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What's funnier than a room of economists?

Janet Yellen, the new Federal Reserve Board chairwoman, laughs at a joke.

A group of economists talking about the future of the fiscal policy.

Hilarious, right?

OK, so Federal Reserve meetings hardly seem the stuff of comedic gold. But in the recently released minutes of the 2008 Fed meetings, there are 208 instances of laughter. That’s around fifteen times a meeting. To put that in perspective, the word "laughter" occurs in the transcripts far more than the word "jobs". 

What has all these economists in stitches? Well, it can be roughly broken down into five categories:

1. Economist in-jokes

MR. STOCKTON: It seems as though Okun’s law gets obeyed about as frequently as the 55 mile an hour speed limit on I-95. [Laughter]

Not surprisingly, a significant numbers of the jokes that the Fed Governors tell require a significant knowledge of the minutia of economic policy. Do you not know what the PBOC is? Then forget about getting the (presumably hilarious) joke that Nathan Sheets makes about it. Same goes for Okun’s law, the Philadelphia and Empire indexes, the TAF, and the PPP. Someone without a professional understanding of the intricacies of the Federal Reserve System might be left out of the lurch, but in a roomful of economists, these jokes kill.

2. Pop culture references

Apparently former Board of Governors member Frederic Mishkin is a Monty Python fan. Who knew?

MR. MISHKIN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I think we’re all trying to be cheery here. It reminds me a little of one of my favorite scenes in a movie, which is Monty Python’s "Life with Brian." I remember the scene with them there all on the cross, and they start singing "Look on the Bright Side of Life." [Laughter]

There are actually a fair number of pop culture jokes and mentions in the transcript. Everything from Barry Bonds, to “Bennie and the Jets”, to Bob Dylan, to Peanuts gets brought up. And they reference Jabba the Hutt. Twice. In two separate meetings. They even talk about “Pizza the Hutt”. 

Economists are actual people, of course, and they engage in culture the same as everyone else. But it is slightly weird to see former Chairman Ben Bernanke talk about Desperate Housewives. (Seriously, Ben Bernanke implied he was a fan of Desperate Housewives.)

3. Office ribbing

CHAIRMAN BERNANKE. Any other comments or thoughts on the substance, sizzle, or marketing? Or as Rick would say, “moychandising”—but he’s not here. [Laughter]

Just like any other office, the economists at the Federal Reserve engage in some ribbing. Richard Fisher of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas brings up Janet Yellen’s alma mater to disparage their football team. Chairman Bernanke makes fun of someone’s accent.  Long-windedness is routinely mocked.

At least from the transcripts, it seems that all of it was good natured.

4. Gallows humor

MR. WARSH: The core issues that Mike and his team bring up seem highly resistant to change, but you know, there will be nothing like three months of public hearings, if not hangings. [Laughter]

The transcripts are full of dark jokes about the state of the economy, especially as the 2008 financial crisis heated up. There’s an air of not fatalism, exactly, but deep gloom to the proceedings. Various members puncture the gloom with jokes about Rube Goldberg, Milton Friedman spinning in his grave, and the distressed banker photo that always seems to be used when newspapers run stories of economic collapse. The economists still make jokes throughout the year, but as the recession gets worse, the jokes become slightly darker.

5. Self-deprecating jokes

MR. PLOSSER. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. You know, listening to the staff discussion I have certainly come to understand why everyone continues to believe that economics is a dismal science. [Laughter]

If you’ve ever wondered whether economists knew about their ‘dismal’ reputation, wonder no more. A lot of the laughter in the transcripts comes from self-deprecating jokes about the byzantine nature of economics, how economists don’t know anything, and how difficult it is to predict the future. In general, they make fun of themselves constantly.

Oh, and if you were curious as to whether Janet Yellen will bring a sense of humor to her new office, here’s a joke she made in October 2008:

MS. YELLEN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. In the run-up to Halloween, we have had a witch’s brew of news. Sorry. [Laughter] 

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