One fascinating aspect of Star Wars stories is how they occasionally relate to our own experiences. So sometimes a Star Wars Moment is not so much a moment you were enjoying Star Wars, but a moment in your life that made you suddenly feel catapulted ‘into’ such a story. Antonio Cabrales recounts such a moment for you here.
The Chairman was a Sith lord
No, in spite of what my somewhat misleading twitter profile might suggest, I am not a Sith Lord, part-time or otherwise. That statement is meant to convey (my students would argue in a characteristically convoluted way) my awareness that economists have the reputation of being at the service of very dark forces, but that I am not at the service, but rather at the command of those forces. OK, the joke is too clever by half, and probably not funny at all, but what would you expect from a game theorist?
Now, I did have once in my life a true Star Wars moment, a time when I actually thought I was in a movie, and through a long chain of events/causation, that moment explains why I now have an office in London.
But let us start with the Star Wars moment. A long time ago, in a very distant galaxy, a department of economics was undergoing one of its usual moments of upheaval. A new chair of department had to be chosen. The department was young and distinguished, but also fragile. It operated on American organizational lines for recruiting, promotion and retention. Those procedures threatened entrenched vested interests for more old-fashioned, and less distinguished, individuals and departments of many different disciplines, in the university and in the country as a whole. Forces from the dark side could prepare a strike at any moment. A good, conscientious leader was needed. Sadly, the distinguished economists were more interested in their research than in leadership. At least in that kind of local leadership, another very distinguished economist was preparing a bid to become the university rector. With all the resources in his hands he could steer the complete ship, rather than the single department, to become a powerful vessel in the fight for academic distinction.
So a search started in the department for a leader who was perhaps less distinguished, but had more time in his hands. Soon, all eyes converged on one of the younger professors. He had just enough distinction, a reputation for good organizational skills (not overabundant in academia), and sufficiently sound judgement, it was thought. He duly accepted the burden of the task for the common good.
Soon, very soon, some strange things started to happen. Things that, with the benefit of hindsight, should have been warning signs. I had been named chair of recruiting for microeconomics. When I asked how many positions we could advertise, I was shown a set of figures that demonstrated that we had a larger numbers of microeconomists than we could afford. There were, in fact, very few fields where we could afford any hires at all. Incidentally, one of them was the field of the department chairman (ex-post reason to be cautious number one). I believed the figures and called off recruiting for one year, but was told that “if an exceptionally bright candidate appears that you like a lot, you can just tell me, and we will invite him or her for a seminar anyway, we might be flexible” (reason to be cautious number two). After a series of fairly bad seminars in the field of the chairman, we ended hiring two rather uninspiring candidates from that field from a very local (in fact same city) university (reason to be cautious number three).
The Star Wars moment happened when, in the middle of elections for the new rector, the economics department chairman announced that the very large department needed to be divided in two parts. One part would contain the, he claimed, hitherto underpopulated/discriminated fields (his own and those of two other professors), which would be able to recruit lots of new professors. The other part would be the remainder, severely overpopulated, fields, which needed no new professors, since they were already at capacity levels. It transpired that this person had reached an agreement with a candidate for rector who was opposing the distinguished economist to achieve this goal, promised his votes and those of his supporters, and the plan would be implemented if that person became the rector.
I, and many of my colleagues, felt we were in the middle of the revelation that the Emperor/chairman was a Sith lord (a true one, unlike my lame-joke twitter persona) and about to crush the order of the Jedi that had maintained a semblance of peace and order in our corner of the galaxy.
Lo and behold, the noble economist lost his bid for the rectorate. He could win only with the full support of all economists, as the vested interests were not happy with his probable style of governance, and his “coalition of the best” was fragile even at the best of times. That loss depressed me horribly, so I decided to migrate to another university, closer to my ancestral home, where I would wait for better times. They duly arrive six years later, but not in the original place, but in Bloomsbury, where I now happily work.
Yet, the Sith lord did not have his way either. The candidate for rector who had promised the department division to get to power went back on his word once he came to power. He realized that a divided economics department would be a weaker one. The economics professor eventually became regional minister of finance and universities, and from that position supported the best performing region in terms of science of the whole country, even in the face of a brutal economic crisis. And a peace of sorts reigns in the galaxy… Until the next Sith lord arises from obscurity.