though I left Texas almost 40 years ago.
Bluebirds, among American birds, enjoy broad popularity. So does Yellen. In these deeply entrenched and contentious times, she was approved by the Senate as Secretary of the Treasury by a wide bipartisan margin (84-15), an even wider margin than when she was approved as Chair of the Federal Reserve in 2014 (59-34).
Yellen’s behavior, as manifested in her monetary policy, reminds me of a Bluebird. She is calm, steady, thoughtful, companionable. I love the fact that she lunched in the employees’ cafeteria when she was Chair of the Fed.
Bluebirds, though often described as sweet, are fiercely protective of their territories. I believe in her unruffled way Yellen fiercely defends her economic principles.
Her lovely, lilting, calming voice is reminiscent of the Eastern Bluebird’s song.
She frequently wears blue.
Bottom line: Janet Yellen looks like an Eastern Bluebird.
On July 11, 2014, I received a brief email from Nick that read, “Remnick killed all the bird names. Sorry.”
I was not really surprised. As much as I loved Nick’s idea – and still think all these years later the concept could have had traction – I knew it would be a hard sell to a boss who “didn’t get it.”
I gained a bit of knowledge about economic policy and the economists who hold sway over our lives. I follow news of the economy and economic policy with greater attention and from time to time I read enlightening books about those subjects (e.g., Robert Kuttner’s 2018 book Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism). And, in the end, I was amply rewarded. In the print edition of Nick’s article, the spot illustrations – one of the wonderful hallmarks of the New Yorker for many of us – were of Bluebirds.
Nick’s profile, “The Hand on the Lever,” appeared in the July 21, 2014, issue of the New Yorker. With Janet Yellen the first woman – not to mention bluebird – to hold the position of U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, his piece is a must-read.
Addendum: “Your Economics-Birds Quiz”
Recently, I was reading a fascinating article in The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/10/constitutional-case-gun-control/600694/ about the constitutional case for gun control, in which the authors mentioned the work of the late Yale law professor Robert Cover. One of his overarching legal principals is the importance of narrative in the context of law. (They write in the article, “According to Cover, narrative is what gives law moral authority, what imbues it with the power not to compel mere obedience, but to embody the legitimate choices of those it governs.”) In a far less weighty realm of thought, Robert Cover is renowned for an op-ed piece he wrote in the New York Timeson April 5, 1979, called “Your Law-Baseball Quiz” in which he challenged readers, in a multiple-choice test, to pair the correct Major League baseball player with one of four U.S. Supreme Court Justice, based on the way the player played ball and the Justice adjudicated law.
To honor a legal scholar who died too young, and to perpetuate Nick’s great idea, if only for my amusement and perhaps that of a few fellow birders, here is your “Economics-Birds Quiz.” Depending on reader demand, I may or may not provide the correct answers in a subsequent post.
1. John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946)
(b) Jack Snipe
(d) European Shag
2. Milton Friedman (1912-2006)
(a) Hoary Redpoll
(b) Turkey Vulture
(c) Brewer’s Sparrow
3. Alan Greenspan (1926-)
(a) Pied-billed Grebe
(b) Gray Catbird
(c) Swainson’s Thrush
(d) Sooty Shearwater
4. Paul Volcker (1927-)
(a) American Coot
(c) Yellow-billed Cuckoo
(d) Great Blue Heron
5. Joseph Stiglitz (1943-)
(a) Magnificent Frigatebird
(b) Yelllow-rumped Warbler
(d) Royal Tern
6. Ben Bernanke (1953-)
(b) White-breasted Nuthatch
(c) Pomarine Jaeger
(d) Chimney Swift