The loudmouth at the cocktail party was on a roll. “We need to move the Overton window about the Tullock paradox.” Heads nodded in agreement, but most, like me, were clueless. Summer social season is here but our conversation skills are rusty and crusty. After 15 months of isolation, I can talk to my wife, kids and dogs. But interacting with friends and acquaintances at barbecues or overpriced coffee bars? Tough going. Over Memorial Day weekend, it was clear that my go-to questions—“What have you been up to? Been anywhere recently?”—are irrelevant and completely worthless.
I was familiar with the Overton window—what’s currently acceptable in the political mainstream—but had to look up the Tullock paradox: If it’s so cheap to buy off politicians, why doesn’t everybody? I can toss out quippy
quotes when needed, like “Nature abhors a moron,” but man, I’ve got to step up my game.
These are extreme times. We all need an almost remedial course in conversation, beyond our usual monosyllabic babble, especially mine. So here’s a handy guide to stick it to your co-conversants and have their heads nodding at your bon mots in sublime stupefaction.
First, it’s always good to reference someone long dead, especially with a foreign twist. Throw around phrases like the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon: After noticing something for the first time, like how Grand Rapids constantly pops up in the news, you tend to notice almost every day. Or casually mention someone is afflicted by Munchausen syndrome—faking sickness. They’re so easy to slip into conversations. See how many heads nod with bewildered eyes. Don’t explain yourself either—a magician never reveals.
Next, if someone launches on you about his investing prowess, especially trading crypto, I suggest a comeback such as, “Oh, that’s just a classic Veblen good.” That should stump him for a while. American economist
noted that many goods are more desirable the more expensive they become, even though they’re not any better. Like BMWs. Or Jimmy Choos. Or Cristal champagne. Or
shares. If the crypto braggart, wearing a Rolex, actually knows what a Veblen good is, then correct yourself and say that actually it’s probably more of a Giffen good, a nonluxury good, like rice, that can see increased demand at higher prices. That’ll buy you some time to plot an exit strategy—needing another drink, hysterical coughing fit.
We’ve all been warned never to talk about politics, religion or money. But how dull is that? Most blowhards quickly break that rule anyway. You need to be prepared. College too expensive? Healthcare costs rising? “Oh, that’s just Baumol’s cost disease”—low-productivity jobs, often-government controlled, see increasing salaries as a result of salary growth in high-productivity jobs. “It would be much better to have a Pareto optimal exchange,” you should add, a highly efficient economy that can only hurt people if capital is allocated differently. They’ll be reaching for their phones: “Siri, what the heck is Pareto?”
OK, eventually everyone just talks about himself and how successful he thinks he is. Or talks about others at the very same party but out of earshot. Here’s where you can shine. “Oh, that guy’s having a Muskian moment.” Yes, heads will nod. You can reference anything about Elon. A dumb tweet. Hyping something worthless. A wild business idea (electric cars, rockets) that only works with government handouts. Or that X Æ A-12’s dad keeps people guessing about his sanity, like Vinny the Chin wandering around Greenwich Village in a robe and slippers to confuse the feds. Serious points for the Chin reference.
But why stop there? Accuse someone of having Zuck pluck—meaning he’s
-founder-level cocky. Or operates like a (Tim) Cook rook—moves forward (Veblen-esque iPhone, AirPods) just as easily as it moves side-to-side (HomePod or
TV+). Or doing Thiel deals—businesses with no competition. Or my favorite: “That’s a Bezos Bozo no-no”—texting naughty bits.
Eventually, someone will broach politics and, especially this year, start babbling about inequality and social justice and equity and other buzzword-compliant complaints. This kind of talk makes my head spin. I often come back with free-market stuff, but it always gets shut down with: “Free markets led to a financial crisis, right?” Wrong, but tough to argue.
So instead, I casually slip in references to Kuznets curves. It stops conversations cold. Economist
in the 1950s figured out that a growing economy first increases inequality and producers profit, until inequality decreases as greater social mobility drives up wages, allowing workers to buy more and cheaper Giffen goods. Talk up Kuznets curves at enough barbecues and cocktail parties and you’ll Baader-Meinhof the whole thing and move the Overton window. Cheers.
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