The Economics of Nametags

Friday, October 17, 2014

Alert the press! I made a recent discovery worthy of the Nobel Prize for Economics (which unfortunately doesn't exist - it's actually the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, but I digress).

I attended a business networking event and immediately began my search for awesome people. There was "Bob" the accountant with a high tech firm, and "Jane" the branding expert and "Harry" the programmer. All of them faded into the background when I spotted a rather outspoken man with a nametag that read Mr. Awesome. Mr. Awesome? Was this the man I was looking for? The answer was a very emphatic No.

I've read in many marketing books that a nametag is a great opportunity to create interest amongst crowds. One can write his name upside down, draw a picture or even write Mr. Awesome in order to attract greater levels of attention.

Despite my interest in all things awesome (a character trait of mine that is worthy of song), I made great haste in ignoring him. While those not versed in economics might have praised him for his ingenuity, acolytes of the dismal sciences saw the havoc that Mr. Awesome was attempting to wreak upon society. He had to be stopped.

My line of thinking can be traced back to Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons. In that great work, the author examined what happens to economic systems when rational actors (what civilized folk would refer to as jerks) find a shared resource. They exploit it for their own exclusive gain. If there is a shared grassland for grazing cattle, they will have their own cows gorge until they cannot eat any more. If there is a shared table of snacks, they will stuff their pockets for later snacking. If there is a quiet library in which attendees remain silent, he will blast out recordings of his favorite music.

In much the same way, nametags represent a shared resource. By convention, each person writes his real name and occupation on a nametag. This facilitates discussion and eases introductions between participants. By circumventing this standard operating procedure, Mr. Awesome attempted to take advantage of others' willingness to conform. Had each and every person acted as the jerk (uh, I mean rational actor), all of the nametags would have been rendered useless. No one would have any idea whom to approach for conversation.

The famous economist Milton Freedman once remarked that each and every day was an election day. Each time a person purchased a good or interacted with another, he was effectively voting on the direction that society would take.

I am happy to report that I did vote that day. I voted against the tyranny of abuse that was Mr. Awesome. Not only did I avoid him, but I encouraged others to do the same. My vote was for convention. My vote was for the good of the masses. My vote was the only rational choice. Only by teaching him that taking advantage of other people will result in failure will he learn to act in the best interests of society.

Now, it is possible that his name is actually Mr. Awesome. The odds of such happenstance are quite low, but should that be the case, I would humbly apologize and would happily introduce myself. In any case, he will be able to find me quite easily at the next event by looking for me. My name tag will read Adam, Software Consultant.