Sherman Ave Interviews: Mark Witte
Professor Mark Witte: Do I need an assistant?
Scurvy: Yeah. Just, as a history major, I’m just wondering.
Witte: Um...I don’t think I understand the question.
Scurvy: Well, people say that history majors don’t necessarily lead to jobs, and so I was hoping that an econ professor could help me out.
Witte: I see...like a personal barista?
Scurvy: Yeah, exactly.
Witte: Yeah...I try not to caffeinate.
Scurvy: Ok. I’ll ask someone else.
Witte: But there is this tremendous labor supply of people who would like to have interesting research-related work - there’s a professor in engineering who thinks that it should be part of the job, to have a research assistant or two, and that Northwestern should fund this. You think about Morty’s push for “3 + e”: that you can take classes all day long, you can learn a lot, but there are diminishing returns from taking classes, and it’s a different kind of learning to be a research assistant. So as part of our teaching duties, we should all have a minion.
Scurvy: Well I’m available, you know.
Witte: [Laughs] I’ll keep that in mind.
Felicity Jenkins: So speaking of diminishing returns...I hear that, when you were a Ph.D student here, you lived at Library Place?
Witte: I did.
Felicity: I live there now!
Witte: Which one?
Felicity: [Says her address, which we were tempted to print but our lawyers encouraged us not to.] So how was your experience at Library Place?
Witte: It was awesome, wonderful.
Felicity: Have you also heard the sound of an old man’s heart still beating under the floorboards there?
Witte: In my Edgar Allen Poe days?
Felicity: Yeah, you got the reference!
Witte: Yeah. I sort of heard the radiators banging all night long…
Felicity: Oh yeah, they do that a lot.
Witte: When I first lived there - I’m a pretty light sleeper - I can think of many a time when I’d jump out of bed, like, “what is it?!”
Felicity: Right? Like who’s breaking in. But eventually it becomes sort of like whale songs lullabying you to sleep.
Witte: Exactly. And I can also think of times where raccoons got into our trash cans in the back.
Felicity: They’re still there.
Prince Giblets: Like the same raccoons?
Felicity: Their descendents.
Scurvy: A few generations down the line.
Felicity: Their lineage traces back to the early 20th century.
Witte: I can remember running out there yelling at them, like “hey!”...but what are you gonna do, really? And then going back in and getting a broom and coming out.
Felicity: I haven’t tried the broom yet. That’s a good tip.
Witte: I felt badly, because there was a mom and all of her cubs.
Felicity: But that’s your garbage, you know? They’re stealing from you.
Witte: Exactly! So you’d smack them, and the mom would walk off with all her kids, and they’d give me dirty looks--
Felicity: These are raccoon kids, not human children, just to clarify on the tape.
Witte: They were so cute, though...and then I was in the library - there’s the tunnel between Main Library and Deering Library - and they often put up all sorts of interesting historical pictures. And they had some historical maps of Evanston and campus. There was a map drawn from an angle, so you could see all of the buildings; and Library Place had a cafe in the basement. And they had little tables with umbrellas out on the big parkway out there.
Felicity: It’s just a creepy basement now.
Giblets: So getting into the economic questions...John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman: arguably the two most important economists of the 20th century, and also two economists who had differing views on what was most important to consider when making macroeconomic policy decisions. Which of the two do you think was better at basketball?
Witte: It would have to be Keynes.
Witte: Friedman was about 4’10 or something. But then Keynes had a bad heart, so I don’t know.
Giblets: Everyone knows that Milton Friedman is known for his tough and feisty heart.
Witte: He had a very tough and feisty heart, yes.
Scurvy: That’s what I know about him. That’s his reputation.
Witte: If you want some basketball players, I can get you some basketball players.
Scurvy: He’s rusty...keeping in line with the idea of notable economic figures, who, in your opinion, was the best Secretary of the Treasury: Timothy Geithner, Kenneth W. Dam, or John W. Snow?
Witte: “You know nothing, John Snow”...um, I don’t know too much about Dam, so I would go with, of that bunch...boy, couldn’t I have, like, Donald Regan?
Scurvy: You could have a write-in, yeah.
Witte: We’ll go with Donald Regan, sure. Or how about Larry Summers? He’s got his name on the dollar.
Felicity: So “Economics” comes from the ancient Greek “oikos” meaning “house,” and “nomos” meaning “custom or law,” to effectively mean “rules of the house.” In that line of reasoning, what are your favorite house rules for pong?
Witte: For pong...?
Giblets: Either Ping or Beer.
Felicity: Or Water. Up to you, really. Your beverage of choice.
Witte: Um...I’m afraid I just don’t have any. When I think house rules, I think Monopoly.
Felicity: If you want to do your favorite Monopoly house rules, please, we would love to hear that too.
Witte: Money collected from the board goes in free parking.
Felicity: We practice that at the Jenkins household.
Witte: And I don’t like the rule where if nobody bids on a property, then it goes on auction. It creates a wild card. So sometimes we ignore that rule; if nobody bids on it it stays for sale.
Felicity: So would you say that’s most economists’ favorite game? Monopoly.
Scurvy: Can’t compartmentalize very well.
Witte: Yeah...I will say I played Monopoly with my eldest daughter. And I was trying to throw it, kind of.
Felicity: So she would win?
Witte: Yeah. But, you know, I had to do something. I had the deep blue Monopoly - Boardwalk and Park Place.
Felicity: Oh yeah. You don’t pass that up.
Witte: And she landed on Park Place with four houses...I looked at her little face, she was crying--
Giblets: [About to ask a question] How about this one. So--
Witte: But CCI had an event last year where I played Monopoly with the people there. I got eliminated right away - like the first one out. And then somebody had to leave who was doing really well, and so I took over for her. And then I got eliminated again [laughs]. I think I’m good, but…
Felicity: Not as good as CCI.
Witte: No. Clearly not.
Giblets: They know how to play Monopoly.
Felicity: They’ve trained for it.
Witte: Yes, exactly. But I’ve played with people who were really insanely aggressive about interpreting the rules. Like, “ok, now I’ve landed on your property, and I don’t have any money; but if you let me go on this time, every time I pass Go, you get the money from that.” Like all of these haggling things. And it’s like, wow, that’s really crazy.
Giblets: Like the Monopoly black market.
Witte: Yeah! Or they’d be like writing options, puts and calls on stuff. Or like, “I don’t have money now, but if you let me go on this, the next time someone lands on my big property, you get [the money from it.]”
Felicity: So in Jay Sean’s hit song “Down” featuring Lil Wayne, Lil Wayne--alias Weezy, alias Weezy F. Baby, alias Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr.--raps that “honestly, I’m down like the economy.” Does it bother you when rap stars take such cheap shots at the economy like that?
Witte: Well no, because the economy is pretty disappointing now. But in a few years, I’m sure it will revise. And it’ll be “partying like it’s 1999” or something.
Giblets: Context--I think that song came out in like ‘09.
Felicity: Yeah, still relevant today.
Witte: Shows that he’s following it. He probably has a big portfolio, he’s probably upset about its performance.
Felicity: Do you wish there were more rap songs about the economy?
Witte: Um, sure.
Felicity: Have you ever seen this video, “Fear the Boom and the Bust” a Hayek vs. Keynes rap anthem? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0nERTFo-Sk)
Witte: Yes. I have. There’s two of them
Felicity: Oh, there’s multiple?! I’ll have to check that out.
Scurvy: Does that video stay true to the integrity of the concepts it’s explaining?
Witte: Uh no. I think Hayek was a fairly minor figure…
Felicity: Oh. They just needed someone to play off of Keynes’ raw sexuality?
Giblets: And that’s it.
Witte: That’s an interesting thing, because Keynes, yes. Hayek, not so much. Except that he wrote a book about John Stuart Mill, and Mill was an interesting character. His father was a famous economist and so raised Mill up as like his mini-me, and so Mill had a very stunted, I think, social life. He’s a brilliant guy but it… and he fell in love with a married woman, and so in the economics research in all of it, it was all platonic, [raises voice] BUT EVIDENTLY NOT! [Slams hand on table].
Witte: So Hayek really, was researching the work of Mill, but pretty much the whole book was going through all the letters between Mill and this woman.
Felicity: Interesting, I didn’t realize econ was so full of passion and emotion, like a liberal art.
Giblets: Ohhhh yeahhh.
Witte: Well then Keynes was a very out homosexual who kept an encoded sex diary.
Giblets, Felicity, and Scurvy: [various noises demonstrating intense interest]
Witte: Oh yeah, we have it in the library.
Giblets: Like this library?
Witte: Well I mean, we have the work of Keynes, and it was included. And there’s much discussion about who the personalities are.
Scurvy: [About to ask question] How is it--
Witte: I think actually on my web page it’s linked to on it.
Scurvy: [Tries again, that persistent little guy] How is it like coded?
Witte: I think he codes the names of the people with whom he’s…. But then later in life, he evidently switched teams, and fell in love with a married Russian ballet dancer. A woman.
Felicity: That would make a great Netflix series.
Witte: Well Keynes’ life would make a great movie. I don’t know why it hasn’t been done.
Felicity: Yeah, if you ever want to, you know, leave the econ department, pen a movie… I’m looking for a job too.
Witte: I’m hoping that, I mean I get RTVF people in class and like I think of how the… it’s right there on my shelf… A Beautiful Mind or sort of Keynes’s contemporary, the Turing movie this summer. What was it, The Imitation Game? You know I think the Keynes’ movie would be better.
Felicity: Or something like, have you seen Masters of Sex on HBO following, like, Kinsey and Masters?
[Editor's Note: Masters of Sex is on Showtime and follows Masters and Johnson]
Witte: Yeah. So when I went to college, they were active--they were at WashU, where I went--they were always advertising for things.
Felicity: Oh that’s so cool.
Witte: And they were, “We’re looking for subjects who are women on birth control,” and friends of mine were like, “That’d be a good list to get.”
Giblets: Um, kind of a different track, but if all of the academic departments at Northwestern were to engage in a gladiator-style battle, or like the battle in Anchorman when all the networks are… Who would win?
Witte: There’s a lot of economists...
Witte: And a bunch of our faculty served in the Israeli military, so I kind of like that.
Felicity: Those guys don’t mess around.
Witte: But it’s also, we’re really siloed. What do we know about other departments?
Scurvy: The Physics Department would definitely be a threat.
Giblets: You think?
Witte: Well if you’re allowed weapons.
Scurvy: Well that wasn’t specified, was it?
Giblets: No. I guess it wasn’t specified.
Felicity: Can you use your academic materials? So the Chemistry Department could mix some chemicals and do god-knows-what.
Witte: I wouldn’t be worried about Physics. I think Engineering would probably be worse.
Felicity: They could fashion a catapult.
Felicity: So I don’t really see the benefits of having a capitalist economy over a good ol’ fashioned bartering system. Convince me otherwise.
Witte: Barter is a plot for an episode of a comedy show that, you know, need something but nobody who has what you need wants it, and then so you have to--
Felicity: You’re selling me more. That sounds like a hilarious sitcom world that I’d love to live in.
Witte: Yeah but it becomes a thin premise. It would stretch over half an hour, but that’s how long it would take to buy anything. At best. I would refer you to an episode of M*A*S*H that was great for that. At the end, I think Hawkeye needs a new boot or something at the end of that, and he’s walking around with a golf bag on his foot. So that didn’t end up well.
All: [Laugh at the comic plot of this classic sitcom].
Felicity: Would you say the Wolf of Wall Street is like economists’ version of the 2004 film The Passion of the Christ? With Jordan Belfort as the obvious Christ figure.
Witte: Um, he does rise from the dead at the end. I do like that.
Scurvy: “Yes” is a fair answer.
Felicity: It’s sort of my thesis.
Witte: I mean it doesn’t have all the gratuitous Latin in it. That’s pretty fun. The economics movie that I always push for, well I mean the greatest of course is It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Wizard of Oz is pretty good. But the shoes are the wrong color. The one I’ve been pushing lately is An Inside Job.
Felicity: I don’t know that one.
Witte: It got the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2010. I’m using a textbook by one of the guys who appears in the movie, Glen Hubbard, and he comes off as very feisty in the movie.
Felicity: I googled it just now and all that comes up for me is all these World of Warcraft videos.
Scurvy: That’s probably because of your search history. Shifting gears once again, do you see life as one big economy?
Prince: Cool. Let’s say Father’s Day is coming up, and your kids give you a coupon for one free hug. What do you think the market price of that hug is? Hugs are a perfectly competitive market, I would say.
Witte: I don’t know, there’s sometimes a price discovery process with investment banks, they try to help firms get financing, so they create stocks or bonds and they have a guess as to what that will sell for and that would be how much money a firm would get. But, you know, the banks don’t necessarily know so there’s a lot of ways to write these contracts, and they start selling these things out and seeing whether the price goes up or down. And so it’s a difficult process. I’m not sure I would be able to do the price discovery process. I’m not sure I’d put it on the market to find out.
Witte: You were wondering where that was going.
Prince: “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer to that question.
Felicity: If you could put anyone on currency, who would it be?
Witte: The little prince! Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The French had that on the Franc. When we got the Euro, we lost that. The English have Adam Smith on theirs. That would be good. There’s a push to have more non-white men on and one of the people put forward was Rosa Parks. And another was Rachel Carson. I’d be delighted with both of them.
Felicity: Great options, both of them.
Scurvy: So I have a friend who—
Witte: Wait, Reagan!
Felicity: Yea, forget about more women.
Witte: Nancy Reagan!
Prince: What if we just went back to the old system, before there was a Central bank? Like in the 1850’s, when every bank printed their own money. You support that, right? It could work, right?
Witte: It could certainly work.
Felicity: Alternatively, we could move to bitcoin and get rid of tangible money entirely.
Witte: Well, you don’t really do much with tangible money, anyway, do you?
Felicity: I do a lot. More than you would think.
Witte: What have you bought today?
Prince: Let’s turn this interview around.
Witte: What’s the last thing you bought?
Felicity: Probably a sandwich.
Witte: What did you buy it with?
Witte: Cash money?
Scurvy: Do you think the digitization of money is a good thing?
Witte: Yeah, it’s fine. Again, most of my spending is digitized. I don’t touch that much cash.
Prince: Last question: how do you feel about updog?
Witte: I don’t think I know what updog is.
Prince: Darn it.
Witte: What is it?
Scurvy: We can demonstrate how this question is supposed to work.
Prince: So Scurvy, how do you feel about updog?
Scurvy: What’s updog?
Witte: Oh, no! Please ask me again.
Prince: How do you feel about updog, Professor Witte?
Witte: What’s updog?
Prince: Got ‘em.
Felicity: Another successful interview.
Witte: I’m using that later today. My daughter likes to ask whatsup. What allows her to say “chicken butt?”
Felicity: Guess what. That was my catchphrase all throughout elementary school.