Every conference should invite two hitchhikers

Recently I went to a (very good) conference.  As a number of us got off the train and waited near the platform for a ride, we immediately recognized each other as belonging to the same event, even though we had not met each other before.  We were short and tall, male and female, and of varying races, but still we all had “that look”; I leave it as an exercise for the reader to consider what that means.

It occurred to me that many conferences could try to be more diverse.  No, I am not referring to gender or race or ethnicity, although that may be true as well.  I am referring to personality types and life experiences.  Perhaps each conference should have at least one or two people who are not driven to succeed, not the member of any elite group, and not assured of their standing in the world.

What then to select for?  I wondered whether each conference ought not to invite a hitchhiker or two.  Think about hitchhikers, at least as a group on average:

1. They are mobile and not so set in their ways.  They do not evaluate everything in terms of its efficacy and productivity.

2. They are adventurous and willing to engage with strangers.

3. They have not sunk their assets into expensive homes or fancy cars.

4. They wish to see the world and have a minimum amount of restlessness, maybe more.

5. Superficially it may seem that hitchhikers are “stupider than average,” but I suspect relative to their demographics they are smarter than average.

6. They do not schedule their lives so very tightly.

7. Since the late 1970s, fewer people engage in hitchhiking, and this raises their intrinsic interest.  They are trying to resurrect a dying form of social capital, still prevalent mainly in Cuba and Eastern Europe.

8. The groups skews male, but I wonder if any more so than conference attendees more generally.

Most of all, hitchhikers probably have some time to spare.  Send out a car, and offer them a ride and a conference.  Toss in $500 if need be.  They still will be cheaper than reimbursing the travel costs for most of your guests.  Furthermore, when it comes to “getting back,” they can, um…hitch a ride.

If you wish, give them the right to shout out “You must be on drugs!’ or “I wouldn’t give you a ride!” at least once each conference, without fear of being ejected or otherwise shamed.

Again, here is a video on hitchhikers.  They are perhaps the least likely guests to complain about the conference accommodations.


Signal theories explain that rich people try to avoid poor people using signals to recognize each other. Maybe complascence is just faith in one's good fortune.

The hitchikers are already there. Waiters, hotel staff, cabbies...they just need permission from the boss to engage with the guests.

Phhttt....staff. Sniff.

If not an econ conference, ask one of the hookers to speak. If an econ conference, ask someone who knows about hookers to bring one to speak.

obvious pro-Stven Levitt trolling here

That is actually a very interesting proposition. I wonder, has anyone actually done that? It would have been interesting to see the results. After all, sometimes from the mouth of the proverbal "babe" can come out the most interesting and thought-inspiring things.

>sometimes from the mouth of the proverbal “babe” can come out the most interesting and thought-inspiring things.

No, eight years of experience with Obama says this theory is dead.

How about real ideological diversity? People who dress simply - out of humility or poverty...people who think that John Searle is the poster child for everything wrong with 21st century scholarship...

'I leave it as an exercise for the reader to consider what that means'

Status signalling über alles, or the triumph of the organization man, or perhaps that of the person in the gray flannel suit? You gentle Reader may decide.

The funny thing is that the DC region is full of people called 'slugs' who pretty much fit the definition of hitch hiker, yet share little with the list described above - 'Slugging, or instant carpooling, is a Washington area commuting tradition dating from the 1970s in which drivers wanting to use high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes stop to pick up passengers (the "slugs") on their way into Arlington, the District or other destinations.' http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/26/AR2010082606229.html

One wonders how a DC region based academic with an interest in economics, living and working near one of the major DC slug routes, could be so unaware of this - 'Smartphone-wielding techsters in San Francisco might call this “ridesharing,” but in the D.C. area, where carpooling has been an accepted way of life for decades, they call it “slugging.” Each day, an estimated 10,000 commuters in northern Virginia hitch rides this way. Passengers get a free ride; drivers get a free pass to use the special “HOV-3” routes, open only to cars holding three passengers or more.' http://grist.org/cities/ridesharing-it-isnt-just-for-the-techy-share-y-set/


How does participating in a consistent predictable program where a ride home in a car is almost guaranteed and has specific spots to go where drivers and passengers will meet to go to specific locations, and backed by a government program that actually does guarantee you a ride home if there is an issue with the main system, have anything to do with sitting on the side of a road hoping some random person picks you up?

Lived in DC for 20 years, carpooled often, never once used the term "slugging".

" Perhaps each conference should have at least one or two people who are not driven to succeed, not the member of any elite group, and not assured of their standing in the world."

Hear that, prior?

Strange morning for the insert function, it seems.

Last week I had an encounter with a guy like this. As you said, adventurous and willing to engage with strangers. He tried to start a conversation I the bus stop but the funny thing is that the questions he made were so.....typical of a policeman. We could have talked about the weather, the spring or the human condition but the guy was more interested in age, nationality, what do you do for a living.....cop kind of questions. In spite of my "look" I had some rough encounters with the police due to my animosity when younger......the funny thing is that drifters can be as annoying as cops.perhaps Tyler is bored of his peers and imposes the desired features in people he doesn't know. But, that other people may not be radically different, we're all humans.

I think boredom is the correct reason why you would do this, it would suggest a stagnant profession. If there were really exciting developments in your field, why on earth would you want some stranger interrupting the sharing of new and exciting ideas with idiotic or uninformed comments? OTOH if the conference is just about signalling and the need for academics to present to fill out their CVs, then I can understand why you would want outsiders to liven the thing up. But perhaps the answer would be to not attend the conference at all, and just hang out with interesting people somewhere else.

It does make me think there is something sick about modern academic culture, where we have the most highly intelligent people basically spinning their wheels doing work of very little significance to the world. Perhaps a healthier system would be to abolish tenure, fund research only through prizes, and have undergraduates taught by professionally trained teachers.


On a second thought, Tyler is not telling things literally, Strauss & shit. Intelligent individuals know that you can't infer character traits and ideas of a person based on socioeconomic condition. Idea #3 is an indisputable truth but #4 and #5 is Tyler overestimating his ability to understand other people's motivations, feelings, and insights. Guessing other people's feelings is difficult. It may work well with your family but even with the people you know for a long time it's possible to make mistakes. What are the probabilities of guessing the feelings of a distant human?

So, the "hitchhiker" could just be a metaphor or archetype to communicate a message to Tyler's audience at academic conferences. Public speakers apply this technique a lot: put in the shoes of fisherman, a salesman, doctor, etc.

I may be overestimating my skills to guess other people feelings too.....ahh, the human condition.

"I never lecture ... not because I am shy or a bad speaker, but simply because I detest the sort of people who go to lectures-- and don’t want to meet them.”

– H.L. Mencken

If you've travelled a lot, you'd know that this is the typical list of questions.

Age. Nationality. Profession (if student?). Marital status.

From there ... who knows.

But yeah, I think there are definitely people out there who interrogate strangers very much with this offensive "policeman" kind of attitude.

Such is life in Trump's America...

At least the food's good.

'there is something sick about modern academic culture'

What makes you automatically assume that the chairman and general director of the Mercatus Center was at an academic conference? Prof. Cowen, for example, undoubtedly adds lustre to all sorts of events where public intellectuals are required to pretend that what is being presented is something other than a straightforward attempt to influence public policy - AEI, Heritage, Cato, etc.

By doing this, you might marginally improve the success of the conference in 90% of the cases, but you also run the risk of getting into a significant problem once in a while. Something you might want to avoid as an organizer.

"By doing this, you might marginally improve the success of the conference in 90% of the cases, but you also run the risk of getting into a significant problem once in a while. Something you might want to avoid as an organizer."

If you are a complacent organizer, maybe. If you are a dynamic, enterprising, daredevil like I am, you know the Mongolians use the same Chinese ideogram to mean both "trouble" and "opportunity", which makes communication among them (and with them) a really difficult and imprecise affair and actualy hampers their economic development.

"Three events were held in the same hotel last weekend -- An economics conference, a chess tournament, and the National Association of Stand-up Comedians..." #JokeSetUps

Aren't hitchhikers, like, the rich version of poor people?

"They travel!" -Hipster poor people.

Why not invite someone who loves Wal-Mart and thinks Denny's is just the bestest? :)

Is this a tribute to Jack Kerouac? Here's the West Coast Straussian Michael Anton's idea of a right-wing bohemia:

"Restaurants and cafes are only the beginning. We'll need a few bars. But our bars will be different--they won't be places where screeching bands destroy patrons' hearing, where people whose haircuts suggest that their heads have been caught in threshing machines sit on their duffs and throw around words like "oppression" and "hegemony." The bars of conservative bohemia will have names like "Churchill's" and inside, people will drink Sam Adams and crusted port while the gentle cadences of Brahms and the ethereal voice of Ella Fitzgerald sooth their savage breasts. Imagine what the conversations would be like: Instead of familiar bohemia assaults on the System, one would hear something like this: "So, you see, poverty programs are a prime culprit in the disintegration of the family" or “I suppose Richard II is good on the problem of tyranny, but I think Macbeth gets much closer to the heart of it. Another round of Coors?"'

Maybe Anton's intent is to shock liberals with an image of Nazi officers in their finely tailored crisp suits listening to Brahms while drinking fine wines and eating gourmet food in a serene chateau while surrounded by beautiful and underage French maidens, but the image I get from Anton's description of right-wing bohemia is the crass, obese, and ignorant Trump entertaining sycophants at the tacky Mar-a-Lago surrounded by attentive underage American maidens.

In fact, it (minus the ideological talk) reminds me of Brazil's late Empire and early Republic, when Rio de Janeiro intellectuals used to gather at confectionary shops to talk about the classics and drink milk or absynthe and eat cake, well before the evils of drinking were widely known and understood.

You could make econ academic conferences more diverse (but less so from what you propose) by inviting folks on the periphery of economics. Euphemistically you could consider them "hitchhikers" for your purposes.
Example: I am a high school econ teacher. I went to the AEA conference in Chicago a few years ago. I attended a session on teaching econ principles to high school students.
Guess how many high school teachers (or better yet, students) were on the panel?
Guess how many were in the audience? (besides me)
I observed lots of academics trying to outdo/top each other in terms of complexity of analysis and/or questions. Academic sword fighting, if you will.
It would be probably helpful to the field if once in a while presenters were required to communicate and answer questions regarding the results of their research in front of people who are not experts but certainly passively interested.

My two cents. Keep the change. :)

Finally! A good answer! Your typical hitchhiker is going to be far more interested in obtaining marijuana than attending a talk about marginal this or aggregate that.

I thought it was supposed to have been about teaching methology, not duking out academic findings.


Invite some homeless persons to attend DAVOS.

'We were short and tall, male and female, and of varying races, but still we all had “that look”; I leave it as an exercise for the reader to consider what that means.'
I wonder whether 'that look' is an American thing. When I first started attending Conferences in England and the Continent, what distressed me was that only young 'outsiders' like me looked keen and geared up. We easily recognised each other. Generally, any visiting American was already known to us by reputation or else made it evident they were a rising star. But we were at sea when it came to spotting indigenous 'quality'. Often, the star professor looked like a gardener or retired stockbroker or absent-minded granny who had strayed into our company by accident. But the quality of their contribution was very high. They could see where the real Schelling focal point was and thus could get to the heart of the matter without getting bogged down in narcissistic methodenstreit.
Perhaps the American educational system inculcates more confidence and better articulation in undergraduate students and this carries over into their academic career. It is that confidence and self consciously cultivated expressive power which endows that 'look' which Tyler describes.
Similarly, American hitch-hikers may have superior expressive powers. In the old world, they would be expected to 'know their place' and keep silent. In the new world, they had the democratic duty to inform and entertain.

Cowen went to Harvard. I assume the Ivy league universities inculcate the same confidence and articulation as Eton or Oxford in England.

In the old days the public schools and Oxbridge produced good athletes and soldiers as well as articulate barristers and politicians. Dons, more especially in mathematical subjects, on the other hand, could be quite alarmingly reticent and, dare I say it, child-like in speech. They were astonished by the volubility of the Americans. Baumol was a case in point. I think he was a GI with a degree from City College- which no one in England had heard of. His brilliance was matched only by his eloquence and he was soon fast-tracked to a Doctorate. The English professors were astonished that a young man could speak so cogently and at length in an impromptu fashion. Yet Baumol was more typical than not of the American graduate in respect to his confidence and public speaking ability.
Max Beerbohm, some thirty years earlier, had already noticed the far superior eloquence of the Americans. Perhaps it had something to do with superior American dentistry. Britishers till recently had terrible teeth and so opened their mouth as infrequently as possible. Sadly, an American dentist cured Bertrand Russel's halitosis and he gave up mathematics for philandering and philosophy of a worthless sort.

I guess this is not the look that Tyler was alluding to ... http://www.jsomody.com/quiz.html

... An oldie but a goodie.

We were short and tall, male and female, and of varying races, but still we all had “that look”;

They were dressed in business casual with no fashion sense you mean.

Yet, I like the avocado-colored suit minus the gold chains.

If you were Ray Lopez you would like the gold chains.

They have not sunk their assets into expensive homes or fancy cars.

Wrong. They didn't have any assets to sink into homes or cars in the first place. That's why they're attempting to utilize a rather dangerous and inconvenient mode of transportation, which essentially boils down to free-riding on other people's investments in cars. These people are not quirky iconoclasts, they're just poor. Step outside your bubble for a moment...mostly it'll just remind you why you got in the bubble in the first place.

I sometimes i think we get what seems to me to be quite strange laws out of government because there are so many super intelligent and diligent students who did not have friends who were regular smucks.

I hitchhiked from Seattle to LA once and from Miami to NY city once and school daily for years.

I think you should invite the kind of people who like to get up in the morning and start smoking pot and smoke all day. I used to know many people like that.

I think many of the people on this board would not deal well with facing up to the resulting viewpoint diversity.

This is a very enticing idea. Perhaps not "hitchhikers" but select from the "common" people. Every focused group tends to develop their group biases and blind spots. It would be useful to have non-professionals or non-geeks take part to get a different perspective. I would imagine that it wouldn't always bring good results but it may do so enough to make it worthwhile. Another but related factor is that being able to explain technical theories or practices would benefit both the professional who had to think it through in a way to make it all more understandable and to the rest of the world who would have access to this "improved" explanation. The other side of this coin is that sometimes, perhaps rarely the "common man" comes up with a significant idea or identifies a problem that had not been thought of before simply because the experts are often too close to the problems to see some of the impacts.

"Common people" are boring.

Among people from typical working class or middle class trades and professions, however, you will certailny find many free thinkers who are far from "common", but are quite OK with doing whatever to earn some income.

Wannabe tyrants, of course, would be troubled by the notion that someone can hold a working class job and be a free thinker at the same time.

I'm reading all of these replies, but wondering why would a hitchhiker want to come to an economics conference? Maybe for $500, but not because they'd want to be there.

That's the thing about lefties like Cowen - they could not care less what people want. These hitchhikers are just a means to an end. In this case, making his conferences more interesting.

You've never met any hitchhikers.

A large portion of the hitchhikers I've picked up were tired, deflected questions, and napped as I drove; pretty boring people. Then there was the drunk I picked up on a snowy night heading north out of Santa Fe who started making passes and then plain propositions before I dropped him off at San Ildefonso. Those ones wouldn't add much to any conference I'd want to attend. The ones I've enjoyed most are the backpackers who have just stepped onto the highway after a few days in the wilderness; this may indicate an enjoyment of shared affinity, sort of the opposite of livening things up with diversity.

Would they want to go? So you can deal with that with money, but if they went, would they say anything? Economists don't say much at neurologist conferences so I assume hitch-hikers wouldn't want to add much at non-hitch-hiker conferences.

This ignores the primary purpose of conferences: networking with "successful" people and getting through a gate closed to most people.

What is needed is someone like Erdos,


"""Possessions meant little to Erdős; most of his belongings would fit in a suitcase, as dictated by his itinerant lifestyle. ... He spent most of his life as a vagabond, traveling between scientific conferences, universities and the homes of colleagues all over the world. He earned enough in stipends from universities as a guest lecturer, and from various mathematical awards, to fund his travels and basic needs; money left over he used to fund cash prizes for proofs of "Erdős problems" (see below). He would typically show up at a colleague's doorstep and announce "my brain is open", staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later. In many cases, he would ask the current collaborator about whom to visit next."""

Tyler, try going to an anarchist book fair or conference. You will find many people who have participated in hitchhiker culture. If you want to get one in an academic conference, don't offer them money. They get their thrills by sneaking in.

Most people think I'm a lying ingrate looking for excuses to justify Marxist socialism when I suggest that I learned much of what I know from homeless people and vagrants of various types.

It helps to supplement that with the book knowledge to be able to package things into something that is accessible to those with heavily inculcated social biases. Namely, to speak to the elites in their own language.

Lots of poor college students hitchhike. Maybe they just can't adjust to adult life?

Like some academics?

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